Fiona Bruce criticised for shutting down ‘niche’ IR35 debate on Question Time

Fiona Bruce shut down an IR35 debate on BBC1’s Question Time because, in her words, IR35 is too “niche”.

Asked by an audience member about Mini-Budget 2022 repealing the off-payroll rules, Ms Bruce eventually cut the person off, saying “forgive me” but IR35 is “reasonably complex”.

A former director of Paradox Productions Two Ltd -- her own limited company which she previously presented for the BBC through, an interrupting Bruce told the audience member:

“IR35 is quite a kind of, dare I say, niche, specific thing.”

'Lower-paid IT specialists want the IR35 thing repealed'

Then, appearing to challenge the premise of the part of the question which she did let the audience member formulate, Bruce added:

“There are people who are not earning lots of money -- like, you know, lower-paid IT specialists who do want the IR35 thing to be repealed.”

The audience member claimed to be a tax adviser, despite referring to PSCs as “public” service companies, and saying their directors only pay tax at just 19 per cent.

'Would have been good to get an answer, as it is Question Time'

But it is the host of the BBC’s “flagship political debate programme” (as Question Time describes itself) who lit up the Twittersphere with her words -- and actions.

“It’s Question Time. Repeal of IR35 [reform] is a good question. It would have been good to hear an answer,” tweeted Xan Phillips, who like Ms Bruce is a presenter.

“I really hate this -- IR35 isn’t too technical to chat about on BBC One’s Question Time,” Ian Brownhill, a barrister, added on the messaging platform.

“It’s fundamentally important, not only in respect of taxation but also potentially keeping people in public sector jobs.”

'Fiona Bruce, you owe us an apology'

A blogger on tax simplification and regulation, Wendy Bradley of tiintax wrote: “Wait, Fiona Bruce won’t let the panel answer the question about IR35 because it’s too ‘niche’?

“No wonder the public discourse on tax is so…[skewed], if we can’t even talk about it!”

Another Twitter user, Saffron Rainey, sounds as if he will be getting in touch with the broadcaster directly.

“Fiona Bruce you owe us an apology,” he posted. “The question about …[repealing reform to] IR35 was legitimate and you’ve shut it down. Shame on you.”

'Variety of questions on economic strategy'

But asked if Question Time’s host was correct to not let an IR35 reform repeal question be put to the panel, the BBC yesterday chose not to directly answer ContractorUK.

A BBC spokesperson would only say: “Last week’s news agenda was dominated by the government’s economic strategy, so as much time as possible was given to a variety of questions in order to allow the audience to debate this important topic.”

The BBC spokesperson declined to be drawn on ContractorUK’s suggestion Ms Bruce would have made a good chair of a mini-debate on IR35, given she has experience running a PSC.

There was also no word on whether the 58-year-old might kick-off the next edition of Question Time with a question on IR35, to make up for her intervention.

'BBC viewers left with a wrong and biased position'

Status and IR35 specialist Kate Cottrell believes the political debating programme opening with a question on IR35 would be a good response by the BBC.

Speaking to ContractorUK, the co-founder of Bauer & Cottrell said: “The ‘tax adviser’ who raised this on Question Time clearly did not understand the OPW rules or indeed IR35.

“And sadly no one corrected her. So BBC viewers are left with the wrong and biased position that…[PSCs only pay tax at just 19% corporation tax]. So it does need to be corrected.”

'Bruce showed a woeful lack of IR35 understanding'

Carolyn Walsh, a former inspector of taxes for the Revenue says the half-response given to the audience member was wrong and worthy of correction as well.

“Fiona Bruce’s comment about the IR35 ‘thing’ being a niche issue demonstrates a woeful lack of understanding on the part of the BBC presenter,” Walsh told ContractorUK.

“Both she and the audience member focussing on the level of taxes paid by PSCs, or ‘saved’ as it was characterised, was an unfair segue from the topic of IR35 reform facing repeal.

“What wasn’t pointed out is that many, many contractors are entitled to pay business taxes, on top of their personal taxes, simply, lawfully because they run a bonafide business.”

'Fiscal plan for tax abuse'

Walsh added that IR35 reform is a genuine problem, because PSCs have been barred from contracts by end-users fearful HMRC could challenge their ‘outside IR35’ determinations.

“But even HMRC doesn’t talk in those terms about IR35 and genuine PSCs,” added the ex-tax officer, referring to IR35 reform repeal seemingly being described on Question Time by the audience member as “a fiscal plan for tax abuse.”

Boss at CWC Solutions, Walsh continued: “It’s a concern, a shame, and a shambles that nobody on the programme saw fit to correct it – or was given the chance to correct it.”

'Brushed over by Bruce with blatant disregard'

Rebecca Seeley Harris, a tax lawyer at ReLegal Consulting summed up last night to ContractorUK: “It’s a pity that the young lady [in the Question Time audience] who asked the question wasn’t better informed.

“She seems to have be persuaded by the rhetoric that contractors are tax dodgers and only pay 19% tax. I do hope she’s not an accountant! Presenter Fiona Bruce should not, however, have brushed over it with such blatant disregard. No matter how complicated she may believe it is.”

Scheduled for 1045pm on Thursdays, Question Time last week had on its panel former chancellor Nadim Zahawi; Labour MP Lisa Nandy, Sun columnist Piers Morgan, entrepreneur and farmer Wilfred Emmaneul-Jones and the actor Brian Cox.

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Written by Simon Moore

Simon writes impartial news and engaging features for the contractor industry, covering, IR35, the loan charge and general tax and legislation.
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