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All dressed up with somewhere to go

Adam investigates HMRC’s rules when it comes to staff wearing unform and provides advice on what firms can do to stay on the right side of the tax law.

WHILE some think of staff uniforms as being a relatively recent ‘perk’, history indicates they reach back to the Middle Ages, at least in Britain, where some would wear a badge to denote their job or role. Messengers, for example, would wear the insignia of the noble or royal family they served – the idea being that this legitimised the document or message being carried.

Similarly, merchants wore a badge to represent the guild they belonged to. By the 18th century, servants were in liveries noting the houses they were employed by.

Clearly, the concept has moved on somewhat and while a uniform still signifies who the individual is employed by – think airline, fast food restaurant or tradesman – it’s also become a ‘tool’ with which to protect staff.

Indeed, personal protective equipment, or PPE, has risen to the fore in recent months as firms seek to protect workers not only against physical harm in the workplace or while doing their job onsite, but also against the threat of coronavirus.

Of course, uniforms and PPE carry a direct cost to the corporate purse, but with judicious planning firms can use the tax regime to bring the expense down through offsets against tax. However, as with anything that might be classified as enjoyable or with some form of benefit to an employee, HMRC has well-crafted rules which to onlookers might be considered at best opaque or worse, downright unfair.

HMRC’s view
As the law stands right now, according to Yen-pei Chen, a corporate reporting and tax manager at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, the law permits firms to claim tax deductions for uniforms and specialist clothing if they are ‘wholly and exclusively for the purposes of’ the trade or the employment.

Put more simply, garments can be claimed for if the sole purpose of the item is to permit someone to do their job – steel toe-capped boots for fitters for example. And where this applies, the costs of maintaining, repairing and replacing can also be claimed.

But, and this is a point worth noting, Chen says that ordinary clothes worn at work – ‘standard’ boots – don’t qualify for tax deductions. So, to stay on the right side of the law means working out if a garment qualifies as uniform or specialist protective clothing.

According to HMRC’s Employment Income Manual, a uniform is defined as ‘a set of clothing of a specialised nature that is recognisable as a uniform and is intended to identify its wearer as having a particular occupation.’ Examples include traditional nurse or police uniforms.

However, HMRC’s view on the subject is nuanced. Just because clothing looks similar doesn’t make it a uniform and tax deductible. ‘The key,’ says Chen, ‘is to make identical clothes qualify in such a way as to ‘readily identify the employee to an observer as working for an employer.’

Helen Thornley, a technical officer at the Association of Taxation Technicians, a professional tax body, warns that this isn’t necessarily a panacea. Her advice is for garments to carry a conspicuous badge or a printed or embroidered logo to promote the brand. She says: ‘If it’s removable, then there is a real risk that HMRC will argue that the garment is not really a uniform.’
But again, Chen says that ‘whether or not it will qualify depends on specific circumstances. Even if the person is recognised as wearing a uniform, that doesn’t mean that everything they wear qualifies as a uniform’.

HMRC’s own example of an airline uniform highlights the point. The airline requires its cabin crew to wear a blue jacket with a blue skirt, or trousers, with the airline’s name sewn into the material. The crew also has to wear a white shirt or blouse, blue socks or dark tights and black shoes. Here, the jacket, skirt and trousers are tax deductible, but everything else is not since they have scope to be used privately.

But there is another trap here – and it’s one highlighted by Thornley. Where an employee is required to purchase their uniform, they are entitled to tax relief for the costs incurred if it meets the eligibility criteria.

However, as Thornley warns, ‘before an employer asks employees to buy specific items of clothing to wear at work though, they need to consider national minimal wage (NMW) rules’.

She continues: ‘Where an employer requires an employee to wear any specific clothing – not just uniform but also more general requirements like black trousers – they should ensure that the cost of these items isn’t taking employee’s wage below the NMW.’ This is something that has caught out some major employers.

Specialist clothing
So, with the principles of uniform set out, it’s time to look at what is termed ‘specialist clothing’. And case law, according to Chen, offers a core value – ‘that to qualify as specialist clothing, a piece of clothing must have one single purpose – to allow the wearer to do his or her job’.

