A proposal to impose a retrospective tax on contractors’ loans has been branded deeply unfair.
Buried within the Budget documents released on 16 March was a technical note on tackling disguised remuneration avoidance schemes. The retrospective tax charge is hidden in chapter 5 paragraph 10 which is titled: “A new charge on outstanding disguised remuneration loans”.
This outlines how income tax and NIC will be imposed on employee loans which are outstanding on 5 April 2019, irrespective of when the loan was advanced to the employee or individual. This means the new tax charge could be imposed on loans which were advanced decades ago.
Disguised remuneration loans come in two common forms:
- Employee benefit trust (EBTs) loans – used by company owners to extract large balances from their own companies without paying high levels of income tax;
Contractor loans - where an individual receives a loan and a small salary from an “employer” which was usually based offshore.
In both cases the loans were repayable but were usually never actually repaid. The employee is taxed on the benefit in kind of receiving an interest free loan, which amounts to 3% to 4% of the loan (depending on the official rate of interest in the tax year), for the duration of the employment.
Schemes involving EBT-type loans have been circulating since the 1980s, and contractor loans have been in common use since 2000. HMRC maintain that these arrangements do not work. However, there must be a considerable chance that they do. Very few of those schemes have been taken to the tax tribunal, and when HMRC have won a case they have generally done so on technicalities concerned with the implementation. New tax rules to stop disguised remuneration were introduced from 9 December 2010 and 6 April 2011 (ITEPA 2003, Part 7A).
Contractor loans have been subject to challenges in the tax tribunals, for example P Boyle v HMRC TC03103, where the contractor lost, although HMRC tend to only take cases to tribunal when they expect to win.
HMRC has offered settlement opportunities for those who took up EBT or contractor loan schemes, which required the individuals to who agreed to pay PAYE and NIC on all the loans they received. HMRC has also issued a spotlight on contractor loan schemes, so no-one can be in any doubt that HMRC doesn’t approve of contractor loans and it’s doing everything in its power to neutralise the schemes that used such loans to avoid tax.
Those who used contractor loans but who haven’t taken up a settlement opportunity are now receiving accelerated payment notices (APN) where their tax return is under enquiry. The APN is often based on estimated figures as HMRC don’t know exactly how much loan was advanced, so are guessing at six times the contractor’s salary.
The issue of an APN forces the taxpayer to pay the tax demanded as the APN can’t be appealed. If the tax is not actually due, the taxpayer has to force HMRC to conclude their enquiry by going to tribunal – which is clogging up the tax tribunal system.
The proposed tax charge will be imposed on an outstanding loan if income tax has not been paid on that loan (even where income tax wasn’t due under the tax law in place when the loan was advanced). The new charge won’t be imposed if the taxpayer has reached a settlement with HMRC, or otherwise paid tax on the loan as if it was salary.
David Kirk, an expert on employment taxes, said: “HMRC have for a number of years made it plain that they will not tolerate tax avoidance in this area. However, they have often been very slow to act in practice, and this has left people with the feeling that they had dropped their cases. Whilst the Government has every right to change the rules, I do have concerns about four particular things with this proposed tax charge:
- “The tax can be raised on historical loans of any age, so it could relate to actions taken over 20 years ago.
- The records relating to historical loans will often be lost and are difficult to reconstruct.
- Individuals were often sold the loan schemes by IFAs and accountants, in some cases quite aggressively. There is consumer protection law to assist victims of this sort of miss-selling when it comes to investments; however in this case HMRC seem to be going for the victims instead of the real culprits.
- The tax charge should fall on the employer, but it will be transferred to the employee/contractor."
Kirk concludes that many former contractors will be made bankrupt by this new tax charge, or if not made bankrupt will lose their homes.
He also says the charge is deeply unfair as in many cases the tax was not payable under the law that existed when the loan was advanced (pre December 2010), so the taxpayer should win their case if they could get a hearing at the tax tribunal. Under the proposals such taxpayers will have to pay the tax on the outstanding loan even if they do win their case at the tax tribunal.
David Kirk's book: Employment Status - the Tax Rules is now in its third edition.
About Rebecca Cave
Consulting tax editor for Accountingweb.co.uk. I also co-author several annual tax books for Bloomsbury Professional and write newsletters for other publishers.