Lord Palmer speaks-up for Umbrella Companies

11 November 2015

In the House of Lords Grand Committee meeting on 10th November 2015 Lord Palmer speaks out about the rushed amendments to the March Finance Bill 2015 and the good work umbrella companies do in aiding the efficient collecting of taxes.

The key points raised by Lord Palmer were:

“The March 2015 Finance Bill—not the Bill before us today—had a clause added to it without consultation, and was enacted two days after that addition was made. The Government did not notify the umbrella company sector that it would be making those changes at that late stage. In speaking today, I am seeking that the Government should think again with the current Bill and repeal the section in question.

“The section will prevent contractors and freelancers claiming their legitimate tax relief at source as they have always been able to do. Instead, because of the hastily added section in the March Finance Act 2015, they will now only be able to claim via self-assessment, which at best will result in a significant delay during which time the individual will be out of pocket. I refer of course to Section 289A of the March 2015 Act relating to exemption for paid or reimbursed expenses. The addition of subsection (5)(b), which contains an innocuous, convoluted phrase, will affect about 400,000 contractors by delaying receipt of their properly incurred tax relief. Whereas at present the tax relief is given at source, it will now have to be claimed after the end of the tax year. Many contractors will fail to do so; many will need to employ an accountant to sort it out; and—just imagine—the overworked and understaffed HMRC will need to process an additional 400,000 tax returns.

“I have had recent experience of trying to phone my inspector of taxes. On three occasions, I was told I was in the queue and should be answered in 35 minutes. On the first two occasions I gave up; on the third occasion I hung on for 45 minutes, when a charming, helpful but overworked inspector dealt with my query. My noble friend Lady Kramer and the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, referred to the pressures on HMRC, and the effect of this section in the March 2015 Act will exasperate that no end.

“I have knowledge of this sector of the industry through having served in this House on the Select Committee on Personal Service Companies and as a now retired chartered accountant. Many companies do not employ contractors directly as employees: many use an umbrella company. This is not a brolly manufacturer but a company that acts as an employer to agency contractors who work under a fixed-term contract assignment, usually through a recruitment employment agency in the United Kingdom. The umbrella company receives the fee and pays it to the agency contractor after deducting full PAYE. However, the umbrella company can deduct at source relevant and valid expenses before calculating the PAYE. The expenses will be valid in calculating the tax but by this mysterious section, which suddenly appeared in the March Finance Act 2015 with two days’ notice, the tax relief on expenses would have to wait until the end of the tax year and beyond and use up the valuable HMRC staff time—to which other noble Lords have referred—to achieve no material tax gain to the Exchequer.

“This is not only a technical point. Umbrella companies are a critical element in supporting the UK’s flexible workforce. They offer workers the platform to work without the worry of running their own companies while offering employers, directly or through an agency, the flexible workforce they require. Umbrella employees will see significant drops in their monthly income because of the delays they will face when claiming for tax relief that they are legitimately entitled to. Many of those affected will also have the added administrative burden of filing a self-assessment tax return which they had previously not needed to complete.

“However, the significant number of umbrella employees in the UK—estimated to be at least 300,000 and probably 400,000—means that this will have a significant impact on the economy, particularly in restricting the flexibility of the workforce. The opportunity to provide contractors with their entitled tax relief at source is a key benefit for individuals choosing an umbrella firm—a perfectly acceptable tax use—and the new law would effectively remove this key commercial advantage, putting the whole industry at risk. The Freelancer and Contractor Services Association calculates the impact of the section is financially greater for many families than the loss of tax credits. That demonstrates how important this is.

I ask the Government to consider in the current Finance Bill repealing Section 289A(5)(b) of the March 2015 Finance Act—I am sure the Minister has it close to his chest and remembers every word of it—or, at the very least, to insert a new clause to delay the implementation of Section 289A(5)(b) for 12 months to enable a full consultation to take place so that an impact assessment can be made. I hope that the Minister will take this suggestion—that is all we can do in a Finance Bill debate—back to the Government so as to remedy in this Bill what may have been the unintended consequences of a section added to the previous Finance Bill and enacted two days later”.

The full narrative of Lord Palmer’s speech is available at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201516/ldhansrd/text/151110-0002.htm#15111033000492