The Crown Preference is Law (Again): Spinning the Clock Back to Early-2000s?

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Dr. Eugenio Vaccari, Lecturer in Law, University of Essex

The Pari Passu Principle

In corporate insolvency procedures, not all creditors are alike. This is despite the pari passu principle.

The pari passu principle is often said to be a fundamental rule of any corporate insolvency law system. It holds that, when the proceeds generated by the sale of debtor’s assets are distributed to creditors as part of an insolvency procedure, they have to be shared rateably. In other words, each creditor is entitled to a share of these proceeds that corresponds to the percentage of debt owed by the company to its creditors.

Imagine that a company has creditors for £100,000. Creditor A has a claim for £1,000, creditor B for £5,000. The company is insolvent and it is liquidated. The sale generates £50,000 of proceeds available to be distributed to the creditors. While it would have been possible to say that, for instance, older creditors or creditors with larger claims are paid first, the pari passsu principle states that all creditors are treated alike. As a result, creditor A will receive 1% of these proceeds (£500), while creditor B will receive 5% of them (£2,500).

There are, of course, exceptions to the pari passu principle.

First, the pari passu principle applies only to assets that are available for distribution. For instance, a bank may have granted a mortgage to the debtor to buy a property, and the debtor may have given that property as a collateral to the bank. If the debtor becomes insolvent, the proceeds generated by the sale of that property are distributed first to the bank and then, if anything is left, to the other creditors.

Secondly, the law might introduce exceptions to this principle in order to prioritise the payment to creditors that are deemed particularly worthy of additional protection.

The Law

Until the Enterprise Act 2002, the Inland Revenue and HM Customs & Excise (now HMRC) were granted a status as preferential creditors for certain debts listed in Schedule 6 of the Insolvency Act 1986. As a result, debts owed to the them had to be fully paid before any distribution to floating charge holders, pension schemes and unsecured creditors (among others) was made.

This preferential status granted these agencies a stream of £60-90 million each year in insolvencies. Section 251 of the Enterprise Act 2002, however, abolished the Crown’s status as preferential creditor and introduced a new regime (the ‘prescribed part’) wherein a portion of the distributions in liquidation was ring-fenced specifically for unsecured creditors.

Back in the 2018 Budget, mixed in with many other tweaks, the Government announced a seemingly innocuous change to the way in which business insolvencies will be handled from 6 April 2020 (later postponed to insolvencies commencing on or after 1 December 2020, irrespective of the date that the tax debts were incurred or the date of the qualifying floating charge).

Without attracting much publicity, the announced move was codified in sections 98 and 99 of the Finance Act 2020, which received Royal Assent on 22nd of July 2020. As a result, HMRC gained secondary preferential treatment over non-preferential and floating charge holders – often banks that have loaned money to firms – for uncapped amounts of VAT, Pay As You Earn (‘PAYE’) income tax, student loan repayments, employee National Insurance Contributions (‘NICs’) or construction industry scheme deductions.

In a related development, Parliament also approved the Insolvency Act 1986 (Prescribed Part) (Amendment) Order 2020. The effect of this Act is to increase the prescribed part from £600,000 to £800,000. However, this change does not apply to floating charges created before 6 April 2020.

So What?

The Government argues that giving HMRC priority for collecting taxes paid by employees and customers to companies is appropriate. These represent taxes that are paid by citizens with the full expectation that they are used to fund public services. Absent any form of priority, this money actually gets distributed to creditors instead. As a result, the Exchequer should move ahead of others in the pecking order and give HMRC a better chance of reclaiming the £185m per year they lose.

These explanations do not appear totally sound. The creation of the prescribed part and the increase of its cap to £800,000 served the purpose of ensuring that at least some of this money is paid back to the HMRC and used to fund public services. What has not been properly considered is the impact the Crown preference and the increased prescribed part will have on: (i) the wider lending market and access to finance; as well as (ii) corporate rescue practices.

