Why IT contractors need to watch out for tax avoidance

Written by Mary Aiston on 28 January 2022 in Opinion

Many freelancers may not even be aware they are breaking the law, warns Mary Aiston of HMRC

Credit: Nick Youngson/CC BY-SA 3.0

IT contractors in a wide range of roles across the sector are being targeted by unscrupulous promoters of tax avoidance schemes.

Tax avoidance is when people bend the rules of the tax system to try to pay less than they owe. HMRC’s report, the Use of Marketed Tax Avoidance schemes in the UK, has shown that contractors are often targeted and drawn into schemes marketed by companies promising higher take home pay and less administration.

Many of these schemes do not work and there could be significant financial implications for anyone involved. Use the risk checker to check whether your current contract could involve tax avoidance.
Contractors who use tax avoidance schemes end up having to pay back the tax they should have paid in the first place – with interest and potentially a penalty. That is on top of the fees they have already paid for joining the scheme. This is because each of us is responsible under UK law for paying the correct amount of tax. This still applies if contractors have appointed someone else to deal with their tax affairs or been given bad advice – the ultimate responsibility and risk rests with the individual.
You don’t need to be a tax expert to spot an avoidance scheme. If you’re offered higher take home pay simply for rearranging how it reaches you, for example as a non-repayable loan or as a trust payment, it almost certainly is tax avoidance.
HMRC wants to help anyone involved in such schemes to leave them before they run up large tax bills like IT project manager, Duncan. 
Duncan chose an umbrella company that gave him the highest take-home pay. He was unaware that this was being achieved through a tax avoidance scheme until HMRC notified Duncan of discrepancies in his PAYE data. Duncan also discovered that the Tax Plan model sold to him by his umbrella company had left him with an unexpected tax bill.
If you are concerned that you could be in an avoidance scheme check your pay slip for the signs that you are paying the right tax. Our Spotlight 54 article strongly advise contractors to leave tax avoidance schemes as early as possible and settle their tax affairs.
Look out for any of the following signs:
A scheme that allows you to keep more of your income than you would expect, with little or no deductions for Income Tax and National Insurance contributions (NICs)  
Some, or all of the payments are said to be ’non-taxable’. These could be described as loans, annuities, bonuses, or shares. These payments are no different to normal income and you still need to pay Income Tax and NICs on them  
You may be told the schemes are safe and compliant or approved by HMRC. This is not true - HMRC never approves avoidance schemes  
Only a part of the total payments you receive are taxed as income. If you are employed, this is often close to the national minimum wage  
You are offered a choice between a standard or “enhanced” pay scheme. The enhanced version is likely to be tax avoidance  
You have been asked to sign more than one contract or agreement  
Your employment contract or agreement does not state how your income will be paid, or provide you with a breakdown of all your deductions  
You may even be offered a ‘cash bonus’ if you recommend the scheme to a friend.  
If you think you have joined such a scheme, it is crucial that you leave it as soon as you can. The earlier you leave, the sooner you can settle the tax that you owe and reduce your chances of higher tax bills.
Recognise... tax avoidance. Learn how to spot the signs, understand how it works, and know the risks.
Understand... how umbrella companies work. If you work through an ‘umbrella company’ - here's what you need to know about how they should operate. 
Check... your pay and contract arrangements. Looking at your payslip is a useful way to check for signs that you may be involved in a tax avoidance scheme.
Get help... if you think you’re already in a tax avoidance scheme and don’t know how to get out.

If you think you have spotted a tax avoidance scheme, you can report it by using the Report Tax Fraud Online form. Please make sure you enter the words ‘Contractor campaign’ in the ‘Other information’ section. You can also phone HMRC on 0800 788 887 (outside the UK +44 (0)203 080 0871). 
If you think you are in a tax avoidance scheme, contact us and we’ll help you get on the right track. We won’t be judgemental and if you can’t afford to pay everything in one go, we may be able to offer you an instalment arrangement. Email us at  exitsteam.counteravoidance@hmrc.gov.uk.  
About the author

Mary Aiston is director, counter avoidance at HM Revenue and Customs



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