HMRC warns NHS staff of coronavirus tax scam

Health workers returning to the NHS could be heavily out of pocket if they fall prey to illegal tax scams, HMRC has warned.

Unscrupulous promoters of tax avoidance schemes are targeting workers returning to the National Health Service (NHS) to help respond to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

HMRC was forced to publish an alert as tens of thousands of former-NHS staff answered the call to return to work in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

How the schemes work

HMRC warns that unscrupulous agencies or umbrella companies are seeking to sign up returning NHS staff by tempting them with arrangements that they claim to be legitimate, tax-efficient ways to allow the contractor to take home as much as 85% of their gross salary and reduce their paperwork, without explaining the risks associated with the scheme.

These ‘disguised remuneration’ schemes may work in different ways but the companies that provide them will nevertheless attempt to disguise the true level of the individual’s earnings which would ordinarily be the subject of income tax and NICs, while seeking to assure the user that the scheme is tax compliant.

Umbrella companies

Typically the NHS returner, who may be engaged through an umbrella company, will receive their remuneration as two payments:

  • the first will be declared as earnings and pass through the provider’s payroll in the normal way albeit often at around National Minimum Wage levels or at a low flat rate such as £100/week, from which income tax and NICs have already been deducted; and
  • a second, larger payment, received simultaneously or with a slight delay, and possibly from a different account. This payment will be referred to as something other than pay, and will be said not to be taxable because it relates to a loan, annuity, shares or even a “payment derived from a revolving line of credit facility”.

However, the second payment is actually no different to normal income, and tax and NICs are payable in the normal way. In most cases, the basic rate of income tax is 20% with NICs additionally due on earnings.

The risk to NHS staff

The legal obligation to pay the right amount of tax sits with each individual.

Previous users of tax avoidance schemes have learned the hard way that the risk of HMRC challenging them is extremely high.

HMRC will raise an enquiry to seek the recovery of unpaid tax, National Insurance contributions (NICs) and interest, and possibly additional penalties, from users of these schemes.

What victims can do

HMRC is advising NHS returners who think they may have been caught up in such schemes to urgently seek independent advice or to compare their net pay after income tax and NICs have been deducted with the results of HMRC’s online tax calculator – which will give an approximate indication of what an individual’s take-home pay should properly be.

Criminal inquiries

HMRC is clamping down harder on tax avoidance throughout this year. And it will be even keener to ensure fair play, given the massive sums the Government is investing to fight coronavirus.

HMRC has been taking more criminal action against the creators of illegal tax evasion schemes. As recently as 27 February, more than 100 HMRC officers searched business and residential premises and arrested four men and a woman suspected of fraud in connection with ‘disguised remuneration avoidance schemes’.

At the time, HMRC confirmed that it had more than 200 suspected ‘enablers’ of these schemes under criminal investigation.

This article was written by Andrew Sackey, partner of Pinsent Masons, and first appeared on the company’s website.

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