Government tackles late payment to small firms

The Government has announced an overhaul of the Prompt Payment Code (PPC).

Under the new reforms, companies that have signed up to the PPC will be obliged to pay small businesses within 30 days – half the time outlined in the current Code.

Despite almost 3,000 companies signing the Code, poor payment practices are still rife, with many payments delayed well beyond the current 60-day target required for 95% of invoices. Currently, £23.4 billion worth of late invoices are owed to firms across Britain, impacting on businesses’ cash flow and ultimate survival.

To help tackle the problem, business owners, Finance Directors or CEOs will be required to take personal responsibility by signing the Code, acknowledging that suppliers can charge interest on late invoices under the Code and that breaches will be investigated. Those signed up to the Code will redouble their efforts to ensure payments are made on time and breaches will continue to be publicised by the Government in order to encourage compliance.

The move comes as the Government seeks to strengthen the powers of the Small Business Commissioner (SBC) to ensure larger companies pay their smaller partners on time. New powers proposed in a recently closed consultation include legally binding payment orders, launching investigations and levying fines.

If these new regulations are observed they will make “financial bullying” by larger firms less prevalent and help to improve the cashflow prospects of smaller suppliers as they grapple with COVID disruption and EU exit changes.

Rights to regenerate

We will soon have the rights to turn derelict buildings into homes and community assets. In a recent press release the Ministry of Housing said:

The public will be able to convert vacant plots of land and derelict buildings into new homes or community spaces, under plans announced 16 January 2021 by the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick MP.

The ‘Right to Regenerate’ proposals would make it easier to challenge councils and other public organisations to release land for redevelopment – helping communities make better use of public land and give a new lease of life to unloved buildings.

Underused public land could be sold to individuals or communities by default, unless there is a compelling reason the owner should hold onto it.

Under the proposals, public bodies would need to have clear plans for land in the near future, even if only a temporary use before later development – if the land is kept for too long without being used, they would be required to sell it.

These measures provide an opportunity for the public and local communities to redevelop and transform eyesores, taking control of unused local land or buildings and transforming them into something they want in their area.

This builds on the Government’s drive to encourage development on brownfield land and more beautiful buildings that are in line with local preferences.

The strengthened rights would also apply to unused publicly owned social housing and garages providing opportunities to transform the local housing stock.

Latest figures show there were over 25,000 vacant council owned homes and according to recent FOI data over 100,000 empty council-owned garages last year. The new process will be fast and simple, and the Secretary of State will act as an arbiter to ensure fairness and speedy outcomes in all cases.

CJRS guidance on who can be furloughed

HMRC’s guidance on which employees can be placed on furlough using the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been updated. The scheme will continue until at least 30 April 2021. 

The updated guidance includes new information about employees who are unable to work because they have caring responsibilities resulting from coronavirus (COVID-19). This guidance confirms that employers may furlough employees with caring responsibilities arising from COVID-19 who are unable to work or are working reduced hours.

The guidance for employers' states that your employee is eligible for the grant and can be furloughed, if they are unable to work, including from home or working reduced hours because they:

  • are clinically extremely vulnerable, or at the highest risk of severe illness from coronavirus and following public health guidance
  • have caring responsibilities resulting from coronavirus (COVID-19), such as caring for children who are at home as a result of school and childcare facilities closing, or caring for a vulnerable individual in their household

This guidance covers those who are unable to work due to childcare responsibilities following the closure of most schools across the UK. Whilst this guidance provides some useful clarification it should be noted that employers are still not compelled to furlough those that qualify.

Employees who are being furloughed for the above reasons can be fully or flexibly furloughed. If they are flexibly furloughed, they are not allowed to work any hours that are recorded as being on furlough. Please do not hesitate to call if you need any assistance with any of your furlough-related obligations.

Testing for international arrivals

Passengers arriving from all international destinations will be required to present a negative COVID-19 test result before departing for England to help protect against new strains of coronavirus circulating internationally.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced that inbound passengers arriving by boat, plane or train will have to take a test up to 72 hours before departing the country they are in, to help protect against the new strains of coronavirus such as those seen in Denmark and South Africa.

