The change to HMRC preferential creditor status v emphasising insolvent business restructure

HMRC preferential creditor status at the head of the queueThe Government’s proposal to restore HMRC preferential creditor status when a business becomes insolvent is, in my view, at odds with its desire to shift the balance in the insolvency regime towards helping more businesses to survive.

In September 2018 I welcomed the Government’s newly-published proposed changes to the insolvency regime, whereby there would be a moratorium, initially 28 days, from filing papers with the courts to give still viable businesses more time to restructure or seek new investment to rescue their business free from creditor action. Consultation on this and other changes to the insolvency regime was begun in 2016.

This year, in the April 2019 budget statement, the then Chancellor Philip Hammond included a proposal to restore HMRC preferential creditor status, something that had been removed as part of the Enterprise Act in 2002.The new preferential status will apply to VAT, PAYE income tax, employee National Insurance contributions, student loan deductions and construction industry scheme deductions and will rank ahead of both the floating charge and unsecured creditors.

Draft legislation has now been published and subject to Parliamentary approval of the Autumn Budget is due to come into effect in April 2020. Although it will only apply to businesses becoming insolvent after that date, it will apply without limit to the relevant historic tax debts, without time limit or cap.

According to the ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) after a relatively short consultation period between 26 February 2019 to 27 May 2019 the draft legislation appears to take little account of the representations made: “This proposal ….can be expected to deter lending and have other adverse consequences that have not been sufficiently considered…”

Given the current political uncertainty and obsessive focus on Brexit it remains to be seen when and if the new legislation appears in the eventual Finance Bill and when approval would be expected.

Nevertheless, the implications of the restoration of HMRC as a preferential creditor have been widely criticised for the effect it is likely to have on lending, given that it moves the floating charge of secured lenders down the pecking order in terms of getting their money back.

Purbeck Insurance Services, for example, has warned small businesses that the risks of Personally Guaranteed finance facilities are likely to increase and as a consequence more Guarantors will have to pay out.

In addition to the impact on loans, HMRC jumping up the queue for payments will mean less money is left for trade suppliers as unsecured creditors in future insolvencies, no doubt resulting in more insolvencies.

As a turnaround adviser and investor, I agree entirely with the ICAEW: “This proposal is at odds with government efforts to foster an enterprise culture in recent years.”

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