Everything you need to know about non-compliant umbrella companies

Everything you need to know about non-compliant umbrella companies

Embarking on a contracting career in the United Kingdom requires a keen understanding of umbrella companies’ pivotal role in this sector. They act as indispensable intermediaries between contractors and clients, significantly easing the administrative workload for contractors and ensuring that they are paid on time and in accordance with UK tax law. However, among the vast array of umbrella companies, some stray from the path of compliance, posing substantial risks to contractors. 

This guide aims to unravel the complexities surrounding non-compliant umbrella companies, offering insight into their operations, implications, and the broader impact on the contracting industry. With a rising tide of non-compliance, contractors need to grasp this issue fully to protect their interests and maintain the professionalism of their engagements.

Understanding the basics about umbrella companies

Explanation of umbrella companies and their role in the UK contracting industry

Umbrella companies serve a critical function within the UK contracting industry by taking on the administrative tasks of contractors and processing their payroll in accordance with Pay As You Earn (PAYE) – HMRC’s tax system. This includes managing tax calculations, deductions, and submissions to the HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), thus liberating contractors from cumbersome administrative and tax obligations. Doing so enables contractors to concentrate solely on fulfilling their contractual duties. Additionally, umbrella companies offer an employment framework which provides contractors with certain employment rights and benefits.

Mention of the rise of non-compliant umbrella companies

Recent years have witnessed an unsettling rise in non-compliant umbrella companies within the UK contracting landscape. These entities often operate on the fringes of legality, employing dubious tax strategies to lure contractors with the allure of higher take-home pay. Often shrouded in complexity, their operations veer away from the compliant practices established by the HMRC, thus jeopardising their standing and that of the contractors they employ.

Importance of understanding the implications of engaging with non-compliant umbrella companies

Engaging with non-compliant umbrella companies carries significant implications. As a contractor, you must understand that you are responsible for paying the correct taxes and National Insurance Contributions (NIC) to HMRC. A compliant umbrella company will help you with this. However, a non-compliant umbrella company (perhaps a tax avoidance scheme) may result in underpaying taxes and NIC – meaning HMRC may come after you later with a potentially life-changing bill.

Engaging with a non-compliant umbrella company also has plenty of additional implications. For example, you may be helping to fuel illegal activity, as criminals have been known to be behind non-compliant umbrellas. You are also failing to contribute fairly towards society by paying the correct taxes and NI, which could potentially harm the economic development of the country you are living in.

Using a non-compliant umbrella company could have devastating consequences. HMRC is increasing its efforts to catch tax avoidance, and therefore, if you fail to pay the correct tax and NICs, whether it’s a year or five years, HMRC is likely to come knocking.

Understanding non-compliance

Embarking on the path of understanding non-compliance within the realm of umbrella companies opens a window into a complex world where not all operations are conducted by the book. Before delving into the specifics, it’s crucial to grasp the general context in which non-compliance occurs and the various forms it can take. This segment aims to elucidate the concept of non-compliance, the common practices associated with it, and the legal framework that governs umbrella company operations in the UK.

Definition of non-compliance in the context of umbrella companies

Non-compliance, when discussed within umbrella companies, refers to failing to adhere to the established tax and legal regulations and adhering to Pay As You Earn (PAYE) – HMRC’s tax system for employees. It signifies a deviation from the compliant practices set forth by regulatory bodies, particularly HMRC. This misalignment can range from slight misdemeanours to significant breaches, often involving intricate tax evasion schemes that can severely impact both the contractors and the broader economic landscape.

Overview of common non-compliant practices (e.g., disguised remuneration schemes)

Among the myriad of non-compliant practices, disguised remuneration schemes are particularly notorious. These schemes masquerade as legitimate tax-saving strategies while circumventing tax obligations. Typically, they manifest as loans or other financial instruments provided to contractors that never require repayment. The essence of these schemes lies in dodging income tax and NIC, which would be deducted at source in a compliant setting.

Other non-compliant practices might include failing to provide statutory employment benefits, inaccurate reporting of earnings, and non-adherence to minimum wage regulations, all of which jeopardise the legal standing of the involved parties.

