COVID-19: Support on negotiating time to pay with HMRC

As the Tax Faculty seeks further clarification from HMRC on the support for businesses which are having difficulty paying tax bills due to COVID-19, it shares useful tips on how to negotiate with HMRC.

HMRC has published details of the specific helpline to contact, but it’s not known whether HMRC will change its usual approach to time to pay, for taxpayers who are having difficulty paying.

The Tax Faculty will publish further information as it become available; in the meantime businesses and agents may find useful the following reminders about what usually needs to be considered when negotiating time to pay with HMRC.

When to make contact: In general it is advisable to contact HMRC as soon as difficulty making payment is expected. However, HMRC’s systems do not easily facilitate setting up a payment arrangement too far in advance, so the best time to phone HMRC is usually one to two weeks in advance of the due date for payment.

Make sure returns are up to date: HMRC is more amenable to agreeing time to pay if returns are up to date and the correct liability has been established.

Cash flow forecasts and budgets: Before phoning HMRC it is advisable to have financial forecasts and a statement of assets and liabilities available. HMRC will expect the taxpayer to make the best offer they can and will not usually make suggestions about the amount it will accept as a regular payment.

HMRC staff authority to agree time to pay: HMRC will usually expect to set up a regular monthly payment plan with collection by direct debit. Most HMRC debt management contact centre staff have authority to agree time to pay over a period of up to 12 months. Longer periods can be arranged but usually need to be escalated to more senior HMRC staff. The Tax Faculty understands that debts of more than £100,000 may have to be referred internally within HMRC. Short suspensions of collection to allow the taxpayer to take a specific action which would enable them to pay are sometimes possible.

Expect robust questioning: We don’t know to what extent HMRC staff will be more sympathetic to requests for time to pay in the current environment but in normal circumstances negotiating time to pay can involve what feels like personal and intrusive questioning. It is important to make HMRC aware of all information which might be relevant to the payment difficulties, as calmly and professionally as is possible in what may well be extremely difficult circumstances.

No agreement may be better than an unaffordable agreement: It is often better to conclude a phone call to HMRC having failed to reach an agreement than to agree to an arrangement which the business can’t afford. If a time to pay agreement is not kept to it is difficult to get HMRC to reestablish it and HMRC will be more reluctant to make agreements in the future. If circumstances change it is advisable to contact HMRC, before missing any payments, to renegotiate the arrangement. If a formal time to pay arrangement cannot be reached it is usually advisable for the taxpayer to pay what they can when they can as this shows willingness to pay and may delay further enforcement action by HMRC (this approach may not be appropriate if insolvency is likely and further advice should be sought in this situation).

Future tax liabilities: A standard term of HMRC time to pay agreements is that future tax liabilities are paid in full as they fall due. Where this is not possible it is necessary to contact HMRC again to renegotiate the arrangement to include the new debt. HMRC is often reluctant to agreed repeated requests for time to pay but may be more amenable in the current situation.

Which debts to prioritise: HMRC is usually more willing to consider agreeing time to pay for profits based taxes such as income tax and corporation tax than for taxes such as VAT and employees’ PAYE and national insurance contributions, which businesses are effectively collecting on behalf of the exchequer. The usual advice is to prioritise paying VAT and employer liabilities as HMRC pursues these more actively. We don’t yet know whether this will change in the current situation; there has been some speculation that the Government may be minded to focus assistance on VAT and employer liabilities but no announcement has been made.

Late payment penalties: An advantage of a formal time to pay arrangement is that late payment penalties will not be charged if the arrangement is in place at the trigger date for the penalties. We don’t yet know whether HMRC will be more willing to waive late payment penalties in the current situation but the helpline page suggests that the cancellation of penalties will at least be explored. 

Interest: In normal circumstances HMRC does not waive interest unless the delay in making payment is somehow directly attributable to HMRC. We don’t yet know whether HMRC will be more willing to waive interest in the current situation but the helpline page suggests that the cancelling of interest will at least be explored. 

Alternative ways to contact HMRC: As well as the COVID-19 helpline HMRC has regular payment helplines. Large businesses with a customer compliance manager should contact that individual. If the debt is a result of a compliance check any anticipated difficulty with making payment should be discussed with the compliance officer, ideally before reaching final settlement.

Other sources of help and advice:

TaxAid’s Guide to Tax Debt

Business Debtline

Money Advice Service

Find an ICAEW regulated insolvency practitioner

HMRC’s debt management and banking manual

Further support from ICAEW on the coronavirus outbreak

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