“Just because a gift is provided each year, or is provided to all staff members, does not mean that the employee has a contractual entitlement to it.”

Trivial benefit traps – Contractual obligations

The trivial benefits exemption allows employers to provide employees with low cost benefits free of tax and National Insurance and any reporting obligations. For the purposes of the exemption, a benefit is trivial if the cost per head is not more than £50. Where trivial benefits are provided to an officer of a close company or a member of their family or household, an annual cap of £300 per tax year also applies.

For the exemption to be available, the benefit must not be provided in return for services provided and the employee must not be contractually entitled to receive the benefit.

Contractual entitlement

Contractual entitlement is wider than simply inclusion in the contract of employment. Consequently, the fact that the contract makes no reference to the provision of trivial benefits is not enough to satisfy the conditions for the exemption.

In the December 2019 issue of their Employer Bulletin, HMRC highlighted a number of ways in which a contractual obligation may arise, including:

  • a letter to the main contract document
  • a staff handbook
  • a redundancy agreement
  • an employer union agreement

If any of these provide for the employee to receive the trivial benefit, the exemption will not apply.

Beware of creating a ‘legitimate obligation’

Employers seeking to make use of the trivial benefits exemption should also be wary of falling into the ‘legitimate expectation’ trap; a contractual obligation may also arise is the employee has a legitimate expectation to receive the benefit.

In the December 2019 issue of Employer Bulletin, HMRC illustrate this with an example of an employer who provides employees with a cream cake each Friday. While there is no contractual obligation for the employer to provide the employees with a cream cake on a Friday, the fact that the employer does so every Friday creates a legitimate expectation, taking the provision of the cakes outside the trivial benefits exemption.

Frequency seems to be a problem here – HMRC seemingly do not apply the legitimate expectation argument where a benefit is provided annually, even if it is provided each year. HMRC’s Employment Income Manual at EIM21867, states:

“Just because a gift is provided each year, or is provided to all staff members, does not mean that the employee has a contractual entitlement to it.”

The guidance instructs HMRC officers that they “should not normally challenge modest gifts that are provided infrequently to employees, just because they are given to employees each year – for example, a Christmas or birthday gift”.

Good practice

To avoid falling into the legitimate expectation trap, vary both the nature and timing of trivial benefits provided to employees.

Partner note: ITEPA 2003, s. 323A.

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Do you visit other offices or are you seconded to a different workplace? Make sure you’re getting the tax benefits

Travel expenses and the 24-month rule

As a general rule, employees are denied a tax deduction for the cost of travel between home and work. Likewise, subject to a few limited exceptions, if the employer meets the cost of home to work travel, the employee is taxed on it.

One of the main exceptions to this rule is where an employee attends a ‘temporary workplace’. This is a workplace that the employee goes to in order to perform a task of limited duration or one that he attends for a temporary purposes, even if the attendance is on a regular basis.

Example 1

Polly is based in the Milton Keynes office. She is seconded to the Bedford office for 12 months to cover an employee’s maternity leave. At the end of the secondment, she will return to the Bedford office.

The Bedford office is a temporary workplace.

Consequently, Polly is allowed a deduction for travel from her home to the Bedford office.

Example 2

James is a health and safety officer. He is based in the Liverpool head office. Each week he visits factories in Manchester and Bury to carry out safety checks. The factories are temporary workplaces as each visit is self-contained.

Consequently, James is allowed a deduction for travel expenses incurred in visiting the factories, even if he travels there from home.

24-month rule

A workplace does not count as a temporary workplace if the employee attends it in a period of continuous work which lasts, or is expected to last more than 24 months. A ‘period of continuous work’ is one where the duties are performed at the location in question to a ‘significant extent’. HMRC regard duties being performed to a ‘significant extent’ at a particular location if an employee spends 40% or more of their working time there.

The upshot of this rule is that where the employee has spent, or is likely to spend, 40% of their working time at the location in question over a period of more than 24 months, that location will be a permanent location rather than a temporary location. Consequently, home to work travel is ‘ordinary commuting’ (travel between home and a permanent workplace), which is not deductible.

It is important to appreciate that both parts of the test must be met for the workplace to be a permanent workplace – more than 40% of time spent there and over a period of more than 24 months.

Example 3

George is employed full-time at a care home in Southampton, a role which he has held for four years. He is sent to full-timework at a new care home in Bournemouth for three years, after which time he will return to the Southampton care home.

Although the move to the Bournemouth posting is not permanent, the posting lasts more than 24 months and, as such, the Bournemouth home does not qualify as a temporary workplace. 

Consequently, George is not allowed a deduction for the cost of travelling from home to the Bournemouth care home.

Change of circumstances

Circumstances can and do change. If at the outset a posting is expected to last 24 months, the workplace will be treated as a temporary workplace. If later the posting is extended so that it will last more than 24 months, the workplace ceases to be a temporary workplace from the date that it becomes apparent the posting will exceed 24 months.

Fixed term appointments rule

An employee undertaking a fixed-term appointment is not entitled to relief for home to work travel, even where it lasts less than 24 months, if the employee attends the workplace for all, or almost all of the period which they are likely to hold the appointment.

Example

Imogen takes on a 12-month contract at an office in Marlow. Although the appointment is less than 24 months, the Marlow office is not a temporary workplace as Imogen works there for duration of the contract.

Tax exemption

If the employer pays or reimburses travel expenses which would be deductible if met by the employee, the payment or reimbursement is exempt from tax.

Partner note: ITEPA 2003, ss. 289A, 338, 339;

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