Our Director of Operations, Victoria Kelly, gives a summary of the key points in the recent off-payroll Lords Committee Hearing
On 4th February The House of Lords Finance Bill Sub-Committee opened its inquiry into the Government’s proposal to extend the off-payroll working rules to large and medium-sized organisations in the private sector from April 2020.
The Lords Select Committee met on 10th February to hear evidence from representatives from the accountancy and tax professions with representatives from ICAEW, ACCA, ICAS, CIOT and LITR. The full recording can be viewed here.
It was encouraging to hear that by the time of the sub-committee meeting Lord Forsyth had already received around 300 emails in response to his call for evidence, although perhaps unsurprising given the impact of the reforms on the UK’s contingent workforce.
Victoria Kelly, Director of Operations here at Nixon Williams has watched the recording so you don’t have to and has summarised the key points below:
Do you think businesses are ready or do they need more help?
The responses were varied but the sentiment was that large businesses have placed a significant amount of effort into trying to arrange their systems and processes to comply with the rules. Concerns were cited regards how businesses had been supported with little education and the outcomes from the roll out of the rules in the Public Sector still not fully clear and understood. Full compliance with the new rules is beset with difficulty as the rules remain unclear. Whilst a delay would be preferable all representatives relayed that they understood the Treasury’s need to press ahead.
Is the CEST tool fit for purpose?
It was offered that the tool is a blunt instrument and recognition that if it were easy to determine employment status it would have been achieved. Whilst HMRC appeared to be making improvements to improve accuracy and usability ensuring questions were easier to understand, it remains far from perfect. Worryingly guidance is not obvious and without that the tool may be used incorrectly. Further, it still excludes Mutuality of Obligation, the most cited point when cases are brought for appeal. It was estimated that in 15% of cases the CEST tool is unable to make a status determination and the current system of directing the user to contact HMRC is inadequate.
What is the compliance burden on employers?
The representatives explained that it was extremely difficult to put a cost on the compliance burden but believed HMRC had on overly simplistic view as to it. HMRC’s often quoted estimate that 90% of contractors do not apply the IR35 rules correctly. What is not understood is whether that is through incompetence, ignorance or active avoidance. In our experience the vast majority of contractors seek to apply the rules correctly and we would welcome further evidence to support HMRC’s figure. Further the Committee were reminded that the IR35 legislation as anti-avoidance legislation was intentionally drafted to be broad, this increases the complexity and subsequent difficulty in compliance.
HMRC have suggested that the cost of implementing the reforms is £14.4 million however the witnesses all agreed that this figure was far too low, however the real figure is almost impossible to predict.
Is the appeals process adequate?
There is an imbalance of power as things stand and steps should be taken to address this. Whilst the fact there is an appeals process at all is a welcome addition, (there was no such provision included in the public sector reforms introduced in 2017) it is inadequate. An independent status disagreement process was proposed in addition to a time limit to start the disagreement process.
Have we seen blanket determinations?
Yes particularly in the banking sector and given the complexity of applying the employment status tests this was perhaps to be expected. Reference was also made to the impact that the implementation of these rules had had in the Public Sector, causing harm to the NHS who faced problems with recruitment and resourcing.
Is there a risk that contractors will unwittingly enter tax avoidance schemes?
Concerns were raised that there are still tax avoidance schemes that are masquerading as compliant umbrella companies offering up to 90% take home pay. The fact that HMRC are not taking action to close these schemes down means that contractors that are no longer able to operate through personal service companies may unwittingly enter these non-compliant schemes. The introduction of the debt transfer provisions with the off-payroll rules effectively passes the responsibility to police the supply chain to the end hirer or first agency the supply chain and the effectiveness of this is in question. HMRC have a blind spot to these dark arrangements and more needs to be done to tackle this.
What is needed?
The representatives made several recommendations as to what steps should now be taken:
- Greater clarity on the rules, specifically questions that had been raised in the past required a response (and not simply to be made clear as the rules bed in)
- Real assurance from HMRC that any enforcement action would be proportionate, recognising the complexity of the rules, the limitations of the CEST tool to assess all circumstances and the lack of clarity that still exists.
- An independent dispute resolution process with a clear time limit for a contractor to begin the process.
- The alignment of legal employment status and tax employment status
Whilst a delay to the implementation is almost now certainly off the cards, the short-term recommendations put forward are pragmatic and hopefully place more urgency to addressing concerns around the lack of clarity that still exits.
The lord’s inquiry is due to close on 25th February, if you would like to contribute to the enquiry you can read more about the objectives of the inquiry here and make your own written representation.
Help from Nixon Williams
If you have any questions regarding IR35 or the April 2020 reforms to the legislation, please do not hesitate to contact your accountant who will be more than happy to assist.