If the item can be used for another purpose, say to offer ‘warmth and decency’ then HMRC would not accept it as specialist clothing. And to back up its stance Chen points to another example from HMRC – an employee working in a chemical factory who wears protective overalls and boots, underneath which, they also wear shirts, trousers and underwear.

They may well leave all their clothes at work to avoid contamination, but as she points out, ‘only the protective overalls and boots can be said to be ‘wholly and exclusively’ for the purpose of the job, and therefore only they would qualify for tax deductions as specialist clothing’.

In plain English, this means items that keep a worker safe qualify, but something to keep them decent or warm doesn’t.
And it should be remembered, as Thornley reminds, ‘while the employer may provide clothing to be worn under protective clothing which won’t be allowed as a tax-free benefit, equally, the employee can’t claim a deduction for the cost of this clothing either’.

Reporting to HMRC
Of course, with any taxing regime comes a duty to report to HMRC how the employer is complying.
For Chen, there are two clear routes that can be followed.

For those that provide clothing that qualifies for tax deductions, the reporting process can be simplified by ‘applying for an exemption from HMRC to excuse the company from having to report the clothing-related costs and paying national insurance on them’.

Without this, the cost of providing and maintaining the clothing must be reported on employees’ P11D as a taxable benefit.
Thornley makes the same point. But she adds detail for situations when clothing doesn’t qualify for relief. From her standpoint, where an employer provides non-exempt items ‘there may be tax consequences which depend on whether or not the employer has loaned the employee the items or given them’.

In summary, she says if an employer gives the employee clothing they can keep, then the employer must report this on a P11D as a benefit. ‘The amount to report will be the higher of the initial cost of the clothing to the employer or the value of the clothing when it’s given. The employee will pay tax on the benefit, and the employer will pay Class 1A National Insurance.’

The situation is a little different if the employer loans items. Here she says: ‘The benefit is assessed on the higher of 20% of the market value of the clothing, or the annual rental paid for the clothing.’ Again, this would go on a P11D and Class 1A National Insurance should be paid by the employer.

The rules for the self-employed are different, however. As Chen explains: ‘If work clothes clearly don’t form part of an ‘everyday wardrobe’, the individual will have to consider if they are they ‘wholly and exclusively’ for the purposes of the business.’

Where they are, she says the cost of buying and maintaining them can be set against tax when filing a personal tax return. But it’s interesting Chen says employees can also claim where they’ve had to buy clothes for work. Here, if an item qualifies as either uniform or specialist clothing, they should tell payroll to ‘ensure their tax code has been adjusted correctly to include the tax deductions for the cost of the clothing’.

The same principle applies, says Thornley, where a worker has to clean their own uniform or specialist clothing. As she says, they ‘can claim tax relief for the reasonable cost of doing so. There are various flat rate expenses that can be claimed, details of which can be found on GOV.UK under Check if you can claim flat rate expenses for uniforms, work clothing and tools’.

Under the category of building, joiners and carpenters, workers can claim £140 a year of their tax bill while all other workers can claim £120 a year.

To conclude
The tax rules on clothing are complex but they are clear – items must be ‘wholly and exclusively’ for the purposes of the job. If in doubt, seek good advice. But done properly, the provision can become much less expensive.

Panel: Essential PPE
Businesses should carry out risk assessments to establish what PPE their staff may need. Specific HMRC guidance relating to coronavirus confirms that, where the risk assessment shows that PPE is required, it’s the employer’s responsibility to provide it and there are no tax consequences for the employee.

If PPE is required but the employee purchases it instead, the employer should reimburse the employee, with no tax consequences. If this doesn’t happen the guidance states that no tax relief is available to the employee on any unreimbursed cost of acquiring PPE. The onus falls squarely on the employer to provide and pay for any necessary PPE in line with their obligations under health and safety regulations.

Any extras the employer opts to provide over and above the essentials will create a benefit in kind, although HMRC notes the trivial benefits rules may help if the cost is under £50 per employee.

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