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HMRC raids on premises continue to increase

UK tax authority HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is continuing to increase the number of raids on premises it carries out as part of criminal investigations. It searched 761 properties in 2015, a rise of 28% from the year before.28 Sep 2016

That is 53% more than five years ago when HMRC conducted 499 property searches, said tax expert Paul Noble of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.

The figures are based on HMRC's response to a Freedom of Information request from Pinsent Masons.

The continued rise comes as HMRC is under pressure to increase the number of successful prosecutions for tax evasion and has been granted extra resources to enable it to pursue more cases, said Noble.

"HMRC is increasingly pushing to treat what would previously have been seen as aggressive tax avoidance as tax evasion, in its bid to crack down on those it sees as not paying their fair share of tax," he said.

HMRC has the power to raid premises to seize evidence to help it secure prosecutions for tax evasion if it is granted a search warrant by a judge or magistrate. Individuals at the property can also be searched and personal documents, emails and other electronic files taken.

"Criminal prosecutions for tax evasion can be notoriously difficult to bring to court, so raiding property is a vital way for HMRC to get hold of the crucial evidence it needs," Noble said.

"Tax evasion investigations can be complex and time-consuming to uncover what are often well-hidden tracks. Often the only way to do this is by getting access to personal documents, files or correspondence through searches of a suspect’s homes or business premises," he said.

"HMRC is taking greater advantage of these powers as a shock and awe tactic. By raiding premises, it not only hopes to be able to seize the proof it needs to build its case, it’s also a clear show of strength and intent which should act as a deterrent to others. As the distinction between aggressive tax avoidance and tax evasion becomes increasingly blurred in HMRC’s eyes, it’s likely to rely increasingly heavily on evidence gathered from premises searches," Noble said.

A forthcoming new corporate offence will hold companies criminally responsible if they fail to prevent their staff, contractors or other agents from facilitating tax evasion. This could also lead to more raids being carried out, said Noble, while a new multi-jurisdictional agreement on the exchange of tax information between more than 50 countries is likely to allow HMRC to gather even more information on taxpayers it suspects of wrongdoing, and to use it to apply for more search warrants.

"The new corporate offence will add another dimension. Companies will be a target in themselves in terms of what they knew about suspected criminal activity by those working for them and what they did or didn’t do to prevent it. This could require investigators to trawl through masses of documents, which they will need to time to identify and ring-fence before they can sift through the evidence," said Noble.

"For businesses and individuals this is likely to be a very intrusive and disruptive process, but one which HMRC appears to see as increasingly necessary," he said.