Are you prepared for the UK’s new corporate criminal offence?

HandcuffsSTEP advised members earlier this year that the Criminal Finances Act 2017 received Royal Assent on 27 April 2017. The Act contains the new corporate criminal offence of ‘failure to prevent the facilitation of tax evasion’, which is anticipated to take effect in September 2017.

Even though tax evasion and facilitation of tax-related crimes are already criminal offences, it has previously been difficult to pin these offences on a corporation or partnership such as a law firm. The new legislation will create a liability on the employer for the actions of its employees and ‘associated persons’ who knowingly facilitate any tax evasion. The definition of ‘associated person’ is very wide in scope and will include employees, partners, consultants and also agents and anyone performing services for or on behalf of the company or partnership.

The Act applies to LLPs and partnerships as well as companies. It does not alter what is criminal but who should be liable for the criminal act.

There are three elements to the new offence:

1. The criminal UK or non-UK tax evasion by a taxpayer under the current law.

2. The criminal facilitation of this offence by an associated person acting on behalf of the company.

3. The company failed to prevent the associated person from committing the criminal act at stage two.

The legislation creates two new offences – a UK offence and an overseas offence. If a UK tax offence is committed then it is irrelevant if the company or associated persons are not UK-based. In accordance with the new legislation, the offence will have been committed and can be tried in the UK courts. This stance reinforces the UK’s position that any individual can be guilty of a UK tax evasion offence, regardless of their location, if they assist someone else to evade UK tax.

If non-UK tax is evaded then the company will be liable for the offence if they have a place of business in the UK, or if any of the facilitation took place in the UK.

Defence

There will be a defence available if the employer put in place reasonable prevention measures, but otherwise the offence is strict liability, and the employer may face criminal prosecution, financial penalties and reputational damage. A reasonable prevention procedure is one that ‘identifies and mitigates its tax evasion facilitation risks’ which will make prosecution more unlikely.

Advice for members

HMRC’s draft guidance dated October 2016 provides six guiding principles that companies should consider when interpreting the new legislation:

Risk assessment

Companies should assess their own risk exposure level in relation to their employees engaging in the facilitation of tax evasion in the course of business. The guidance notes that the bodies most affected by the new offence will be those in financial services, including the legal and accounting sectors. These bodies are advised to review the following additional guidance: The Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) guide for firms on preventing Financial Crime, the Law Society’s Anti Money Laundering Guidance, particularly Chapter 2 and the Joint Money Steering Group (JMLSG) guidance.

Proportionality of risk-based prevention procedures

It is anticipated that relying upon existing in house anti-money laundering procedures will not be sufficient to satisfy the defence of having prevention procedures in place. The guidance explores some of the varying common elements that would be considered to be reasonable prevention procedures.

Top level commitment

The top level management of each company should be committed to raising awareness and establishing safeguards intended to prevent the facilitation of tax evasion amongst its employees. Procedures include communication and endorsement of the new legislation within the company, as well as development and review of prevention procedures.

Due diligence

The company should mitigate any risks that it identifies by way of applying advanced due diligence procedures. The guidance notes that bespoke financial or tax related service companies will face the greatest risk, and that merely applying existing procedures will not be an adequate response to mitigating their exposure. New procedures are expected to be applied clearly in conjunction with the new legislation.

Communication (including training)

The company must ensure that its new prevention procedures are widely communicated and understood through internal and external communication with all employees. This communication may vary depending upon the size of the company, however training must be provided, and a zero tolerance policy for facilitation of tax evasion and its consequences must be properly communicated.

Monitoring and review

The company must put in place ongoing monitoring mechanisms and reviews to ensure that the system is effective, and it must make improvements where necessary. The company may choose to have reviews conducted by internal or external parties.

While HMRC’s guidance contains some useful terminology and case studies, it is recognised that further guidance is needed in this area. We understand that HMRC is working with industry bodies to support them in producing more specific guidance and STEP will keep you updated accordingly.

Emily Deane TEP is STEP Technical Counsel

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