Belfast Telegraph

The taxman gets tough over firms' unpaid bills

By Margaret Canning

The taxman is taking a harder line against Northern Ireland firms who have failed to pay their tax bills, it has emerged.

The number of winding-up orders obtained by HMRC in the province has gone up by 55%, from 69 in 2008/09 to 107 in the last tax year.

Scottish law firm McGrigors, which has an office in Belfast, obtained the figures from HMRC through an application under the Freedom of Information Act.

Its research found the use of winding-up petitions by HMRC had risen in Scotland, with the number of successful winding-up petitions growing from 219 to 384 in the last three years.

But McGrigors said the incidence of use of similar legal powers in England and Wales had fallen during the same period, with petitions plummeting from 2972 to 1901 in the same time.

Pamela Muir, a Glasgow-based director at McGrigors' insolvency and restructuring practice, said the figures showed a clear "hardening in attitudes" at HMRC.

"During the downturn there was a high level of support for business, but the taxman seems to be running out of patience with those who are unable or unwilling to settle their unpaid tax bills.

"Where HMRC can see you have a robust business plan and a strong order book there is still some leniency. In the absence of either, the chances of being granted a reprieve under the 'time to pay regime' are increasingly slim."

Ms Muir said businesses previously received time to trade their way out of trouble, "but they are now hearing the sound of chickens coming home to roost".

"The message from HMRC is clear - if you have been given time to settle your tax affairs but have been unable or unwilling to do so, there will be no second chances."

In other cases, petitions were being used to bring companies to the negotiating rather than in a bid to put them out of business.

A spokeswoman for HMRC said: "HMRC only initiates winding up or bankruptcy action where it believes this is the best course of action to protect the interests of the Exchequer in respect of a particular debt.

"We do not take such action lightly. HMRC operates the same criteria throughout the UK when considering winding up action."