This action is in response to the changes seen in the transmission of the virus both domestically and across the globe. Pre-departure testing will protect travel and will provide an additional layer of safety from imported cases of coronavirus on top of the mandatory 10 day self-isolation for arrivals, helping identify people who may currently be infectious and preventing them from travelling to England.

A negative pre-departure test reduces the risk of someone travelling whilst infectious, acting as another safeguard to prevent imported infections. Passengers arriving from countries not on the government’s travel corridor list must self-isolate for 10 days regardless of their pre-departure test result to provide further robust protection from those travelling from high-risk countries.

Prior to departure passengers will need to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test result to carriers, as well as their passenger locator form. The UK Border Force will conduct spot checks on arrival into England to ensure that passengers are fully compliant.

The move further bolsters existing protective measures which helped to safely enable international travel last year, with self-isolation for new arrivals and travel corridors remaining critical in reducing the risk of imported cases from high-risk countries.

Apply for the new Global Health Insurance Card

UK residents can now apply for the new UK Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC).

Under Britain’s new agreement with the EU, UK residents’ rights to emergency and medically necessary healthcare will continue when travelling in the EU. This includes medically necessary treatment for a pre-existing or chronic condition.

Current European Health Insurance Cards (EHIC) are valid as long as they are in date and people can continue to use these when travelling to the EU.

The public only need to apply for their new GHIC when their current EHIC expires. Both cards will offer equivalent protection for emergency and medically necessary healthcare needs when in the EU on a temporary stay, which includes holiday, study and business travel.

The new GHIC card is free to obtain from the official GHIC website. People should apply at least 2 weeks before they plan to travel to ensure their card arrives on time.

The GHIC covers medically necessary state-provided healthcare at a reduced cost or, in many cases, free of charge, until your planned return home.

A temporary stay is a period during which you are staying in a place other than the one where you usually live, and you do not move your ‘centre of interest’ there. For example, this can include holiday, study and business travel.

Necessary healthcare means healthcare that becomes medically necessary during your stay and for which you cannot reasonably wait until you’re back in the UK to get. This includes medically necessary treatment for a pre-existing or chronic condition. Some treatments will need to be pre-arranged with the relevant healthcare provider in the country you’re visiting, for example kidney dialysis or chemotherapy.

Necessary healthcare does not include healthcare that you travel specifically to receive, although individuals who want to seek planned treatment in a member state may be covered under the broader healthcare arrangements with the EU.

Repaying furlough grants if overclaimed

Any business that has overclaimed a Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) grant must pay back the overpayment to HMRC. The rules outlined below for paying HMRC back an overclaim also applies to businesses that would like to make a voluntary repayment because they do not want or need the CJRS grant. The CJRS is currently due to continue until 30 April 2021.

Any overpayments can be corrected in your next claim. If you confirm that your business has been overpaid, the new claim amount will be reduced to reflect this overpayment. You will need to keep a record of this adjustment for six years.

Alternatively, if you are not making another claim under the CJRS then you can request a payment reference number and pay HMRC back within 30 days. This request needs to be made online.

HMRC’s guidance states that if you have overclaimed a grant and have not repaid it, you must notify HMRC by the latest of either:

  • 90 days after the date you received the grant you were not entitled to
  • 90 days after the date you received the grant that you were no longer entitled to keep because your circumstances changed

Late notifications of overclaimed grants could see the imposition of penalties. Any claims based on inaccurate information can be recovered by HMRC. However, HMRC has stated that they will not be actively looking for innocent errors in their compliance approach.

Having to repay HMRC is unlikely to be a cost that employers will have thought about, so it is important to ensure that all claims made for furloughed employees are accurate. Employers are required to keep full records relating to any CJRS claims (including adjustments) for a period of six years. 

Income Tax charge to recover CJRS overclaims

Employers should notify HMRC if they have received a CJRS payment to which they are not entitled and pay back any amounts of CJRS grants claimed in error. By paying back any amounts they were not entitled to, employers can avoid any tax liability for overclaimed CJRS grants. Failure to do so within the stated notification period will be treated as deliberate and concealed conduct. This can result in penalties of up to 100% of the CJRS grant that the employer was not entitled to.

HMRC also has the power to recover the full amount of an overclaimed CJRS grant by imposing an Income Tax charge equal to 100% of the payment to which the employer was not entitled using a tax assessment. The Income Tax charge also applies to companies. This action will only be taken for amounts that have not been repaid to HMRC.