With reference to lending practices, the new system disproportionately affects floating charge holders and unsecured creditors. The abolition of administrative receivership – a procedure controlled by lenders – by the Enterprise Act 2002 was compensated by the loss of preferential status for the HMRC. The re-introduction of such preference means that lenders in general and floating charge holders in particular will be pushed to lend money at higher interest rates, as lenders have no idea as to the tax arrears of any borrower on a day to day basis.

Lenders now face a double blow (increased prescribed part and Crown preference) in relation to realisations from the floating charge. They are, therefore, likely to reduce the amounts that they lend to businesses, to take account of the dilution in the realisations that they would receive in insolvency. This is a particularly unwelcome outcome in the current marketplace.

Lenders are even more likely to seek fixed charge (where possible) and to introduce covenants for reviewing the debtor’s tax liabilities. Such liabilities are likely to increase significantly in the next few months, as VAT payments due by businesses between March and June 2020 have been deferred until the end of the 2020/21 tax year. Lenders may also insist that a borrower holds tax reserves to deal with liabilities to HMRC and, in large operations, on group structures which minimise the dilution from Crown preference.

Finally, unsecured creditors may choose to protect themselves by keeping their payment terms as tight as possible and limiting the number of days that credit is offered for.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, such move may hamper the willingness to support an enterprise and rescue culture, which was the main justification for the abolition of the Crown’s preference. This is because HMRC’s gain is the other creditors’ loss, especially considering that the taxes classified under the preferential claim are ‘uncapped’ (while before the enactment of the Enterprise Act 2002 they were capped to amounts due to up to 1 year before the commencement of the procedure).

Despite assurances to the contrary, the existence of a preferential treatment may push the HMRC to exercise increased control over the insolvency process and promote early petitions for liquidation in the hope of higher return.

Also, the HMRC has never historically been particularly supportive of reorganisation efforts. This means that distressed companies may have to file for a new restructuring plan under part 26A of the Companies Act 2006 and seek a court-approved cross-class cram-down to overcome the HMRC’s negative vote. Such an approach would increase cost, litigation and time needed for the reorganisation effort, thus potentially pushing viable debtors out of business.

There are other elements that militate against the re-introduction of such preferential status. HMRC currently have the ability to robustly manage their debt. HMRC have powers not available to other unsecured creditors, including the ability to take enforcement action without a court order to seize assets and to deduct amounts directly from bank accounts.

HMRC have the power to issue Personal Liability Notices to corporate officers for a failure to pay National Insurance Contributions (NICs) or future unpaid payroll taxes. HMRC also have the power to insist on upfront security deposits where there is a genuine risk of non-payment of PAYE, NICs or Value Added Tax (VAT). Similarly, HMRC may issue Accelerated Payment Notices for disputed tax debts.

One of the key features of the English corporate insolvency framework is its focus on promoting business rescue and, more in general, a rescue culture, as evidenced in previous papers[1] by the author of this post. The recent long-term changes introduced by the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 seemed to go in the direction of strengthening the rescue attitude. It makes, therefore, little sense to introduce policies designed to help businesses survive the Covid-19 pandemic and, at the same time, reduce their ability to borrow cheaply. The re-introduction of the preferential status for certain unpaid taxes spins the clock back to 2003 and is likely to hurt the existing, fragile business recovery.

The publications mentioned in this article are available on Westlaw, Researchgate.net and Academia.edu. Dr. Vaccari regularly discusses insolvency matters on Twitter and LinkedIn.


[1] E Vaccari ‘English Pre-Packaged Corporate Rescue Procedures: Is there a Case for Propping Industry Self-Regulation and Industry-Led Measures such as the Pre-Pack Pool?’ (2020) 31(3) I.C.C.L.R. 169; E Vaccari, ‘Corporate Insolvency Reforms in England: Rescuing a “Broken Bench”? A Critical Analysis of Light Touch Administrations and New Restructuring Plans’ (2020) I.C.C.L.R. (accepted for publication); E Vaccari, ‘The New ‘Alert Procedure’ in Italy: Regarder au-delà du modèle français?’ (2020) I.I.R. (accepted for publication).

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