Revenue & Customs Brief 24/09

Benchmark scale rates for day subsistence

Introduction

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has introduced an advisory system of benchmark scale rates which employers can use to make subsistence payments to employees who incur allowable business travel expenses free of tax and National Insurance contributions (NICs). The new advisory system will be implemented from 6 April 2009.

The advisory system only covers benchmark scale rates for day subsistence payments. If an employer wishes to pay subsistence to employees who have to stay overnight they can either reimburse the actual cost incurred by the employee or agree a tailored scale rate to cover meals and other expenses in a dispensation with HMRC.

This brief sets out the framework for the system.

Overview

Under the current rules an employer is required to notify HMRC of all expenses paid to an employee, even where those expenses would be allowable, unless they have a dispensation. A dispensation is an agreement between HMRC and an employer which allows the employer to pay an agreed rate for allowable expenses without the need to report the expenses to HMRC. An employer may apply for a dispensation by submitting a completed form P11DX. As part of this process, where business travel expenses are paid, the employer often agrees scale rates for travel and subsistence expenses with HMRC that broadly match the allowable expenditure incurred by its employees on business travel.

HMRC currently expects employers to conduct a sampling exercise before it will agree to a particular rate being included within a dispensation. The aim of the exercise is to identify a reasonable level of allowable expenditure that reflects the most common level of spending.

HMRC recognises that a sampling exercise can be burdensome and expensive for employers. It has therefore introduced an advisory system of benchmark scale rates for day subsistence payments that an employer can use without having to carry out a sampling exercise.

As part of this new approach, in response to concerns from some employers and professional advisers about consistency between what is agreed for different employers, HMRC also proposes to standardise the different scale rates that it will agree with employers.

Benchmark system/rules

Under the benchmark system, HMRC has set advisory scale rates for particular day subsistence expenses that it will accept for all employers. As long as the employee has incurred subsistence expenses while travelling on an allowable business journey, employers will be able to make tax and NICs free subsistence payments up to the advisory rates without agreeing them with HMRC. Employers wishing to use the benchmark scale rates for subsistence payments will simply need to notify HMRC of their intention by ticking the appropriate statement/box on form P11DX before starting to use the system. The rates that can be used will be:

Breakfast rate (irregular early starters only) - A rate of up to £5.00 may be paid where a worker leaves home earlier than usual and before 6.00 am and incurs a cost on breakfast taken away from his home. If the employee regularly leaves home before 6.00 am because, for example, he works an early shift he would not be entitled to use the breakfast benchmark scale rate.

One meal rate (Five hour rate) - A rate of up to £5.00 may be paid where the worker has been away from his home/normal place of work for a period of at least five hours and has incurred a cost on a meal.

Two meal rate (Ten hour rate) - A rate of up to £10.00 may be paid where the worker has been away from his home/normal place of work for a period of at least ten hours and has incurred a cost on a meal or meals.

Late evening meal rate (irregular late finishers only) - A rate of up to £15.00 may be paid where the employee has to work later than usual, finishes work after 8.00 pm having worked his normal day and has to buy a meal which he would usually have at home.

If the employee is paid an allowance under the five or ten hour rule, the late meal allowance could still be paid if he finishes work after 8.00 pm and buys a meal that he would usually have at home. However, if the employee regularly finishes work late because, for example, he normally works the afternoon or evening shift, he would not be entitled to use the late evening meal rate.

Particular issues and exemptions

Payments in excess of the benchmark rates
The benchmark rates are the maximum tax and NICs free amounts that could be paid by employers who choose to use this system. An employer could pay less than this rate if it wants to do so. If a higher amount is paid without agreeing a tailored scale rate with HMRC, the excess should be subject to tax and NICs.

Qualifying conditions

Benchmark scale rates must only be used where all the qualifying conditions are met. The qualifying conditions are:
• the travel must be in the performance of an employee’s duties or to a temporary place of work
• the employee should be absent from his normal place of work or home for a continuous period in excess of five hours or ten hours
• the employee should have incurred a cost on a meal (food and drink) after starting the journey

Early starter and late finisher rates
The early starter and late finisher rates are for use in exceptional circumstances only and not intended for employees with regular early or late work patterns.

Tax and NICs free scale rate payments must be limited to three meal rates in one day (or 24 hour period). A meal is defined as a combination of food and drink.

