At the October 2018 Tory party conference, the Prime Minister reiterated her support for businesses, calling them “the wealth creators, the risk takers, the innovators and entrepreneurs …. who generate jobs and prosperity for our country” yet the Government’s actions seem set on destroying SMEs and entrepreneurial initiative.
Whenever a SME encounters financial difficulty that make it difficult to keep up to date with its VAT and PAYE payments, it is invariably HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) that is criticised for its heavy-handed and unsympathetic behaviour in recovering monies owed.
There is some truth to this given recent revelations of a surge in HMRC action to seize assets, which had risen by 45% in the tax year to March 2018, following a 23% increase in asset seizures the previous tax year. It is debatable whether asset seizure is an effective arrears-gathering measure, given that the seized assets are often then sold at auction for little value and the seizure effectively prevents a business from continuing to trade in a way that can pay off arrears.
It is worth remembering that HMRC does have discretionary powers, such as to agree Time to Pay arrangements to help businesses in arrears to settle their outstanding taxes over time although it is not obliged to offer this facility and no doubt is reluctant to do so if previous arrangements have failed.
Crucially, it must be remembered that HMRC is a tool of Government such that if HMRC is increasing its pressure on businesses, whether via asset seizure or by resorting to litigation, as I have reported in several previous blogs, then surely it is because the pressure is coming from the Government to improve its collections and recoveries.
However, the recent changes to HMRC’s creditor status and to directors’ liabilities in the October 30 Budget are telling.
Firstly, the Chancellor announced a restoration of HMRC’s status as a preferential creditor albeit behind employees unlike its pre Enterprise Act 2002 status of ranking pari pasu (equally) with employees. This means that the recovery of unpaid PAYE, CIS and VAT as any other taxes collected by businesses on behalf of HMRC will rank ahead of suppliers and unsecured creditors in insolvency.
Secondly, the Chancellor announced a measure in the Budget that has so far provoked little comment; he proposes to make directors and advisers jointly and separately liable for the preferential tax liabilities in insolvency. The details no doubt will clarify the nature of any actual liability such as if the insolvency is deliberate or not but this will effectively allow the appointed insolvency practitioners to hold directors to ransom by threatening expensive litigation against the directors personally.
This second measure is likely to be a significant deterrent to anyone becoming a director and also to entrepreneurs and indeed anyone wanting to set up a new company.
Since there also seems to be a disparity between HMRC enforcement action towards SMEs when compared with the seeming light touch on larger enterprises, it is reasonable to conclude that this Tory Government has abandoned entrepreneurs and is intent on destroying SMEs.
Who will become a director once they know what potential liabilities they are taking on?
As ever, government actions speak louder than words.