HMRC Taking a Tougher Line on Debt Recovery

Evidence is emerging that HM Revenue and Customs is adopting a tougher approach to PAYE, VAT and tax arrears and increasingly using its powers of distraint to take over control of the goods, stock and assets of businesses.

In one example this week, just two hours after K2 was appointed by a company in difficulties, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) officers appeared at the premises and levied distraint on all the company’s assets and stock. There are similar stories from other turnaround and restructuring professionals.

The issue of a distraint notice (a C204 notice, also called a distress or walking possession notice), under HMRC powers allows it to take control of everything seized and while it does not necessarily remove property at that point, it means that the company cannot continue trading and is effectively put out of business because it is prevented from using its stock and cannot either sell or give away anything that has been distrained.  It normally has just five days to comply.

This walking possession is used rather like Winding Up Petitions (WUPs) when HMRC has exhausted attempts to communicate with the company.  Most companies are shocked when HMRC follows through with the actual action because it appears to come as a surprise, but when they review their correspondence they should not have been.

If the company does not pay or come up with alternative proposals, HMRC or an appointed agent can then take everything away for sale.

This hardline change of tactics comes after figures, published end of January, showed that the HMRC rejection rate for Time to Pay (TTP) arrangements had climbed from 2.7% in 2009 to 5.8% in 2010.

TTP is a very real solution for companies that cannot pay. While for the last two years HMRC has supported government policy of providing a light touch approach to businesses in difficulty, it is responsible for collecting arrears and not for saving businesses.

If a company receives a notice of intention to either wind up or distrain it should not delay in seeking the services of insolvency or turnaround advisers.

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