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Equity blocks HMRC ‘assault’ on performers’ union records

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Equity has successfully resisted attempts by the taxman to gain access to confidential membership records, which HM Revenue and Customs wanted to use to check performers were correctly registered for tax.

The union condemned the move as an “assault” on members’  personal and trade union rights, and an “unwarranted intrusion” into their personal affairs. It also accused HMRC of going on a “fishing expedition”, singling out performers on the basis of their trade union membership.

It is understood that HMRC has not asked any other trade unions to provide similar data.

Equity general secretary Christine Payne said: “Equity puts a very high importance on protecting members’ personal data, and so when we received the letter from HMRC we were determined to explore every  avenue in order to protect that data. I am very pleased that we were successful.”

She added: “The notice request was entirely unexpected, and if it had been made public could have caused enormous  distress, concern and confusion to our members. In confidence, we raised this with the TUC and they were not aware of any other union being asked to provide this information. We also checked with the Musicians’ Union, and they had not been approached.”

Equity was supported in  its case by human rights  organisation Liberty. Its legal officer Corinna Ferguson said Equity was right to take a stand. She added: “Requiring any union to hand over member details is bound to interfere  with the right to freedom of association under the Human Rights Act.

“The revenue has many other ways of enforcing genuine tax avoidance – blanket targeting of a generally low-earning profession is surely not the best use of resources in the current climate.”

Equity was first served with the demand by HMRC in January. In it, HMRC told Equity to supply the “name and private address” of all its members.

The union’s first appeal against the demand was turned down by the revenue. But following legal advice, Equity accused the request of breaching the European Convention on Human Rights, and the taxman backed down, admitting defeat in May.

HMRC declined to comment.

The news comes at a time when HMRC has begun to increase its focus on the tax affairs of  performers. In May, it launched a consultation on proposals to change their tax and National Insurance classification.

Entertainers are currently classified as employed for National Insurance purposes, but self-employed for tax purposes. This means they qualify to pay class one National Insurance Contributions and are then eligible for jobseeker’s allowance and other benefits as employed earners. Meanwhile, for tax purposes they do not have to pay through PAYE,  and can therefore claim back expenses against their earnings.

The HMRC consultation is looking to simplify this situation, and is recommending that entertainers not working under  a contract of service should be reclassified as self-employed.

Under the proposals, entertainers would be liable to pay class two and class four NICs. HMRC claims this would result in entertainers paying less in NICs, while the producers engaging them would have  to pay nothing at all. However, Equity has warned the proposals would leave performers “significantly worse off” due to losses  in benefits entitlements.

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