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New Year resolutions

Michael Watson looks at dentists self-employed status and questions whether this is correct.

Happy New Year. If you haven’t made your New Year resolution and haven’t yet submitted your self-employed tax return, then now is the time to do both. The end of this month means the deadline for submission of tax returns, but my friends in the accountancy world tell me that dentists are notorious for leaving it until the last minute.

As a profession we do seem wedded to our self-employed status. For practice owners this is understandable; but for the 80% of general dental practitioners who are associates is this still sustainable? When all GDPs had their own contract (as they still have in Scotland) this status was logical. But now, when associates are in effect on a salary, does it make sense?

For how long will Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) continue to tolerate what is in effect an anomaly? The whispers I hear is that, for the foreseeable future, it will continue. According to HMRC website your employment status, whether they are employed or self-employed, ‘is not a matter of choice’.

However, as you read further, it is not crystal clear. Over the years the Courts have laid down certain general principles and the view currently is that dentists, whether owners or associates meet most if not all the criteria for being self-employed. Two of the most relevant, it seems to me, are that associates ‘agree to do a job for a fixed price regardless of how long the job may take’ and they have to ‘correct unsatisfactory work in their own time and at their own expense.’

This is certainly true where Units of Dental Activity (UDAs) are concerned, where a fixed number have to be carried out at a fixed price regardless of how long they take. But what happens when the new contract comes in abolishing UDAs? How will associates be paid?

Perhaps by the hour, or session, but if they fixed hours it begins to look very much like employment. This would not be the case if their hours, or indeed their places of work were not fixed, but varied from week to week, the so-called ‘zero-hours’ contract of which we now hear much in other spheres of work.

Under these conditions associates would retain their self-employed status, but at the cost of security of employment and rights such as those associated with, say redundancy or sick pay. Is that what they want?

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