The assessment can include:

  • any amounts not used to pay furloughed employees’ wages
  • related costs within a reasonable period

Employers must pay the amount due within 30 days of the assessment. HMRC can charge interest on any late payments and may also charge late payment penalties if the amount is still not paid 31 days after the due date.

If a company is insolvent and HMRC cannot recover the tax it owes, company officers can become personally liable to pay the tax charged on their companies’ overclaimed CJRS grants.

Lock-down 3 – business considerations

It’s official. We are in lock-down 3 in England, Scotland following suit and the other regions expected to enforce similar restrictions.
It is evident that any freeing impact of the vaccine roll-outs will not have sufficient impact before February at the earliest, and more likely, later in the year.

What now for businesses directly affected by these measures, predominantly the hospitality and entertainment trades? 

Lock-down would probably be better described as locked-out for these business sectors. Businesses that depend on social mobility are basically cut-off from their customers by COVID restrictions and there are no obvious ways for a pub or hotel to entertain its customers online.

There are still local authority support grants that may cover certain fixed costs and furlough has been extended to the end of April 2021. But this state sanctioned support will not cover all costs and affected businesses face the prospect of funding losses for yet another extended period. Many may decide that enough is enough and call it a day.

Planning is vital. Choose your next course of action, don’t get pushed into making decisions.

Clearly, economic activity will be depressed by this further period of lock-down and this may have adverse effects across many business sectors in addition to those mentioned above. All businesses would benefit from a planning review and in particular, clarifying your challenges, the effects on your finances and the choices you therefore face.

We can help. Please call if you would like to discuss your options.

Time to revisit solvency

If you have managed to retain profits in your business this fat-on-the-bone will help to see you through loss making periods as we endeavour to emerge from COVID disruption, hopefully, later this year.

How long these reserves may last depends on how effectively you manage the process.

If you are impacted by COVID disruption, you will need to ensure that you avail yourself of any Government funded grants via your local authority and wage costs can be 80% covered by the extended furlough scheme. But these will not cover all your fixed costs.

Accordingly, planning is absolutely vital.

You need to figure what your short-term prospects for trading are likely to be and then quantify the minimum level of costs that you will need to carry in order to meet:

  • Existing fixed commitments, rent for example, and
  • Other variable costs to deliver any future trade.

If these calculations reveal that you will be trading at a loss for an extended period the only way your business can survive is if:

  • Your retained profits and personal capital introduced cover these losses, and or
  • If reserves are exhausted, are you prepared to borrow funds – Government bounce-back loans for example – to fund the excess losses?

If you need help with the number crunching please call.  

£4.6 billion lockdown grants announced

Following a rapid rise in COVID infections, from today 5th January 2021, England has been placed into a new lockdown. Following this the Chancellor has announced £4.6 billion of new lockdown grants to help support businesses forced to close. The lockdown in England is expected to last until March with a review not due to take place until the February half-term. There are also similar lockdowns across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The new financial support announced sees the introduction of a new one-off top-up grant for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses worth up to £9,000 per property. The intention is to help businesses keep afloat until the Spring. This means that some 600,000 business premises across all nations of the UK will receive the one-off cash payment.

The amount businesses in England will be able to claim from their Local Authority for one-off top-ups depends on their rateable value: 

  • Small businesses with a rateable value of or below £15,000 will be able to claim £4,000. 
  • Medium-sized businesses with a rateable value between £15,000 and £51,000 will be able to claim £6,000. 
  • Larger businesses with a rateable value over £51,000 will be able to claim £9,000.

The Chancellor also announced that another £594million will be added to a discretionary fund to help support other firms affected. The money will be allocated to Local Authorities and the Devolved Administrations to support other businesses not eligible for the grants outlined above.

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak said: 

'The new strain of the virus presents us all with a huge challenge – and whilst the vaccine is being rolled out, we have needed to tighten restrictions further. Throughout the pandemic we’ve taken swift action to protect lives and livelihoods and today we’re announcing a further cash injection to support businesses and jobs until the Spring.

This will help businesses to get through the months ahead – and crucially it will help sustain jobs, so workers can be ready to return when they are able to reopen.'

The previously announced grants package for businesses is still available and the above measures are in addition to this.