Legal framework governing umbrella company operations

Umbrella companies are acknowledged by HMRC as compliant payroll providers for temporary workers in the UK. Over the last few years, HMRC has been releasing more and more helpful online materials to help the entire supply chain understand umbrella companies and how they should compliantly operate. For example, the guidance called ‘Working through an umbrella company’ was created to help contractors and freelancers, while the guidance called ‘Check how to reduce your risk of using an umbrella company who operates a tax avoidance scheme’ was written for the supply chain.

With the above in mind, a lot of legislation comes into play when an umbrella company is used for the payroll of temporary workers. Firstly, let’s look at IR35. If a worker is deemed inside IR35, they’re considered to be working similarly to an employee in a full-time position. Consequently, they are probably better off using an umbrella company for their payroll than operating through a limited company. Umbrella companies must make payments to a personal bank account (not business), and many agencies placing workers in roles that fall inside IR35 will not allow the limited company option to be discussed. For those unfamiliar with IR35, if a worker is outside IR35, they are self-employed by definition. They may benefit from working as the director of a limited company rather than as an employee through an umbrella company.

If you have any questions about IR35, speak to a specialist.

Additionally, the Loan Charge (2019) introduced by HMRC seeks to recover taxes from individuals involved in loan schemes, reflecting the government’s faithful stance against tax avoidance and evasion. The governance of umbrella companies extends to adherence to employment laws, ensuring that contractors receive their rightful employment rights and benefits. Engaging with a compliant umbrella company is imperative to align with the prevailing legal and tax framework, thus averting the repercussions of non-compliance. And, using a non-compliant umbrella by accident is not a valid excuse.

Implications for contractors

Engaging with a non-compliant umbrella company, even by mistake, can have serious consequences.

Financial repercussions (e.g., tax liabilities, fines)

Engaging with non-compliant umbrella companies can lead to serious financial repercussions for contractors. One of the primary implications is the unforeseen tax liabilities that may arise from the incorrect processing of tax affairs. Contractors might find themselves receiving a letter from HMRC (potentially years in the future) with a bill outlining unpaid taxes and NI accrued over the duration of their career.

Additionally, HMRC can impose hefty fines on individuals involved in non-compliant tax arrangements, further exacerbating the financial strain. These fines can extend to recovering the owed tax and penalties for deliberate attempts to mislead or deceive the tax authorities.

Legal ramifications (e.g., involvement in tax evasion schemes)

The legal ramifications stemming from involvement with non-compliant umbrella companies are grave. Contractors could potentially find themselves embroiled in tax evasion schemes, a criminal offence in the UK. The prosecution could lead to substantial fines or even imprisonment. Besides, being associated with tax evasion schemes could lead to legal investigations, a process that can be both lengthy and distressing.

Impact on professional reputation

The professional reputational damage inflicted by association with non-compliant umbrella companies can be long-lasting. In an era where professional reputation significantly impacts career prospects, being linked to tax evasion or non-compliance can deter potential clients or employers. Furthermore, professional networks may distance themselves from individuals embroiled in legal and financial controversies, leading to a sense of isolation. The adverse effects on a contractor’s reputation can extend beyond immediate networks to online professional platforms, making the recovery from such reputational damage a lengthy and arduous process.

This scenario underpins the paramount importance of aligning with compliant umbrella companies, thereby safeguarding financial and legal standing, as well as preserving professional reputation and integrity. The same applies to other members of the supply chain. For example, if a recruitment agency is found to have been knowingly referring candidates to a tax avoidance scheme, not only can the agency be severely punished (the Criminal Finances Act, for example), but the reputational damage it would cause is almost certainly unrecoverable.

Broader economic impact

Stepping beyond the immediate sphere of individual contractors, the broader economic repercussions ushered in by non-compliant umbrella companies paint a concerning picture. This section aims to unravel the domino effect triggered by the practices of non-compliant umbrella companies, illuminating the toll they exact on public services and fair market competition.

Loss of tax revenue and its effect on public services

The proliferation of non-compliant umbrella companies substantially exacerbates the government’s tax revenue loss. This shortfall in revenue is particularly detrimental given its ripple effect on public services. Taxes constitute a significant funding source for essential public services such as healthcare (NHS), education, and infrastructure. When tax revenue dwindles due to evasion or avoidance schemes orchestrated by non-compliant umbrella companies, the quality and accessibility of these services are inevitably compromised.