Where employees are required to start early or finish late on a regular basis, the over five hours or over ten hours rates could be paid provided all the other qualifying rules are satisfied.

Working Rule Agreements

Benchmark scale rates would not apply to employees covered by Working Rule Agreements, for which separate specific rates are already set for particular occupations.

Friends and Family Allowance

Some existing dispensations also include a tax free scale rate for staying with family and friends when employees are required to stay overnight on business. HMRC has reviewed this policy and concluded that there is no legal basis for giving tax relief because it is not linked to any specific underlying expense. Therefore, a scale rate for staying with family and friends will not be included within the advisory system or given in any new dispensations. All agreed tax and NICs free scale rates in existing dispensations covering such an allowance will be withdrawn when the dispensation comes up for review.

Questions and answers

What you have to do if you want to pay scale rates to your employees?

You should apply to HMRC for a dispensation. You need to complete a form P11DX, which is the form used by employers to apply for a dispensation, and submit it to HMRC. On the form you need to indicate with a tick against the appropriate statement under 'Travel and Subsistence' that you intend using HMRC’s benchmark scale rates to reimburse your employees’ subsistence payments. By ticking this box you would be merely notifying HMRC that you intend paying HMRC’s benchmark scale rates for day subsistence and that you have adequate management processes in place to ensure that payments are only made where all the qualifying conditions are met. If you want to apply to include other items of allowable expenditure in a dispensation for example fees and subscriptions, laundry, telephone charges, etc, you need to tick the appropriate boxes and supply the requested information on the form.

When can you pay a scale rate?

Scale rate payments may be made to employees who necessarily travel in the performance of their duties or have to travel to a temporary place of work. The statutory rules are in Section 336 to 342 of Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003. Where the employer agrees a scale rate in a dispensation, the scale rate may also be taken into account for NIC purposes.

Guidance on how the employment income travel expense rules work can be found in HMRC’s Booklet 490 Employee travel – A tax and NICs guide for employers (PDF 184K). This booklet will be updated shortly to reflect the new scale rates system available to employers from April 2009.

When must you not pay tax and NICs free scale rates?

Tax and NICs free scale rates must not be paid where the employee is not travelling on a qualifying business journey. For example, when on a journey that involves ordinary commuting (or similar to ordinary commuting), or private travel.

Additionally, no tax and NICs free payment should be made if an employee does not incur an expense on meals after leaving home or his normal place of work, even if the journey was a qualifying business journey. This means that employees who do not buy a meal or who take a packed lunch from home are not entitled to a tax and NICs free payment.

Do employers have to use the benchmark scale rates?

Employers do not have to use the benchmark rates. They can reimburse their employees’ actual expenditure or apply to HMRC to agree a scale rate appropriate for their business needs in a dispensation. However, where an employer wants to use a higher scale rate, it will have to undertake a sampling exercise to show the higher rates are in line with what its employees’ typically spend on subsistence and agree the rate with HMRC.

What records would an employer need to keep?

An employer will need to keep sufficient records to be able to demonstrate that the employee was entitled to the payment. An employer also needs to be able to demonstrate that routine checks are undertaken to ensure that the travel expenses rules are being followed.

What happens to existing dispensations?

Existing dispensations will remain in force until they come up for review in accordance with HMRC’s rolling review programme, usually on a five year cycle. When the existing dispensation comes up for review the employer can choose to switch to benchmark scale rates or apply to continue to use a tailored rate. Where a new dispensation is requested the employer will have to go through the process of undertaking a statistically valid sampling exercise.

Uprating benchmark scale rates

HMRC will review the rates annually and consider revising them when there has been a change in the scale rate of plus or minus 10 per cent based on the Consumer Price Index from when it was last revised.

How has HMRC arrived at the benchmark scale rates in question?

HMRC reviewed the scale rates agreed for a number of employers, both large and small, and based the rates on the most commonly agreed rates.

Why not have higher benchmark rates for London or other locations where prices are more expensive?
The benchmark rates are linked to what employers typically reimburse their employees and it would not be possible to break this down between different locations. Personal expenditure on subsistence varies significantly between employees even when working at the same location.

If an employer typically reimburses more than the benchmark rates then it will remain open to them to agree a higher rate with HMRC or to reimburse actual expenditure.

Issued 2 April 2009