Wedding fees and The Daily Telegraph

by Steve Coleman

In case you’ve been worried by the letters about wedding fees and HMRC in The Daily Telegraph, this is what it’s all about.

The background

In order to get the tax affairs of employees more up to date, HMRC have introduced something called Real Time Information – or RTI for short. Essentially, it’s a very good idea and it will result in far fewer overpayments and underpayments of tax. BUT it is entirely procedural. It doesn’t make anyone an employee who wasn’t before.

Nevertheless, it has shaken some employers up a bit, and HMRC has been giving seminars to help them. Apparently, someone from the Chester Diocesan Office attended one and became convinced that bellringers were employees. As a result they gave instructions to parishes to tax ringers on their wedding fees.

The Law

No one with any knowledge of employment law thinks the Chester Diocesan Office is right, but all attempts at persuasion have been unsuccessful. The Office takes the view that HMRC have told them that bellringers are employees and that’s that. In turn, many Chester Diocese PCCs take the view that they have to do what the Diocesan Office tells them – even it doesn’t sound right at all – and no one can blame them for that. They are not experts, and they don’t want to disobey what they have been authoritatively told is the law.

The HMRC website

Apparently, HMRC have said nothing to the Chester Diocese in writing about this – which is hardly surprising – but the HMRC website may well have confused the issue both for the Diocese and for others. In an effort to be helpful, it contains an interactive page on which anyone can find out if someone is an employee rather than a self-employed person. It’s very simplistic and it’s meant to be, but it can certainly create an entirely false impression if used incorrectly.

The user types in the occupation "bellringer" and gets a specific reference. He then has to answer a very few simple questions. If he answers them correctly, the website will tell him to contact HMRC in person. If he answers incorrectly, the website will provide the apparently definitive statement that a church bellringer is an employee. This seems to have happened.

Action so far

In an effort to sort this out, I had discussions with an HMRC "status expert" well before any letters in The Daily Telegraph. He said – not surprisingly – that on the information I’d given him, ringers aren’t employees and so not covered by RTI. He also said that if I set out all the facts in detail, he would arrange for a definitive written response which I could copy to all interested parties. I supplied all the facts in detail – it ran into three pages – and I’m now waiting for a reply.

All of which means that – for the present at least – HMRC have not issued a "diktat" that ringers are employees, and the first letter to The Daily Telegraph has just stirred things up in an extremely unhelpful way. A good many people outside of the Chester Diocese are now very worried, and a good many tower captains and PCC Treasurers are having sleepless nights.

Of course, I can’t guarantee a quick resolution as far as the Chester Diocese is concerned, but I don’t think anyone else need be troubled. The general question of whether someone is an employee is not in the least simple, but one aspect of it is. An employee cannot send someone else along in his place but a wedding ringer most certainly can. Indeed, he often does. He or she will say, "I’ll either be there or I’ll get someone else," and no one minds at all.

The Minimum Wage

I’ve received a great many phone calls and emails about this; and although not really relevant, I pointed out to one churchwarden last week that if wedding ringers were indeed employees, she was breaking the law by paying them below the minimum wage. Unfortunately this only made her more worried not less.

I’ll keep you all posted.


Please also see the follow-up correspondence & article on Wedding Fees and the Diocese of Chester

BB BellBoard
Central Council of Church Bell Ringers