This scenario places additional financial strain on the government, which might have to reallocate funds from other crucial areas or resort to borrowing, potentially affecting the nation’s fiscal stability. Moreover, the loss of tax revenue undermines the social contract, where individuals and businesses contribute towards the collective good through fair tax practices.

Unfair competition and its impact on compliant businesses

Non-compliant umbrella companies create an uneven playing field, fostering unfair competition within the market. These companies can offer lower rates or higher take-home pay by evading tax obligations, thus garnering a competitive advantage over compliant businesses. This unfair competitive edge can drive a wedge in the market, pushing compliant umbrella companies to the brink of financial sustainability. It can also discourage compliance as it sets a precedent that those adhering to the rules are disadvantaged, potentially leading to a vicious cycle of non-compliance.

Furthermore, the distrust sowed by non-compliant practices can taint the overall perception of the contracting industry, dissuading talented individuals from pursuing contracting opportunities or engaging with umbrella companies. This negative ripple effect underlines the imperative for robust regulatory measures to curb non-compliance and foster a fair, transparent, and competitive market environment.

Identifying non-compliant umbrella companies

Whether you are a contractor seeking a compliant umbrella company for your payroll, or you represent a staffing agency and you’re looking to add reliable umbrella companies to your Preferred Supplier List (PSL), the following information will be helpful.

Red flags to watch out for (e.g., lack of transparency, unrealistic take-home pay promises)

A discerning eye for certain red flags is crucial in identifying non-compliant umbrella companies. A notable indicator is a lack of transparency concerning fee structures and tax handling, or an exceptionally low umbrella company margin. If an umbrella company hesitates to provide clear, detailed information about its operations or if the information is ambiguous or overly complex, this could signal non-compliance. Unrealistically high promises of take-home pay should also raise concerns, as compliant umbrella companies adhere to the UK’s stringent tax laws that set clear parameters on post-deduction earnings. Additionally, other warning signs include the absence of affiliations to recognised professional bodies or negative reviews and dubious reputations in the industry.

Importance of due diligence in selecting an umbrella company

Conducting due diligence is paramount in navigating the umbrella company landscape. Contractors need to thoroughly research to engage with reputable, compliant umbrella companies. This entails reviewing the company’s history, affiliations with professional bodies, testimonials from other contractors, and any available audit or compliance reports.

A meticulous vetting process mitigates risks associated with non-compliant umbrella companies and cultivates a secure and conducive environment for a fruitful contracting experience. Moreover, partnering with compliant umbrella companies upholds the ethos of integrity and legality crucial for sustaining the reputation and viability of the UK’s contracting industry.

Industry and government response

The rising concerns regarding non-compliance within the umbrella company sector have galvanised both professional bodies and government authorities into action. Their coordinated efforts aim to nurture a compliant and transparent contracting ecosystem that abides by the principles of fairness and legality. This section outlines the steps taken by key professional bodies in the industry. It delineates the legislative measures enacted by the government to curb non-compliance, thus creating a conducive environment for lawful contracting engagements.

Actions taken by professional bodies like the FCSA, Professional Passport and IPSE

Professional bodies like The Freelancer and Contractor Services Association (FCSA), Professional Passport and The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) are pivotal in ensuring legality and compliance within the contracting industry. They have taken significant steps to counter the proliferation of non-compliant umbrella companies. By establishing rigorous codes of conduct and compliance standards, they lay down a framework promoting transparency, fairness, and adherence to tax laws.

These bodies also provide accreditation to umbrella companies meeting specified compliance standards, offering a reputable benchmark for contractors. Furthermore, they educate contractors about the risks associated with non-compliant umbrella companies, fostering informed decision-making within the contracting community.


SafeRec is new to the sector but it has provided a refreshing approach to transparency. Any contractor using a SafeRec Certified Umbrella Company will receive a payslip audit every time they are paid. This audit, powered by AI software, will review all the figures on the worker’s payslip and provide a detailed explanation as to whether or not they have been paid compliantly. Any foul play will be highlighted.

