Is home help hard work?

As the demand for cleaners and child minders rises, Melanie Bien finds out how to avoid financial drudgery

Sunday 06 February 2000 01:00

When did you last go to a dinner party where the door was opened not by your host or hostess, but by the butler? Chances are, it could have happened in this century, not the last one.

When did you last go to a dinner party where the door was opened not by your host or hostess, but by the butler? Chances are, it could have happened in this century, not the last one.

In 1900 there were only half as many domestic staff as there are now. Although the "upstairs, downstairs" scenario of teams of uniformed cooks, housekeepers, under-gardeners and scullery maids may be a thing of the past, there is a booming market in part-time cleaners, child minders and professional dog walkers.

It is quite rare to come across a uniformed butler - although an agency called Aunt Jessica Cares will supply one for between £30,000 and £40,000 a year, depending on references - if you want to impress and have quite a bit of spare cash. But young professionals with high disposable incomes and better things to do than scrub the kitchen floor are fuelling demand for part-time help to iron shirts, pick the children up from school or dig the garden.

The social stigma of employing someone to do your cleaning and washing has also lessened. But if you have never employed anyone before, it can be daunting. Finding someone you trust enough to leave with your two-year-old toddler, or a set of keys and the code to your burglar alarm so they can clean your flat while you're at work, is just the beginning.

The tax implications can be off-putting. What happens if my cleaner, who I thought was paying tax, turns out to be pulling a fast one over the taxman? Am I responsible? Well, according to the Inland Revenue, it depends on the particulars of the situation: if it is your employee's sole job, you are responsible as the employer for his or her tax and National Insurance. If you have a live-in nanny, for example, who earns more than his/her personal allowance - £4,335 a year - you, as the employer, must ensure that the NI and income tax are paid. There is a simplified PAYE scheme (details from the Revenue).

But if you have a cleaner who does a couple of hours a week for you and has several other cleaning jobs, you are not the sole employer and so not responsible for NI and income tax. Instead, your cleaner is classed as self-employed and must register as such with the Revenue. You're perfectly within your rights to pay cash in hand, which is cheaper for the employer anyway and a lot less hassle.

What happens if you think your cleaner is declaring income to the taxman when he or she isn't? You can check the story out. "Most cases are really clear-cut," says a Revenue spokeswoman. "But sometimes they aren't. The first thing is to ask your cleaner if they are regarded as self-employed. If they seem unsure or there is any doubt, either you or your prospective employee can ring your local tax office and ask what their status is. The tax office will give a ruling that should clear up the matter."

One of the best ways to avoid such hassle is to use a reputable agency which supplies domestic help with references and ensures their tax is paid and insurance covered.

Molly Maid, for example, will supply you with two cleaners who will together clean your home for a set price per job. It's not cheap: a visit costs, on average, £46 including VAT and Molly Maid estimates that most people will need this service once a fortnight.

But Richard Maidment, operations manager at Molly Maid, says that although it is not a budget service, the customer is buying peace of mind. "We take away the worries people have," he says. "You get what you pay for. We offer security and reliability and cover in case of injury."

Molly Maid's service is comprehensive. After you contact the firm, it will assess the job and quote you a price. Maids come with fidelity bonding - which means that if they disappear with your jewellery or the stereo, Molly Maid's insurance policy will cover it. Their references have also been checked and they are covered by the firm's accident insurance. Not only that, but you don't have to worry about paying their tax.

If you don't use an agency, your house and contents insurance should cover domestic help in case of accident. It is worth checking the small print of your policy, however, to avoid any disputes at a later date.

Child care is a different matter again. Word-of-mouth recommendations are preferable when hiring a child minder or nanny, or at least use a reputable agency whose nannies have an NNEB nursery-nursing qualification. Au pairs may be cheaper but the risks associated with taking on an inexperienced carer are higher.

* Contacts: Inland Revenue - find your local office in Yellow Pages or call 0645 000444 or go to; Aunt Jessica Cares, 0171-630 0044; Molly Maid, 0800 500950.

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