Each individual corporate group member is required to submit their own tax return on a stand-alone basis, with the exception of the election available with respect to VAT (discussed below). However, there are a variety of ways in which one's relationship with fellow group members is recognised in the UK tax system for the purposes of corporation tax, VAT, SDLT, and stamp duty.
The corporation tax system includes a number of measures that advantage UK members of qualifying groups, all of which are subject to anti-avoidance measures.
Operating taxable profits and losses arising in the same period can usually be offset between UK resident 75% affiliates within a worldwide group. This extends to offsetting the UK profits attributed to a UK PE of a non-UK resident group member. There are some restrictions, primarily where one of the two companies is not an economic 75% subsidiary of the group or is subject to arrangements under which it might leave the group.
Intra-group transfers of capital assets between UK companies, including UK PEs, are normally tax-free, though the definition of group for these purposes is slightly different than the definition of group relief for losses. This treatment is also extended to intra-group transfers of loan relationships, derivatives, and intangibles. There is generally a 'degrouping' charge if the transferee company leaves the group within six years.
There is no automatic offset of capital gains and losses where these arise in different group companies, but it is normally possible for offset to be arranged either by actual transfer of the asset prior to disposal or by election.
A UK resident group company is potentially able to claim group relief for income losses of a non-UK subsidiary that is resident in the European Economic Area (EEA) or has incurred the relevant losses in a PE within the EEA, provided that all possibilities of non-UK relief for the losses have been exhausted and future relief is unavailable.
In addition, the corporation tax system also has a number of measures that seek to prohibit groups unfairly manipulating the tax system by shifting profits between group members (either internationally or within the United Kingdom) in a way that is considered unacceptable.
A debt cap limits the aggregated UK tax deductions group members may claim for finance costs to the level of a group's external finance expense, although proposals have been made to replace this with a fixed ratio interest expense limit. This is discussed under Funding costs in the Deductions section.
Group companies can, subject to certain requirements, elect to account for VAT as if they were one taxable person; where this is done, no VAT is charged on intra-group supplies of goods or services. The registration is made in the name of the representative member, who is responsible for completing and rendering the single return on behalf of the group. All the companies are jointly and severally liable for any VAT debts. VAT grouping is subject to detailed anti-avoidance provisions.
Stamp duty and SDLT
Transfers of shares or real estate within worldwide 75% groups are generally exempt from stamp duty or SDLT, respectively. For SDLT, the relief can be retrospectively withdrawn in certain circumstances, primarily where the transferee leaves the group within three years of the transfer.
Transfer pricing and thin capitalisation
The United Kingdom has widely drafted transfer pricing rules that are intended to apply to almost any kind of transaction made or imposed between related parties that gives rise to:
- a provision that differs from one that would have been made between third parties and
- a UK tax advantage (potential or actual) to one or more of the parties.
These rules apply to UK-to-UK transactions as well as cross-border transactions.
The regime therefore applies not only to the provision of products and services but also to finance arrangements, including both the rate of return charged and the amount of loan principal (or equivalent) made available. It is therefore the mechanism by which the UK's revenue authorities address the issue of thin capitalisation. Currently, unlike many other territories, the United Kingdom does not currently operate any 'safe harbours' of any kind in relation to the amount of debt or interest (or equivalents) it considers demonstrates that a UK company or group is not thinly capitalised. However, HMRC have announced the introduction of a new UK interest deductibility rule, effective from April 2017. This is discussed under Funding costs in the Deductions section.
Parties are considered related for the purpose of transfer pricing rules where either one controls the other or both are under common control. Control here is not confined to situations in which one party is the majority shareholder in the other. Effectively, control exists where one party has the power to ensure that the affairs of another party are conducted in accordance with the first party's wishes. The concept is also subject to two important extensions:
- The rules apply to many joint venture companies where two parties each have an interest of at least 40%.
- There are attribution rules to trace control relationships through a number of levels in determining whether parties are controlled for the purposes of the transfer pricing rules.
In addition, the regime restricts interest deductions to an arm's-length basis where a financier and persons who collectively control a company or a partnership have 'acted together' in relation to the financing arrangements of that company or partnership. The financier (usually a bank) can then be taken as controlling the company or partnership, and the loan becomes subject to transfer pricing limitations.
There are a number of exemptions that essentially exclude small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and dormant companies from the regime.
The effect of the rules is to require an arm's-length provision to be substituted for the actual one, thereby increasing the party's UK tax liability and cancelling out the UK tax advantage that would otherwise have arisen.
Where both parties to the transaction are UK taxpayers, the disadvantaged party will generally be entitled to claim a compensating adjustment (except where the transaction falls within the transfer pricing regime because of the 'acting together' provisions), but only after the UK adjustment has been made. The legislation also provides that parties may make balancing payments to each other in such circumstances, of any amount up to the transfer pricing adjustment, which will neither be taxable for the recipient nor tax deductible for the payer.
Where the disadvantaged party is outside the UK tax net, they can pursue a claim for relief under the relevant DTT if it provides a mechanism for such relief; where the adjustment in the United Kingdom is to reduce a deduction for an amount paid under deduction of UK tax, the compensating adjustment rules should allow the overseas party to reclaim any WHT paid on the disallowed amount, subject to time limits and other criteria.
UK taxpayers are required to self-assess their compliance with this arm's-length principle. Companies and partnerships must therefore identify and make transfer pricing adjustments when submitting their tax returns. This is the case even where the disadvantaged party would be entitled to claim a compensating adjustment equal to the transfer pricing adjustment. An important implication of this approach is the potential for interest and penalties if the adjustment made is subsequently held to be wrong.
Controlled foreign companies (CFCs)
Under the CFC regime, a UK resident company may be taxed on a proportion of the profits of certain UK-controlled, non-resident companies in which the resident company has an interest. The overall intention is to tax profits that have been artificially diverted from the United Kingdom.
Broadly, profits of a non-UK resident CFC will be taxed, using normal corporation tax rates and rules, on the persons controlling the CFC if (i) the profits pass through the CFC ‘gateway’ and (ii) are not exempt.
The ‘gateways’ are a series of tests that identify profits that are, broadly, artificially diverted from the United Kingdom. For example, where profits are attributable to UK significant people functions, those profits will be taxed in the United Kingdom unless one of four conditions are satisfied (the first of which is that obtaining a tax advantage is not the main purpose or one of the main purposes of the arrangement). A range of other tests may capture other profits.
Various exemptions exist for certain types of companies, those coming into the regime for the first time, CFCs with low profits or low margins, CFCs in excluded territories, or others with corporation tax rates similar or above UK rates.
There is a special exemption for intra-group financing profits that can result in an exemption of between 75% and 100% of the financing profits on qualifying loans.