Podcast: The Computer Weekly Downtime Upload – episode 49

In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna discuss IR35 through the prism of Eamonn Holmes, the tech community’s reaction to the points-based immigration system, and robotic process automation as beneficial to humans

In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna discuss IR35 through the prism of Eamonn Holmes’ recent contest with HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), the technology community’s reaction to the government’s new points-based immigration system, and robotic process automation as potentially beneficial to humans, as well as their own feelings about physical robots.

Before the team get into the main body of the podcast, they share some highlights of their respective weeks. Caroline was excited to have taken delivery of Two Point Hospital for her Nintendo Switch on Pancake Tuesday. And Clare said she is excited about Animal Crossing coming out on Switch soon.

Brian shared his dismay at Celtic’s exit from the Europa League at the hands of FC Copenhagen – a self-inflicted defeat that also caused him to miss the final episode of ITV’s Flesh and Blood drama, which featured a stellar cast, including Francesca Annis, Imelda Staunton and Irish actor Stephen Rea.

Rea’s fellow countryman Eamonn Holmes has had his difficulties with HMRC, which has declared him a disguised employee of ITV, on This Morning, and not a freelancer, and is demanding about £250,000 in taxes.

This cause celebre gives Caroline a fresh way into the story that is largely consuming her professional life, the IR35 reforms that come into effect in April 2020.

“Holmes under the hammer” is the title of the CW Downtime piece on this story written by Ryan Priest. “Still seething,” writes Ryan, “from Lorraine Kelly using her decades of disingenuousness to escape its charges, HMRC has come for a second swing at the ITV Daytime programming block.”

Caroline relates, on the podcast, how her IT contractor contacts had been speculating that HMRC would go high-profile as a warning to others. Holmes lost the case HMRC brought against him on 21 February. The judge ruled that he was liable for income tax and national insurance contributions for work for ITV between 2011 and 2015 because he was employed by the TV station.

Caroline notes that the judge decided there was sufficient mutuality of obligation (MOO) to determine that Holmes is an employee, not a freelancer. The team wondered why Holmes did not try the Lorraine Kelly defence of being a theatrical artist playing a character. But they are not lawyers.

“IR35 has taken over my life because there are so many IT contractors,” says Caroline. “But this case highlights how wider-ranging its impacts are.”

Two of Caroline’s most recent IR35 stories are:

Under the government’s recently announced Australian-style points-based immigration system, Eamonn Holmes would, although holding an EU passport, have been OK. He was born in Belfast, so is a UK citizen anyway.

But many tech workers who want to come to live and work in the UK will have to contend with the Conservative government’s new points-based system for immigration that comes into effect in January 2021. After that date, EU migrants will be treated the same as those from the rest of the world.

Clare talks the team through the tech community’s reaction to the upcoming immigration rules. The stated aim of the system, which has been given shape by the Migration Advisory Committee, is to allow skilled talent from outside the UK access to the UK job market, while also ending free movement of labour and giving the UK more control over its borders.

The government’s policy statement outlining the new system said it was geared towards giving priority to talented, skilled individuals, such as “scientists, engineers, academics and other highly skilled workers”, to enter the UK. To get a visa, applicants will have to have 70 points, the first 50 of which will come from a job offer and the ability to speak English. Having a salary of £25,600 gets you to the 70, but you can get extra points for having a STEM PhD or being in a job shortage category.

Clare says there has been a mixed reaction from the tech industry as to whether the new scheme will be broadly positive or negative. The fact that digital workers can be endorsed by Tech Nation (as the relevant approving body) without a job offer under the Global Talent route (previously the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent route) is seen as a good thing. In her piece, Clare writes that TechUK mostly welcomed the government’s announcement, but said salary is not necessarily an indicator of skill, and criticised the lack of clarity about how an applicant’s English language skill will be assessed.

Clare’s piece in Computer Weekly also says: “While conceding that the new rules may allow skilled tech talent access to the UK job market, Daumantas Dvilinskas, CEO of fintech startup TransferGo, said the ‘principles underpinning the policy’ could cast the UK in a bad light.”

Dvilinskas said: “We are asking the world’s best and brightest to prove their worth by arbitrary standards of value set by the British government, based on language skills, academic performance and income. As a company, this isn’t how we think. We were founded by immigrants, for immigrants. We are built on diversity. We believe in constant learning and growth and helping people get skilled through experience, not just expecting them to arrive with perfect skills.”

Clare adds that with the growth of a gig economy, digital will change the skills that people will need anyway, with automation disrupting some jobs and so entailing re-skilling. That has to mean, she says, lifelong learning and not relying on someone turning up with “an abundance of qualifications, but rather having potential”.

New immigration rules that are a consequence of Brexit will affect people’s lives in ways we can’t be entirely sure about, and that is also true of the automation of automation that is signified by robotic process automation (RPA).

It is often assumed that the rise of the robots, whether just in software or as embodied in physical machines, will displace workers. But a feature Computer Weekly recently published by Steven Mathieson looks at how robotic software used in HR can be good for people.

Brian describes how Steven’s feature gives examples of how software-based RPA is being used in ways that are economically and socially beneficial.

Norwegian hairdressing chain Cutters has used RPA to help grow its business from just one salon in Bergen in December 2015 to 92 in five countries by the end of 2019. It offers 15-minute haircuts at a fixed price of NOK299 (about £25). Introducing RPA software from UiPath in March 2019 enables it to schedule haircuts when customers are there.

Another example of good RPA usage, also from a Nordic country, is to be found in Sweden’s Södertälje municipality, which serves an area west of Stockholm. It has used software from Finland-based provider Digital Workforce to automate four HR processes internally, but is also experimenting with software picking a time for staff to visit elderly people who are applying for funding for taxis to attend medical appointments.

Widening the discussion out from RPA to how the team feels about robots, Brian reveals a third-degree connection to a robot called Betty – Betty Strands.

Betty is a MetraLabs SCITOS A5 robot, designed for indoor service operations. She is the brainchild of Nick Hawes, fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford, and associate professor in engineering science at the Oxford Robotics Institute. Betty herself has her own Twitter feed, and, says Brian, is popular among prospective students at open days at Pembroke College.

Betty has eyes, and Clare comments on how that is a feature that will often predispose humans to have empathic feelings for robots. Robots can, she says, make her feel a bit uncomfortable. Caroline mentions how people with autonomous hoovers, like Roombas, will often get them repaired rather than replace them because they have become like members of the family or companions. “People fall in love with their robots,” she says.

Caroline, though, draws the team’s attention to a US robot roundly ignored by customers, or worse, in a supermarket. Poor robot.

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Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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