The Government last week published its new draft Finance Bill, which includes the proposal to restore HMRC preferential status as a creditor for distribution in insolvency. This was originally granted in the Insolvency Act 1986 but removed by the Enterprise Act 2002.
In summary, HMRC is currently an unsecured creditor ranking equally with suppliers as trade creditors and unsecured lenders for any pay-out to creditors from an insolvent company. The preference would mean they get paid ahead of unsecured creditors leaving less or nothing for most creditors whose support is necessary when restructuring a company.
There had already been considerable consternation expressed by insolvency practitioners and investors after Chancellor Philip Hammond announced the proposal in the Spring, but it seems the Government has decided to press on making only a light amendment to the effect that preferential status will not apply to insolvency proceedings commenced before 6 April 2020.
The change in HMRC to preferential status will apply to VAT and PAYE including taxes or amounts due to HMRC paid by employees or customers through a deduction by the business for example from wages or prices charged such as PAYE (including student loan repayments), Employee NICs and Construction Industry Scheme deductions.
It will remain an unsecured creditor for other taxes such as corporation tax and employer NIC contributions.
The consultation period for the Bill ends on 5 September 2019 and, not surprisingly, there have already been criticisms of the HMRC preferential status element of the bill, not least as reported in the National Law Review:
“Unfortunately for businesses and lenders, this does not address real concern about the impact of this change on existing facilities and future lending,” it says.
It points out that preferential debts are paid after fixed charges and the expenses of the insolvency but before those lenders holding floating charges and all other unsecured creditors.
Accountancy Age also reports on reactions from the Insolvency trade body R3’s president Duncan Swift, who described the Bill’s publication as “shooting first and asking questions later”.
He said: “This increases the risks of trading, lending and investing, and could harm access to finance, especially for SMEs. This means less money is available to fund business growth and business rescue, and, in the long term, could mean less tax income for HMRC from rescued or growing businesses. It’s a self-defeating policy.”
The article also includes comments from Andrew Tate, partner and head of restructuring at Kreston Reeves: “The introduction of this in April 2020 will be interesting,” said Kreston Reeves’ Tate. “The banks will have to change the criteria on which they base their lending to businesses in the light of this new threat, but will they also reassess the amounts they have lent to existing customers?
Is HMRC preferential status the death knell for CVAs?
CVAs (Company Voluntary Arrangements) have traditionally been the route whereby unsecured creditors could have some say, and receive an enhanced pay-out, when a business becomes insolvent and seeks to restructure its balance sheet in order to carry on trading and manage its debts.
Instigated by the directors, approval of a CVA requires 75% of unsecured creditors where the payment terms are binding on any dissenting creditors providing they are less than 25%. Generally, the earlier a business enters a CVA the better, although they can be used as a means of dealing with a minority creditor who has lodged a Winding Up Petition (WUP) in the courts.
CVAs generally involve a payment to creditors which must be distributed by creditor ranking where currently HMRC gets paid the same as trade creditors but under the proposals HMRC will be paid first, leaving considerably less for trade creditors whose support is needed as ongoing suppliers.
CVAs have been a valuable insolvency tool for saving struggling retailers, most recently Monsoon/Accessories, Arcadia (owned by Philip Green) and earlier Debenhams, Mothercare, Carpetright and New Look.
But there have been signs of creditors’ disenchantment with the CVA mechanism when used for retail chains, notably from landlords, who stand to lose significant revenue if they agree to reduce their rents as part of the CVA agreement.
Arcadia, in particular, struggled to reach agreement when landlord Intu, owner of several large shopping arcades, said it was not prepared to accept rent cuts averaging 40% across Arcadia Group shops in its centres. In the end the deal was agreed after landlords were promised a share of the profits during the CVA period. This is an example of the flexibility of CVAs and of how they can benefit creditors if a business is to be saved.
It is a dilemma for landlords in particular, but on the whole they seem to have come to the view that some revenue going forwards is better than none, given that there is reducing demand for High Street Retail space not least because of the sky-high business rates and dwindling footfall from shoppers.
However, it is very likely, in my view, that this latest move by the Government to restore HMRC preferential status, could just tip the balance in making the CVA ineffective as a restructuring tool since the lion’s share of available money will be paid to HMRC.