Virtual Christmas party anyone?

The Association of Tax Technicians is calling for urgent guidance from HMRC to avoid people enduring an unpleasant tax hangover because their ’virtual’ Christmas parties this year. The ATT is asking for clarity on whether a ‘virtual party’ – particularly one that includes a party box – will be eligible for the usual tax exemption that applies for annual parties.

Current rules allow employers to spend up to £150 per head (including VAT) towards the costs of an annual function such as a Christmas party without creating a tax liability for their employees and themselves – provided that certain conditions are met. As a result of Covid-19, the usual work functions will not be possible this year. With employers hurriedly considering alternative ways to express seasonal greetings and boost morale, the risk is that online events and so called ‘virtual parties could create unintended tax consequences.

Jeremy Coker, President of the ATT, said: “It is a pity that HMRC are still on mute about ‘virtual’ Christmas parties.

“Employers looking to arrange some seasonal fun for their staff after all the difficulties created by the pandemic may consider live-streaming events such as quizzes, food tastings, cooking lessons or ‘live’ entertainment to share as a team – potentially with supplies of food, drink and other favours sent in advance to employees’ homes to enjoy during the event.

“There have been suggestions that a ‘virtual party’ is not really a party for tax purposes – even though so many other activities such as conferences and training have been moved online.

“We are also concerned that HMRC will seek to split out the cost of any food, drink or party favours sent to employees’ homes as a party box to accompany the online event, and treat this element as a taxable benefit because some employees could opt out of the event itself.

“We understand that HMRC are considering the matter. We would like HMRC to clearly state that they accept that a ‘virtual’ party falls within the existing rules as an evolution of the meaning of an annual function. This clarification is needed urgently because employers are thinking about what they can do for staff now. Indeed, some may already have taken decisions and booked events and supplies assuming the usual tax reliefs will apply and could get a nasty shock if they find that HMRC think differently.”

ATT TIP: make trivial gifts

In addition to the exemption for an annual function, employers can also take advantage of the trivial benefits rules to make seasonal gifts to staff such as a bottle of wine or a Christmas pudding. If HMRC do not accept that a ‘virtual party’ falls within the annual function exemption, one approach could be for employers to keep the entire costs of the event within the trivial benefits rules2 instead. Under the trivial benefits rules, employers can provide benefits costing up to £50 to an employee without tax consequences – provided that these benefits are intended as genuine gifts and not intended as a reward for their work.