Policy paper

HMRC issue briefing: taxing the profits of companies that are not resident in the UK

Published 1 March 2016

The amount of Corporation Tax that some multinationals pay is the subject of intense public and political debate.

This briefing explains when a foreign company operating in the UK must pay UK Corporation Tax, and what we are doing to make sure those complex rules are applied fairly and consistently.

1. Introduction

The general rule is that a company which is not resident in the UK has to pay UK Corporation Tax only if:

  • it has a permanent establishment in the UK
  • the economic activity that generates its profits is carried out in the UK

2. What is a permanent establishment?

A permanent establishment is where a company has a presence in a country through which trade is carried out. There are two types of permanent establishment:

  • a fixed place of business
  • a dependent agent

A fixed place of business is generally a building or a site which the non-resident’s personnel have at their disposal and use to carry out the non-resident’s business. An office, a factory or a shop, for example, can all be a fixed place of business.

A dependent agent is a person who is not independent of the non-resident company and regularly does business for the company, usually by concluding contracts on its behalf.

3. What determines the location of economic activity?

Many different elements contribute to a multinational’s economic activity, including sales, employees, technology, physical assets and intellectual property. The tax authorities need to work out which of these are developed or take place in a particular country and how much profit is attributable to them.

Simply having customers in the UK does not mean that a company is carrying out its economic activity here. This is because having UK customers is not the same as having a permanent establishment in the UK. There is a difference between a non-resident company that is trading from abroad with customers in the UK, and one that is actually trading in the UK.

4. Websites and group companies

Having a UK website does not mean that a non-resident company has either a fixed place of business in the UK or a dependent agent in the UK. All of the trading activity could be taking place outside the UK.

Most multinational businesses are not single companies, but a group of companies, only some of which will be operating in the UK.

For example, sometimes a company from outside the UK sells to UK customers via the internet. Another group company in the UK provides warehousing, distribution or other services and support to the selling company. Where this takes place, the UK service company will be taxed only on the profits of its own business, ie the services it provides to the selling company.

This is not tax avoidance: it is simply the way that Corporation Tax works, ie it applies to individual companies.

5. UK companies operating overseas

Most major economies operate Corporation Tax in the same way as the UK, so UK resident companies are treated in a similar way in other countries. In other words, UK companies do not pay Corporation Tax to another country on the profits from sales in that country, unless they trade through a permanent establishment there. Instead, they pay Corporation Tax on those profits in the UK.

So a UK resident company that is selling its goods overseas via its website will pay Corporation Tax in the UK, and not in the countries where its customers are physically located.

6. What is happening now?

The concept of a ‘permanent establishment’ and how multinationals are taxed in different countries is not new. As far back as the 1920s, the League of Nations created draft tax treaties to prevent companies from being taxed twice on the same income in different countries. These rules are now part of modern tax treaties, which follow a model developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

What has changed is the way in which businesses operate, not least because of their ability to sell online in many different countries. This has raised questions about whether the tax rules for permanent establishments need to be updated to address these fundamental changes.

The UK has led the way in initiating and implementing the OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, which was set up to review and improve the function of international tax rules. The question of what constitutes a permanent establishment was one strand of this work and proposals to amend the international rules were announced in October 2015.

92 countries are working together on an instrument designed to implement the revised definition by amending existing tax treaties.

Further OECD/G20 work on the guidance on the principles for attributing profits to permanent establishments is also in progress.

7. Getting the right tax result for the UK

This is a complex area of taxation, in terms of whether a non-resident company is trading through a permanent establishment, whether any additional taxable profit is attributable to it and if so, how much. Where HMRC believes that the definition may be met and there may be additional UK tax due, we will thoroughly examine the details and all relevant factors to ensure the multinational group pays the tax due under the law.

7.1 To find out more

Guidance on Corporation Tax