Tax Relief: A sense of relief for the self-employed: Have you thought of setting up in business on your own? Christine Stopp assesses the position of the freelance

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The Independent Culture
THE self-employed is the object of envy at social gatherings. Friends tell me that there must be 'plenty of tax dodges' attached to my freelance status.

If only it were true. I could get tax relief on the surgical enhancement of my attractions, like American exotic dancer Chesty Love, who was recently allowed to offset a pounds 1,500 breast-enlargement operation. Or I could reduce my tax bill by offsetting childcare expenses. Sadly, the imagination of the Inland Revenue does not extend to supporting the working mother in either of these departments.

One of the taxman's favourite manoeuvres is to deny that you are self-employed at all. Royal Shakespeare Company star Alec McCowen and fellow actor Samuel West last year won a test case against the Revenue. It was a victory for the cause of stage performers who were being taxed as employees even for a three-week run in a pantomime, meaning travel, Equity membership and other expenses were not eligible for relief.

Last November, television vision-mixer Ian Lorimer also won his eight-year wrangle with the Revenue, who said that since he didn't provide his own equipment for the job, he couldn't be self-employed.

Since the equipment needed was a pounds 3m mobile scanner, Mr Lorimer's advisers successfully argued that he could bring his skills alone to the job, and still be classed as a freelance.

Mr Lorimer's accountant, Jeff Gitter - a partner at Lubbock Fine - suggests some points to watch if you want your self-employed status to be unassailable. You should set yourself up with your own business infrastructure - telephone, car, fax, printed stationery, and proper account books. If any equipment is needed, provide your own (if feasible).

A danger area is when you only work for one or two clients. If you go into one client's office on regular dates and for normal office hours, it might be hard to get yourself classified as freelance.

Don't expect holiday pay or overtime - fringe benefits usually associated with employment - and send proper invoices for work done - not just a scribbled note on a scrap of paper.

Even if you have established your self-employed status, there are many other pitfalls. Your first steps on setting up should be to tell the taxman, speak to the DSS about National Insurance contributions, and see whether you will need to register for VAT.

You have to register if your annual turnover is expected to be more than pounds 45,000, but you might want to register if you are below the limit, but buy supplies on which you could reclaim VAT.

Choosing an accounting year-end is another danger area. Current rule changes mean that the self-employed will have to pay tax nearer to the time the income was actually earned. A 30 April year-end will be best for many people, deferring the tax liability for an extra 11 months. However, if you expect to make losses in your first year, you will get tax relief more quickly if your year-end is 5 April.

This is one area where professional advice is useful. London accountant David Grey reckons that he probably gives his most valuable advice to clients in their first year of trading.

Mr Grey has produced a simple DIY accounts package, Accounteasy, designed to save effort and reduce accountancy costs. A 47-minute video shows how to make all kinds of book-keeping entries, a manual reinforces the suggestions in the film, and there is a ledger and stationery which can be adapted to any business, whether or not it is liable for VAT.

'I wondered why people kept a lot of books which were not relevant, when with the same number of entries they could know exactly where they were financially, and provide all the information their accountant needed at a glance,' says Mr Grey.

It seems that computer packages are best avoided if your business is simple. My VAT inspector begged me not to calculate my tax on computer - the potential for fraud is such that computerised VAT payers get a visit from Customs and Excise to make sure they haven't doctored their spreadsheets to produce a money-earning scam.

But maybe I am exaggerating the hardships suffered by the self-employed. Roy Plomley remained on a BBC contract which was renewed weekly throughout his time on 'Desert Island Discs'.

While the tax advantages when you start trading are being reduced, a car can still be much more of a benefit for the self-employed than for the employee.

Although technically you must use something 'wholly and exclusively' for business to qualify for tax relief, there are some concessions which allow domestic expenses to be charged in part. A percentage of family car costs, as well as domestic telephone bills, gas and electricity can be charged to tax by those who work from home.

National Insurance is another area where the self-employed benefit, says Mr Grey. An employee earning pounds 22,360 will pay contributions of pounds 2,000 a year. A freelance with the same earnings will pay pounds 1,307 (25 per cent taxpayer) or pounds 1,220 (40 per cent taxpayer).

The demise of the Community Charge was good news for the self-employed. You could charge part of your rates as a taxable expense. The Community Charge - a personal tax - put an end to this, but its replacement - the council tax - once more based on property, means the cost qualifies for relief.

A freelance living and working in a rented house would be able to get substantial tax relief on rent, but perhaps the best freelance job of all is the photographer who can combine a tax-deductible safari photo-shoot with a holiday.

Accounteasy costs pounds 74.95 plus VAT. For information, telephone: 081-953 2733. Lubbock Fine: 071-490 7766.

(Photograph omitted)