A storm is brewing over the tax-free utopia currently inhabited by 100,000
business motorists who are part of employee car ownership schemes.
For years, the schemes have offered the low cost equivalent of company cars
to drivers, but without the burden of company car tax, thanks to skillful legal
interpretation of tax law.
The idea is simple: ownership of the vehicle passes to the driver when they
receive a car, so it can’t be classed as a benefit for tax purposes.
The employee saves hundreds of pounds a year in company car tax and the
employer saves on National Insurance contributions.
In addition to drivers cutting their tax bill by moving to a company car, ECO
schemes use approved mileage allowance payments to reimburse drivers for their
These rates allow employers to reimburse drivers covering business mileage in a
private car at a set pence-per-mile rate, which can be paid free of tax and
National Insurance. So rather than an employer paying a driver a cash lump sum
of £4,500,which would lose about one-third of its value in taxes, AMAPs are much
Currently, employers can pay 40 pence per mile for the first 10,000 miles and
25p for any additional mileage, so a driver covering 15,000 business miles a
year could claim £5,250 tax free, equivalent to a lump sum of more than £6,700
to a 22% taxpayer.
But there are concerns over how long this will last. In this year’s Budget,
Gordon Brown announced that the Treasury was planning a review of its tax
position on ECO schemes.
HM Revenue & Customs recently asked fleets to help it develop its future tax
policy towards the schemes, showing it was open to negotiation, but the move has
set alarm bells ringing in the industry.
In a statement released by HMRC, it said the review would look at how the
schemes work, including financial arrangements, what factors have contributed to
the expansion of such schemes and what impact they have on CO2 emissions and
local air quality when compared to company cars.
Industry opinion is divided on the environmental impact of ECO schemes, as
they sidestep one of the most effective environmental taxes introduced by the
government – carbon dioxide-based company car tax.
At its most basic level, the tax operates by ensuring drivers who pollute
more, in terms of
CO2, pay more tax. Moving to an ECO scheme and removing that particular tax
burden allows drivers to choose a less fuel-efficient car without penalty,
although fuel taxation and vehicle excise duty have an impact.
In addition, the government is losing hundreds of millions of pounds in tax
revenue as drivers fall out of the company car tax system. Experts point out
that the short fall may still be made up in other areas, such as through tax on
cash allowances, but it is a difficult tax trail to follow.
Health and safety
Then there is the growing debate about health and safety and the vital
importance of companies taking ownership of vehicle and driver safety. In recent
years, companies have been warned that they must take responsibility for
employees driving on business, even if they are in a private vehicle.
Core responsibilities include ensuring the employee is in a vehicle that is
fit for purpose, that they have been trained in use of work equipment and, as
far as it is possible to check, that they are properly licensed and insured.
Recent research warned that at least one in 100 company car drivers is
driving illegally without a valid licence, which emphasises how difficult it is
to monitor drivers in company owned vehicles.
There are also concerns that there will be a reduction in AMAP rates, which
will drastically affect ECO schemes. However, the rates are intended to reflect
the cost of fuel and also cover depreciation, insurance costs and maintenance,
so they are not overly generous compared to average vehicle running costs.
ECO specialists, such as Whitechapel and Provecta Car Plan, argue that
companies in properly run schemes have nothing to worry about. A good scheme
should deal with risk management issues, by providing services such as automatic
insurance, offer simple licence checking schemes and paid-for servicing within
the four monthly vehicle finance payments. But this hasn’t stopped a high
profile claim that the company car will make a major comeback in the next few
years as ‘duty of care’ concerns and government measures increase its
In a major report by professional advisers Deloitte, entitled Goodbye
Company Car?, Alison Chapman, head of automotive tax at Deloitte, says: ‘In
the future, the company car will not be confined to the scrapyard. The
government has made it clear that it wants the company car to remain a key part
of the corporate landscape.’
The report interviews some of the most high-profile figures in the fleet
market to reach its conclusions, with experts predicting a swing back into
company cars this year.
They admit that opt-out schemes have a role to play in the workplace, but argue
that, for many, the company car offers a guarantee that at-work drivers have
properly maintained and insured vehicles.
Writing in Goodbye Company Car?, Professor Peter Cooke agreed that the
government would act to protect its tax revenues. ‘I think the government may
look at both the rise of cash-for-car alternatives and ECO schemes and try and
find ways to push employees back into company cars, ’he said.
However, Chapman warned that there was no one-size-fits-all solution to fleet
‘Flexibility in the provision of corporate transport solutions has become
crucial to companies and their employees, but both parties have frequently
failed to analyse in detail the full implications of opting out or staying loyal
to the company car. ‘This issue is far from a straightforward decision.
Too many companies have tried to treat the choice as an either-or option and,
as a consequence, have paid the price in terms of rocketing costs,
administration overload and disgruntled employees,’ she said.
And there are early warning signs that the government is cracking down on ECO
schemes. HMRC is becoming more demanding about which ECO schemes meet its rules
and which do not, with companies now expected to provide monthly accounts
proving that their tax-free AMAP payments to drivers match the mileage they have
Those not meeting the standard could become liable for a large, back-dated
tax bill. ECO provider Masterlease says the tightening of reporting schemes
shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. Gordon Calder-Jones, head of Alto, Masterlease’s
own ECO scheme, says:
‘Some of our ECO customers have already received letters from HMRC asking for
monthly reconciliation with some challenging deadlines. Accounting for tax and
National Insurance contributions each month presents an administrative burden
and the sheer task of getting driver mileage in each month could far outweigh
any cost saving benefit from the scheme. So, we have spent a considerable amount
of time developing our own solution to enable us to handle the process for our
customers and any other ECO fleet.’
These challenges add to the administrative costs of running ECO schemes,
which chip away at the savings companies can expect. This is in addition to the
extra administration involved in explaining to drivers how the scheme works and
dealing with their queries.
HMRC is now considering the results of its consultation, carried out in June,
and the outcome of its deliberations will be eagerly awaited by fleets and
suppliers alike, especially those already involved in the ECO market.
Alastair Kendrick, tax partner at Wilder Coe, says: ‘I have not heard
anything to suggest that there is any intention to close down ECO schemes, but
going forward there may be some restrictions on some of the tax planning around
‘I hope that coming out of the consultation is clear guidance on what can and
cannot be done, with clear instructions to inspectors in local districts. I also
hope that some of the issues faced by employers due to Revenue red tape can be
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