UHY Ross Brooke Chartered Accountants

Tax Investigations Update

In this update we go back to basics and look at how HMRC chooses individuals and businesses for enquiry once it has received the finalised returns.

Tax gap by type of tax:

The current tax gap is estimated to stand at just shy of £34bn:

  • Income Tax, National Insurance Contributions and Capital Gains Tax £14.0bn
  • VAT £13.1bn
  • Corporation Tax £3.0bn
  • Excise duties £2.7bn
  • Other taxes £1.1bn

As the largest proportion of the gap is due to income tax, national insurance contributions and capital gains tax, HMRC focuses its attention on small and medium enterprises and individuals who make mistakes with their accounts or simply fail to take reasonable care in checking that their tax returns are accurate and complete.

The £14.0bn figure is broken down as follows:

  • Self Assessment £4.6bn
  • Hidden economy £4.1bn
  • Employers £3.9bn
  • Avoidance £1.4bn

These figures help explain why HMRC does not pursue big business as robustly because its calculations suggest that individuals and smaller businesses are higher risk and responsible for a greater share of tax escaping the Chancellor’s coffers. This is why Tax Investigation protection is so vital to individuals and businesses. If you have filed your tax returns on time and then receive the dreaded enquiry letter from HMRC, the protection provides peace of mind that you can afford a full defence. However, there are terms and conditions to be aware of, for example tax avoidance or criminal enquiries are not generally covered.


All enquiries begin with a formal letter from HMRC, but what triggers the issue of the letter?

HMRC conducts risk assessments of particular groups of individuals and businesses and then launches campaign activity. Voluntary disclosures are invited by HMRC from the selected group initially, but once the opportunity to come forward has passed, enquiries begin and favourable settlement terms are withdrawn.

HMRC’s current high profile Let Property Campaign is focused on landlords, but the Second Incomes Campaign directed at employees who receive untaxed income and the Credit Card Sales Campaign, centred on individuals and businesses who accept credit and debit card payments, remain open as well.

Geographical risk assessment by HMRC can often lead to taskforce activity. More than 140 taskforces have been initiated since 2011, delivering more than £404m. This includes £109m brought in during the first six months of 2015/16. The latest taskforce announced is targeted on adult club owners and adult entertainers. HMRC believes the adult entertainment industry could be worth up to £5bn and is keen to clampdown on those failing to pay the correct amount of tax.

Aside from campaign and taskforce activity. HMRC selects individuals and businesses for enquiry based on entries made on tax returns and from third party information held.


What are the common risks HMRC review in a set of accounts? Beginning with the turnover figure, HMRC will critically analyse:

– The sales figure itself. Now that HMRC receives reports from the merchant acquirers who process credit/debit card transactions, the turnover declared by businesses can be tested more thoroughly. For example if a business that trades predominantly in cash, such as a retail shop, declares a turnover of £100,000 and HMRC knows £96,000 was generated from card transactions, how credible are the annual accounts if a maximum of £4,000 in sales were paid for by cash? In that situation, the turnover declared would be considered to be a risk. Another example is the business which trades just below the VAT threshold limit year after year. HMRC would consider the turnover declared by that business to be a risk as well.

– Stock valuations. HMRC has always checked to make sure that stock is valued correctly in year end accounts. If the figure appears to be estimated year after year, rather than valued at the lower of cost or net realisable value, that is a potential risk.

– Expenditure claims. HMRC does not just attempt to see if personal use adjustments have been made, perhaps for own consumption by the pub landlord or restaurateur, but will also want to see that the business owner has understood the difference between revenue and capital expenditure. Other issues for concern usually involve the writing off of bad debts too soon and wages payments to family members.

– Balance sheet entries. Again, cash is a crucial factor. HMRC will look to see if the cash on hand figure appears to be an actual or estimated figure. A complete lack of cash on hand is usually always classed as a risk by HMRC because most businesses will need a petty cash float, even if it is just to pay for the window cleaner.

– Director’s Loan Account. If HMRC is looking at a Limited Company, the Director’s financial affairs invariably attract attention. An overdrawn Director’s Loan Account is always of concern to HMRC, as is the absence of any adjustments to reflect expenditure paid by the company on behalf of the Director.

There are a whole host of factors which feature in a business risk assessment and the list above simply gives an indication of the most common risks which trigger enquiries. The risk assessment of an individual’s self-assessment tax return is altogether different. If someone receives money as an employee or a business owner, that money is either going to be spent or saved, so HMRC will look at that individual’s lifestyle and check to see whether assets, such as a property or shares have been acquired, or if the money has been saved into a bank or building society account. HMRC look to see if the lifestyle picture stands up to scrutiny based on the details contained within the tax return and the information it receives from third parties. If HMRC has received information about an asset or an account which has not been declared, an enquiry is likely to follow.

The very final category is the random enquiry which, by its sheer nature, is impossible to predict.

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