Legislative measures, such as the Loan Charge (2019)

The UK government has exhibited a strong stance against tax evasion and avoidance schemes with various legislative measures, notably the Loan Charge (2019). This measure was introduced to tackle disguised remuneration schemes, often employed by non-compliant umbrella companies to evade tax liabilities. The legislative actions, coupled with professional bodies’ efforts, underline the collective endeavour to nurture a compliant and transparent contracting industry, promoting fair competition and protecting the interests of contractors.

Choosing a compliant umbrella company

Finding a compliant umbrella company involves detailed examination and savvy choices. This section aims to be a friendly guide for contractors, offering a clearer path through this important decision, highlighting key factors to consider and the helpful resources at your disposal. Following this roadmap, contractors can form a good partnership with their chosen umbrella companies, paving the way for a smooth, compliant, and fulfilling contracting journey.

Picking the right umbrella company

When hunting for a trustworthy umbrella company, a nod from reputable professional bodies like the FCSA or Professional Passport is a good sign of the company’s commitment to doing things right and professionally. Also, a history of playing by the rules, shown through compliance certificates or audit reports, is a comforting sign. It’s wise also to check out the level of customer service, the range of services on offer, and how easy it is to get to and understand your employment contract and pay slips.

The power of reviews and testimonials

Reviews and testimonials are gold when you’re sizing up the credibility and performance of an umbrella company. They give you a peek into the experiences of other contractors, showing you how professional, reliable, and compliant the company is. Look for ones showered with positive reviews, and set aside time to dive into some detailed reviews for a deeper understanding.

It’s also intelligent to ask for recommendations from fellow contractors, as personal endorsements often come from good experiences. Mixing this real-world feedback with a thorough look at the company’s compliance and service offerings will give contractors a complete picture, helping them make a well-informed, confident choice in picking a compliant umbrella company. Oh, and always make sure your umbrella company is based in the UK!


Stepping into the world of umbrella companies, you’ll quickly see the good guys from the shady ones, each having different impacts on contractors and the broader economy. This wrap-up rehashes the risks tied to the shady umbrella companies, stressing the need for smart choices in picking the right ones. By re-emphasising the basics of compliance and its crucial role in keeping the contracting industry upright, we sound a rallying cry for sticking to the legal and ethical guidelines, moving towards a more open and fair playing field.

Recapitulation of the risks associated with non-compliant umbrella companies

The journey through the labyrinth of non-compliant umbrella companies reveals many risks awaiting the unwary contractor. The stakes are high, from financial and legal ramifications to the staining of professional reputations. Beyond the individual, the menace of non-compliance stretches to the broader economy, impacting tax revenues, public services and engendering unfair competition, thus undermining the integrity of the UK contracting industry.

Call to action for contractors to exercise due diligence in selecting umbrella companies

In navigating this intricate landscape, the onus is on contractors to exercise due diligence in their choice of umbrella companies. A careful vetting process, buoyed by a keen eye for red flags and a thorough examination of reviews and affiliations, is the bulwark against the pitfalls of non-compliance. A prudent choice not only shields contractors from financial and legal perils but also contributes to the larger cause of fostering a culture of compliance within the industry.

Closing remarks on the importance of adherence to tax laws and regulations for a fair and equitable contracting industry

Adherence to tax laws and regulations is not merely a legal obligation but a cornerstone for a fair and equitable contracting industry. It is the bedrock upon which trust is built between contractors, umbrella companies, and the broader society.

As the UK contracting landscape continues to evolve, embracing a culture of compliance and integrity is imperative. By choosing compliant umbrella companies, contractors secure their financial and professional standing and propel the industry towards a future of transparency, fairness, and robust competition. This is a collective endeavour, and every step taken towards compliance is a stride towards a more prosperous and reputable contracting industry in the UK.

Top 10 umbrella companies

If you are interested in using a compliant umbrella company that you can trust with your payroll, we have just the resource for you! We have collated a list of our top 10 umbrella companies, and it is available here. Our top 10 are accredited by the FCSA or Professional Passport, and some have special offers at the moment that you won’t want to miss out on.

Click here to see our top 10 umbrella companies!

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