As the title race is now all but over and England’s cricketers have finished their winter tours, the countdown to the first golfing major of the year, The Masters, has begun. One topic has been the source of most of the debate in our house: Rory McIlroy, and his change of clubs. For those who aren’t into their sport, the world’s (now former) number one golfer has dispensed with the Titleist clubs that have been in his bag throughout his rise to the top and signed a very lucrative contract with sporting giant Nike, with mixed results. During the discussion a word very popular in forum questions kept coming up: Money!
Following on from Nick’s blog on tax avoidance I decided I’d offer up my thoughts on another hot topic that’s filling a lot of newsprint at the moment. Next year sees significant changes to the benefits system through the introduction of universal credit. This week the Prime Minister has been politicking based on possible changes to the benefits system to counter a (his words not mine) ‘culture of entitlement’ amongst certain sections of society. I’m not going to offer an opinion on whether I agree or disagree with Cameron’s policy suggestions, but I will explain how the welfare state has and continues to affect me, both personally and professionally.
The first way everyone feels the effect of benefits when not in direct receipt of them is through tax and National Insurance. Using HMRC’s tax calculator mobile app I can tell you that 33.3% of my contributions are spent on the welfare state. This is the largest single proportion of my contributions, roughly double that spent on healthcare, which sounds like a lot. Now there are a myriad of types of benefit which I couldn’t possibly cover in this blog, so I’m going to focus on housing benefit and council tax.
I’m quite happy to say that I’ve been a recipient of state benefits. This was during 2009-10 when I’d left university after staying on to carry out research. I worked for a local business to start with, living at my parent’s house. Living at home wasn’t an option as there was little in the way of graduate employment opportunities in the rural area where my family lives, so moving to a city like Manchester (getting on my bike so to speak) seemed like a good way to pursue work. I found it very difficult to get any kind of full time work. So, despite working temporary contracts when I could get work, I signed onto and off of Jobseekers allowance which meant I also received housing and council tax benefits for periods between employment. This time on benefits wasn’t a period of entitlement, it was because there was no other means of supporting myself. I’d apply for multiple vacancies for entry level jobs. I heard back from very few, mainly temporary contracts lasting less than a month. There is one particular story I always think of when discussing how difficult it was to find work. I remember applying for roles on a popular agency website. On this site you can see how many other applications have been submitted and it updates pretty quickly. Every time an entry level or temporary job was posted this counter would reach over a 100 applications within minutes.
So getting into work was a struggle and I imagine that if I hadn’t been afforded the opportunities in life I’ve had and been fortunate to successfully get this training contract it would be a perpetual struggle to find full time employment. I’m very grateful for the support that the benefits system gave me, and I’m happy to contribute my taxes so others can benefit from the welfare state. I’m not saying my story is typical and I know it glosses over the long-term unemployment issues our society has. But I believe the welfare state should exist, it just needs improving so that it helps and encourages people to gain employment, but gaining employment, particularly in times of recession is no easy feat.
Now fast forward a couple of years and my relationship with the welfare state has changed from being a recipient to an auditor of housing and council benefit claims. For the past two weeks I’ve been carrying out certification work on a council’s claim to the Department for Work and Pensions for housing and council tax benefit subsidy. This involves testing different types of benefit case across different categories amongst other testing to ensure that entitlement has been correctly determined and that the council has seen all appropriate evidence from a claimant before awarding benefits. This is one of the more complex areas which is specific to public sector audit and requires a solid understanding of very detailed technical guidance that governs the benefits system. It also demands objectivity and sensitivity as you are granted access to details of people’s private lives, so full security vetting is necessary and there are, quite rightly, incredibly strict confidentiality and data protection arrangements.
Whilst I can’t comment specifically on the work I’ve done, having seen the system from both sides it’s clear that there is both a need for a safety net but also that the system is very complex and will benefit from reform to ensure it continues to provide this support in a sustainable way. How these changes are designed and implemented is a task for the politicians. Although it is a long way off, if the current media attention is anything to go by this could be a major differentiator between parties come the next general election in May 2015.
Once a year, all members of staff within Grant Thornton get the opportunity to enrol within the flexible benefits plan. This is a scheme which allows staff to decide which employee benefits are suitable for them and tailor the package around their preferences. I see this as an important part of the overall employment package and feel it’s worth a mention for those considering a career at Grant Thornton.
For the most part, the benefits are focused around healthcare and well-being, offering peace of mind for those who enrol. However, there are some more ‘fun’ benefits such as car leasing, bike purchasing and computer financing. There are also numerous salary sacrifice schemes such as the Grant Thornton pension plan and charitable donations.
As a petrol head, the car leasing scheme is the most exciting to me as it offers pretty much every car under the sun, including the likes of Aston Martin and Porsche. Sadly though, these car selections are a little out of reach for this Associate’s salary, maybe one day…
This year, I’ve stuck with the BUPA medial insurance and have added some top-notch dental insurance. This will cover me for pretty much any mishaps as well as routine dental check-ups. Adding in the necessary life assurance and my optional monthly charitable donations my benefit package equates to a decent benefit package that I wouldn’t have acquired if I wasn’t with the firm.
Another great feature of the firm is the online shopping website, a dedicated site for Grant Thornton employees which offers discounts for a wide range of products and services. I’m forever using this site to find the best deal around and I made a killer saving on my latest phone contract.