HMRC: Direct recovery of debts

Budget 2014 – direct recovery announced

In the 2014 Budget, it was announced that HMRC will in future be able to take money directly from the bank accounts of tax debtors that owe more than £1,000 in tax or tax credits in direct recovery of debts. Public consultation on this proposal ended yesterday (29th July 2014).

Everyone has a reasonable expectation that the tax system operates fairly and consistently, and that those who owe money to HMRC should pay what they owe. Those individuals and businesses that do not pay what they owe leave everyone else paying more tax to cover the non-payers, or we accept that there is then less funds available for public spending.

Unprecedented new power

This power would be unprecedented in the UK and to-date there is little details of judicial or other safeguards which would be in place to protect taxpayers, save for a commitment that a minimum of £5,000 would be left in debtors’ accounts.

HMRC have stated that they will only use these new powers, where debtors “have the financial means to pay” and have already been contacted multiple times by HMRC.

It’s difficult to see how HMRC will determine how individuals and companies have the financial means to pay. How will this be determined? How up-to-date are HMRC’s databases? What steps will be put in place to ensure that funds that are not due are not seized?

Any organisation as large as HMRC will occasionally make mistakes and there have been many examples where taxpayers are chased for non-existent debts.

HMRC already has extensive powers to recover tax debts

Like other taxpayers, I share the view the everyone should be paying their fair share in accordance with the law, but HMRC already has significant powers to deal with tax debtors:

It can change your tax code to deal with underpayments, obliging your employer to withhold more of your salary.

It can approach the Magistrates Court to recover debts up to £2,000 and for amounts in excess of this, it can go to the County Court.

It can petition for your company to be wound-up if debts are not paid, and then pursue the directors if appropriate to recover funds owing.

But it has to present its case to a Court.

What hasn’t been made clear in these proposals is why the current methods of recovery aren’t working, although I suspect it is because going down the Courts route, is slow and expensive.

Opposition grows

The professional accountancy bodies have raised concerns.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales has suggested that is necessary to “go back a step, to re-think the policy and consult upon the strategies by which HMRC can tackle those who willfully refuse to pay.”

Other potential issues have been raised concerning where HMRC stands in the pecking order of creditors. Let’s assume a business owes its Corporation tax of £7,000 from last year and at the time of recovery, the business has £25,000 in its bank account. Is it reasonable for HMRC to recover its debt? Well sounds reasonable – but let’s say it does and then the company has insufficient funds to pay its employees or its suppliers at the end of the month?

HMRC hasn’t been a preferential creditor (meaning it is paid its money before everyone else) for VAT or PAYE debts since 2003. This proposal appears to once again introduce this status via the back door.