Is HMRC winding down its winding-up activity?
Rumour has it HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) ran out of budget to pay insolvency practitioners at the halfway point in its financial year.
That's the 'word on the street' anyway, and confirmed - sort of - from discussions with four Scottish insolvency professionals this week.
HMRC has of course denied this - sort of.
A spokesman for the revenue told Business7: "HMRC do not lack funding to pay for insolvency services.
"In fact, in December HMRC released additional funding in Scotland to ensure legal action continued where it was appropriate."
So there you have it: HMRC hadn't run out of budget but thought it right to mention it was given "additional funding" in December.
But that doesn't quite explain the statistical anomaly in HMRC-led insolvency activity evident the last quarter of 2012 and in the second half of the year.
The Edinburgh Gazette is one of three official newspapers of the UK government, along with the London Gazette -covering England and Wales - and the Belfast Gazette, which covers Northern Ireland.
The Gazette's remit is to make public notices on behalf of numerous arms of the state, and includes insolvency and bankruptcy notices on behalf of HMRC.
A Gazette notice, commonly known among the insolvency professionals as 'budget and petition', gives notice HMRC has moved to wind-up or liquidate a company which has failed to pay tax, PAYE or VAT.
And this is where it gets interesting.
HMRC filed a total of 614 notices with the Edinburgh Gazette last year, a 15 per cent fall on the 2011 figure of 727.
Edinburgh Gazette has confirmed the figures on its website are correct and current and its records are updated twice a week.
But 611 of the notices filed in the Edinburgh Gazette by the revenue in 2012 were filed between January 1 and September 30.
And since September 30 last year, and up to and including the first two weeks of 2013 - the revenue has filed just three notices in the Edinburgh Gazette.
This would either suggest something is amiss over at HMRC or Scotland is now in economic recovery and corporate failures have fallen away to nothing.
Insolvency practitioners Begbies Traynor publishes quarterly Red Flag Alert statistics showing the number of firms facing court action for non-payment on a scale from worrying to critical debt levels.
In its most recent report, covering the third quarter of 2012, Begbies found there had a 21 per cent year-on year drop in the number of Scottish firms showing signs of critical financial distress.
The fall in critical distress cases in Scotland - from 327 to 257 - was in line with a drop of 22 per cent reported for the rest of the UK.
Critical distress is defined as firms subject to County Court Judgments of more than £5,000, winding-up petitions or entering into Company Voluntary Arrangements.
But it should also be noted, the third quarter figures are typically the lowest of the year due to seasonal factors, including court holidays.
That said, year-on-year - accounting for the same seasonal constraints - the figures suggest at least some improvement in the fortunes of struggling businesses.
HMRC is, according to the insolvency professionals, "the most prolific" mover for insolvency and winding-up notices in their sector.
So were the same statistical anomalies evident in Scotland in the second half of 2012, and in particular in the last three months of the year - mirrored in the revenues other jurisdictions?
The answer is... well, sort of.
The London Gazette, covering England and Wales, shows a total of 1289 notices filed by HMRC in the last three months of 2012, down 57 per cent on the 2023 reported in the same quarter in 2011.
Last year the revenue filed a total of 6995 notices in the London Gazette, largely in line with the previous year's figure of 7049.
But over on the Belfast Gazette we see figures similar to those filed in Scotland in the last quarter of 2012 - just four notices from the revenue, though what is even more surprising is the revenue filed just 17 notices in the Belfast Gazette the entire 2012 year.
And the revenue filed just seven notices in the Belfast Gazette in the last quarter in 2011 out of a total of 14 for the 2011 year.
So there you have it. Revenue insolvency activity did fall sharply in England and Wales - 57 per cent - in the last quarter of 2012 year on year and by 17 per cent on the previous quarter.
And year-on-year, London Gazette figures for the second quarter of 2012 - covering July to September - show a drop of 15 per cent, from 1,821 notices to 1,551.
A Scottish-based insolvency practitioner told Business7 this week HMRC is "the most prolific budget and petitioner for insolvency and winding up orders" in their sector.
As such, HMRC activity can also move the official insolvency figures.
So in Scotland, revenue insolvency activity dropped by a whopping 98.3 per cent in the last three months of 2012, year-on-year, and by 97.1 per cent on the previous quarter figures.
And the mystery deepens when you look at the notice figures for the first half of the 2012 year.
Between January 1 and June 30 revenue insolvency activity rose by 41.6 per cent on the previous year, from 358 notices to 507.
But in the second half activity nosedived with just 107 notices filed between July 1 and December 31 2012 - a drop of 71 per cent compared with the second half of 2011 when 369 notices were filed.
So what caused this massive drop in activity? Well, of the four insolvency practitioners Business7 spoke with this week, none of them offered "economic recovery" as being the reason.
Here are two opinions of what might be going on from two Scottish insolvency professional - both of whom, not surprisingly, wish to remain nameless.
Our first practitioner said: "HMRC is the most prolific budget and petitioner for insolvency and winding up orders.
"I had heard in the run up to Christmas the level of activity from HMRC was down because they had run out of budget.
"I believe additional budget was then allocated at the turn of the year.
"We actually had an internal meeting just before Christmas to discuss the marked drop off in HMRC activity.
"Of course, there is a public interest in addressing tax delinquency issues, so the sharp drop in activity points to either budget issues or a marked shift in policy with respect to petitions.
"But if this is a change in policy, then it is encouraging a rise in the number of so-called 'zombie' firms by allowing those firms to struggle on.
"If those companies stop paying VAT and PAYE then the position is worsened for other tax payers if HMRC fails in their duty to act to deter that."
And our second practitioner told us much the same thing - the drop off in HMRC activity was either down to budget or "a shift in policy not to move for insolvency in an effort to make the economy look better than it actually is".
A report published by accountants KPMG in early January pointed to a fall in the number of Scottish companies going bust in the last quarter of 2012, down 27 per cent on the previous year and the first drop in insolvency figures since 2008.
Scottish insolvencies totalled 237 in the last quarter of 2012 compared with 324 the previous year, and liquidations were down 30 per cent year on year to 197.
The main Scottish newspapers - The Scotsman, Herald, Press & Journal and Courier - also carry HMRC notices - and all report a sharp fall in activity from October 2012.
However, none of the four newspapers contacted were able to provide figures, citing data protection law and commercial confidentiality.
If the drop in revenue insolvency activity really was down to budget constraints, and as the revenue said itself, "HMRC released additional funding in Scotland" in December, then you'd expect to see activity returning.
At the time of filing this copy, the revenue has yet to file a notice in Scotland in the 2013 year.
Who knows, maybe the worst of the financial crisis is finally behind us.
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