The curious case of Smith versus Pimlico Plumbers

5 mins. to read
The curious case of Smith versus Pimlico Plumbers

I have just opened a website,Simon Cawkwell – TA Cawkwells Accountants ( It does not cover investments but it will cover points of law. What follows is nonetheless of interest, I hope, to readers of The Evil Diaries. So I feature it here:

I start with a confession. About ten years ago I received a calendar from Pimlico Plumbers. It featured a photograph per month of buildings, typically in central London and of some distinction, featuring in the foreground of each photo a small Morris Minor van with the legend Pimlico Plumbers. One had to look a little to establish that it was indeed Pimlico Plumbers’ van.

For some reason I elected to drop a note to Pimlico Plumbers’s proprietor, Charlie Mullins, that I had studied his calendar but that I also felt I had to warn him that his firm was being stalked by a man in a van. I do not know whether that amused him (although it certainly amused me – little things amuse little minds). Quite possibly not. After all, Charlie would have been proud to have developed his business as far as he had and might not have taken kindly to being laughed at.

Events moved on. Pimlico Plumbers has thrived. And Charlie had entered into an agreement with a Mr Gary Smith to the effect that Mr Smith would be paid c. £80,000 p.a., no doubt dependent upon work done and not hours attended. It was also agreed that Mr Smith would be treated as self-employed.

Mr Smith drove to his assignments in a Pimlico Plumbers van. It would be silly for Pimlico Plumbers to have proposed that he convey himself and his kit any other way since his public driving would advertise the presence of Pimlico Plumbers at no cost to Mr Smith, always a sound business principle. Later, this was taken as evidence that Mr Smith was an employee. I would have thought a willing participant in an advertising campaign would be just as appropriate.

The overall advantage of this arrangement was that Mr Smith forewent holiday rights and being paid when ill and the usual employment protection rights. He was happy to do this since Pimlico Plumbers was able to up his pay rate by an appreciable margin.

As it turned out Mr Smith had a heart attack and, as a result, Pimlico Plumbers declined to deploy him. It was at this point that Mr Smith claimed that he had always been an employee and approached an employment tribunal who ruled in his favour. Therefore the Court of Appeal found this matter before it and, again, ruled in favour of Mr Smith.

This is all very well but the financial consequences of this altered status are adverse for Pimlico Plumbers and material when, right at the outset, Mr Smith and Pimlico Plumbers agreed that the altered status could not possibly arise. Where I come from, an agreement between consenting adequately informed adults is an agreement. What is going on? It is not as though Mr Smith was some street beggar asking for the mercy of society.

I suspect that the relevant judiciary fancy a little social engineering and, at the heart of matters, seek to set aside agreements entered into by adults, particularly retrospectively, since by doing so they impose the paramountcy of the state over the individual. This can never work and eventually leads to Stalin’s Russia. Wise people should resist it now.

The problem for politicians and HM Treasury is that they want as much money as possible from all possible sources and messing around with other people’s business will do perfectly nicely thank you. It’s hard to find a cash cow as good as national insurance and the tax regime of employed people.

The fact that this has been a longstanding and increasingly intrusive sore and cost to industry and commerce, and thus all our lives, is neither here nor there. Needs must where the devil drives.

In France (and elsewhere within the EU), they have insisted upon insane social security taxes such that employment does not even occur when it could naturally fit in to people’s reasonable aspirations. So much is this the case that the failure of the French economy may well play a decisive part in major political change. The UK’s politicians might take that into account.

Another union-originated objection floating around is that many people nowadays are involved in short-term assignments described as gigs. Rather as a rock band rolls up at a venue to do a “gig”. This is claimed to be an abuse of the worker’s rights as a human rather than a reflection of how, in the modern economy, jobs come and go. Society can ignore these unions but should they decline to do so the cost to the economy is significant. I suspect that the judiciary allocated to implementation of the law tend to the left wing. They do not mind if the economy is damaged as long as their sense of social justice is developed and/or protected. Hence the willingness of the judiciary to set aside the economy’s interest.

However, the central feature arising from Smith .v. Pimlico Plumbers case is that Mr Smith and Mr Mullins came to a deal and Mr Smith seeks to have it set aside simply because he finds it convenient. This must be contrary to society’s general interest.

I bet Charlie Mullins is seething. I don’t blame him.


The chairman has been on first thing this morning to warn me of the very dangerously high markets we now confront. I am sure he is right. The trouble is one of timing. I can’t help.


Finally, David Beckham has clearly exchanged views with his PR adviser as to how he can bank on getting a knighthood. This suggests that Beckham is merely commercial rather than chivalrous. However, Rod Liddle thinks we should keep a sense of proportion: about sixty year ago, a Jackie Sinclair, after a very distinguished footballing career, left the game and went back down the pits. I expect a shortage of money ruled the roost. There was no question of a knighthood.

Comments (4)

  • B Butler says:

    1. I sympathise with your self employment argument, but don’t overlook that many people who “agree” to alter their status are doing so because the alternative is typically to lose your job.
    2. They also often find that the savings that are made by the firm on a shift to self employment are kept by the firm not the putative employee or at least rarely passed on in full.

  • TonyA says:

    A large factor in the court’s decision must be the fact that Gary Smith was apparently working 40+ hours a week for the same company, not working for several, or even hundreds, of different customers over the course of a year, which is the normal definition of someone who is self-employed, i.e. you are a sole trader or partnership who looks for work wherever you find it, like any normal jobbing plumber, and incur inevitable extra costs that can be set against your income. The fact Pimlico Plumbers were providing him with 100% of his work surely makes him an employee in the eyes of HMRC, whatever piece of paper has been signed (or not) between Mr Smith and Pimlico Plumbers.

    I find it very difficult to understand how Gary Smith has managed to get away all these years paying tax as a self-employed person to HMRC. He will probably rue the day he ever started this court case, because whatever sick pay and holiday he’s gained from Pimlico Plumbers, he will lose many times over when HMRC come calling and ask for their 12% Class 1 NICs and their income tax, this time without most of the deductions he has presumably been claiming so far.

    • Simon Cawkwell says:

      You raise an interesting point as to HMRC’s attitude. As I understand it, Mr Smith has been stuck in a middle category which is neither employed nor self-employed and instead he is classified as “worker”. Whether that means the full hounding to come from HMRC I do not know. But in this crazy and uncertain world I doubt if anything can be presumed at all. Silly, really.

  • brian wall says:

    RE: J. Quigley,Tommy Lawton, Raich Carter and other soccer players of that era. The maximum weekly wage was the 15 pounds a week. Too low but surely the pendulum has swung too far?

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