Mini umbrella companies in the news for dodging tax

Mini umbrella companies (MUC) have hit the headlines again, this time over NHS test and trace workers employed by subcontractors.

An investigation by the Guardian found unusual payroll patterns among the test and trace workforce, with people on the same teams being paid through multiple small companies (mini umbrellas) that they had never heard of, rather than the Covid test centres – run by G4S – or the recruitment agency. 

BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 discovered that more than 48,000 mini umbrella companies have been created in the UK in the last five years – many of which are fronted by people from the Philippines, who have been recruited on Facebook as part of this scheme to fraudulently reduce tax.

Over the past year, inniAccounts and, along with several other voices in the industry, have raised the need for regulation of umbrella companies. This latest story further reinforces the urgent need for regulatory change to avoid contractors and temporary workers being exploited by rogue umbrellas.

What is mini umbrella fraud?

Mini umbrellas work by creating a small umbrella of two to three people under a limited company, so in principle you can take a workforce of hundreds of contractors and create lots of mini umbrellas. That’s step one. The next step is where things become a little less clear cut for the contractor or temporary employee.  

The fraud is geared around exploiting the VAT Flat Rate Scheme and the Employment Allowance. But, because of the way the schemes are structured, often with complex supply chains, the mini umbrella company can hide fraud, and claim employment allowances, reducing the NI contribution to little or nothing. Operating on a small scale means income comes under the VAT threshold. 

How to spot a fraudulent mini umbrella

HMRC has updated its guidance on mini umbrella fraud and advises the following signs to look out for:

  • Unusual company names

Multiple companies are often set up around the same time and given a similar or unusual name. The registered address may not seem suitable for their types of business activities.

  • Unrelated business activity

The business activities listed on Companies House entries will often not relate to the services provided by the workers.

  • Foreign national directors

Foreign nationals who have no previous experience in the UK labour supply industry, are often listed as directors. They can replace a temporary UK resident director after a short period of time.

  • Movement of workers

Employees may be moved frequently between different mini umbrella companies.

  • Short-lived businesses (also known as transient businesses)

These individual mini umbrella companies have a relatively short lifespan (often less than 18 months) before being allowed to be dissolved by Companies House as they do not meet filing obligations. New mini umbrella companies will then take their place in the supply chain.

We discuss the intricacies of umbrella companies in more detail in S1E03 of our Proudly Off-Payroll podcast. Listen now >>