The tax year commences on 6 April and ends on the following 5 April in the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom has a self-assessment (SA) tax system. As part of this system, the majority of UK taxpayers settle their tax liability entirely through tax withheld at source on earnings and savings and do not need to make any further declarations. However, around a third of taxpayers need to complete a tax return, which will be issued by HMRC each year. Married couples and those in civil partnerships are independently responsible for their own affairs, and each files his or her own return.
Tax returns must be filed, and all outstanding tax paid, by 31 January following the end of the tax year. This filing deadline is brought forward to the 31 October after the end of the tax year for individuals who would like HMRC to calculate their tax due for them (although the tax is still due on 31 January). The UK SA system is moving towards being fully online, and paper returns are now only accepted in limited circumstances.
HMRC have recently issued a consultation document on the simplification of the personal tax system, with ideas such as online tax accounts and pre-filled returns.
Payment of tax
Income tax is normally withheld at source from salaries under the pay-as-you-earn (PAYE) system. Income from most other UK sources is received after basic rate tax has been deducted. Under the self-assessment regime, any tax not collected through withholding is paid by payments on account and the final balancing payment due on 31 January after the end of the tax year.
Individuals who do not pay at least 80% of their tax liability at source are required to make tax payments on account for the year, based on the level of income in the previous tax year. Payments on account are due in two instalments, on 31 January during the tax year and on 31 July following the tax year. Any outstanding tax due is payable by the filing deadline of 31 January after the end of the tax year.
Employers are required to notify HMRC of total pay, benefits, and expenses paid or reimbursed, and the employee then makes a claim for allowable business expenses.
Automatic penalties are charged where returns are filed late, and interest is chargeable where tax is paid late. There is a penalty regime specifically intended to reduce the UK tax lost through offshore transactions and structures. The highest penalty is up to 200% of the undeclared tax.
Tax audit process
HMRC is able to enquire into an individual's tax return and anything (including any claim or election) contained in it. The Inspector must give notice that shows intention to enquire into a tax return within 12 months of the return being filed (as long as the return has not been filed late). If the return has been delivered to HMRC after the filing date, an enquiry must be made by the ‘quarter day’ next following the first anniversary of the delivery date. 'Quarter days' are 31 January, 30 April, 31 July, and 31 October.
Where HMRC considers tax to have been lost by a taxpayer's fraudulent or negligent conduct, it will seek to recover that tax and, in such cases, the normal time limits for enquiries are extended (see Statute of limitations below for more information on normal time limits).
Statute of limitations
The normal time limit for making assessments is four years following the end of the tax year. This is termed a 'discovery' assessment. The time limit for making an assessment on a person in a case involving a loss of income tax brought about 'carelessly' by that person is six years following the end of the tax year. The time limit for making an assessment on a person in a case involving a loss of income tax brought about deliberately by that person is 20 years following the end of the tax year.
Topics of focus by the UK tax authorities
The UK tax authorities have a 'spotlight' system that highlights the characteristics of tax planning that they ask taxpayers to be wary of and warn that they are likely to look into if implemented. Some of the characteristics include:
- artificial or contrived arrangements are involved
- it seems very complex given what you want to do
- there are guaranteed returns with apparently no risk
- there are secrecy or confidentiality agreements
- taxation of income is delayed or tax deductions accelerated
- offshore companies or trusts are involved for no sound commercial reason
- a tax haven or banking secrecy country is involved without any sound commercial reason
- tax exempt entities, such as pension funds, are involved inappropriately
- it involves money going in a circle back to where it started, and
- the scheme promoter lends the funding needed.
In addition, the tax authorities have identified specific tax planning schemes that are likely to be challenged.
The United Kingdom has a large number of targeted anti-avoidance rules, such as those dealing with 'disguised remuneration', 'personal service companies', and 'enveloped dwellings'. It has also introduced a general anti-abuse rule (GAAR).
General anti-abuse rule (GAAR)
The government published legislation in respect to the GAAR in the 2013 Finance Act.
It applies to income tax, corporation tax, CGT, petroleum revenue tax, IHT, SDLT, and ATED, but not VAT. The GAAR applies to arrangements entered into on or after 17 July 2013. The GAAR will also be extended to cover NIC; however, separate legislation will be needed, and we don't yet know the start date for this.
The government has stressed that the GAAR is only intended to apply to abusive tax avoidance arrangements. The indicators of abuse do not specifically include arrangements that contain non-arm's-length terms (as this was considered impractical for many bona fide transactions that were not centred around avoiding tax). However, the legislation is broadly drafted and includes the subjective ‘double reasonableness test’, under which arrangements are regarded as abusive if carrying them out “cannot reasonably be regarded as a reasonable course of action in relation to the relevant tax provisions".
Another addition is an indicator that arrangements might not be regarded as abusive if they accord with established practice at the time they were entered into; HMRC is aware of that practice and has not challenged it. It isn't immediately clear how taxpayers will demonstrate this in practice, but this will develop.
Personal tax offshore anti-avoidance legislation
There have been relatively recent changes to personal tax offshore anti-avoidance legislation. These changes affect individuals who have interests in companies or other offshore entities or structures that have activities outside the United Kingdom.
The changes are a response to objections from the European Commission that the current rules are ‘disproportionate’ and therefore incompatible with single market principles.
Accelerated tax payment
There is legislation to extend accelerated payment of tax to users of arrangements disclosed under the Disclosure of Tax Avoidance Schemes (DOTAS) rules, and to taxpayers involved in planning held to contravene the GAAR, so that the tax amount in dispute is held by HMRC until the dispute is resolved. Legislation also requires taxpayers who have used arrangements that are defeated in another party's litigation to pay the disputed amount to HMRC on demand.