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Working from home during the virus. What travel expenses might you be able to claim?

Published on 14 September 2020

For most people working at home over lockdown, there will have been no travelling expenses. But, what if you had to visit a client or attend a socially distanced meeting that you could not do from home? Or you had to go to your closed office to pick something up or deliver something? Can you get tax relief on those expenses?And now that lockdown is easing and workplaces are starting to reopen – what if you are travelling into your workplace, but just for a few days a week? Does this count as allowable?

Man working on a laptop at home
(c) Shutterstock / Rido

Below we look at the normal rules for claiming tax relief on travel expenses first and then at how these might be applied in the unusual times of the coronavirus pandemic.

For more information, HMRC have produced guidance that is aimed at employers but many employees will also find it useful in relation to travel expenses. Chapter 3 at 3.36 onwards contains some guidance for those working from home.

The general rules for tax relief on travel expenses

We set out the rules as to the types of journey you can generally claim tax relief on, in our employment section. There, you will also find information on the process for claiming tax relief on travel expenses.

Although there have been some changes made to the tax rules around working from home to help employees and employers during the crisis, the government have not made any changes to the rules for travel expenses.

Travel from home to where you normally work

If you were employed to work in an office, say, then that is your normal workplace, your ‘permanent workplace’. Any trips you make from home to the office are ‘ordinary commuting’ costs and you won’t be able to get any tax relief on them. Further, if your employer were to pay those costs for you or reimburse those costs to you, that would be treated as additional salary for you on which you should pay tax and National Insurance contributions (NIC).

Travel from your normal workplace to another location for work purposes

Many people have to travel from their office, their permanent workplace, to other workplaces or locations to have meetings, pick up stock, take instructions from people and so on. If you normally work from an office, then the costs of travel from that permanent workplace to that other location can be paid or reimbursed by your employer on a tax-free and NIC-free basis. If your employer doesn’t pay or reimburse you those costs, you can claim tax relief on them – assuming that you are a taxpayer (see our guidance linked to above).

This is because you are travelling to a ‘temporary workplace’. If you had to travel to a temporary workplace directly from home rather than from your permanent workplace (for example because you were required to be there first thing in the morning), then this travel is also allowable.

Journeys from your home to your usual workplace during the coronavirus outbreak

Because people are having to work from home for extended periods due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is possible that your home has become a place of work. This means that if you have had to travel from your home to your usual, permanent workplace during lockdown, perhaps to pick up some post or check on the premises, it could actually be seen as workplace to workplace travel, rather than home to workplace travel, in which case it could count as an ‘allowable’ journey.

Whether this is the case or not is likely to boil down to the specific facts and circumstances – for example, whether you are performing substantive tasks from home and whether, objectively speaking, you have any real choice as to whether to work from home. HMRC have not issued any guidance on this, but they might take the view that if the intention is ultimately for you to go back to your usual workplace when it is safe to do so, such journeys would still be seen as ordinary commuting and so no tax relief would be available.

If your usual workplace has stopped actually being your permanent workplace (this is a possibility for many, given all the longer term changes that there will be to people's working arrangements as a result of the coronavirus), then this might be an occasion where tax relief for travel from the home back to the old workplace, is more clearly allowable.

Journeys from your home to another work location during the coronavirus outbreak

You may have had to travel to see a client on a socially distanced basis during lockdown, or attend an important work event or meeting somewhere other than your usual office (if it has been closed).

As the places you are travelling to are ‘temporary workplaces’ then travel from home to a temporary workplace is usually allowable anyway, notwithstanding the current situation with the coronavirus. You do not need your home to be classed as a workplace to get the tax relief.

What if travel to a temporary workplace is substantially the same as ordinary commuting?

There can be a problem in getting tax relief for journeys if the costs of getting to a temporary workplace are not significantly different to the costs of ordinary commuting to a permanent workplace.

There are no ‘hard and fast’ rules here, but HMRC say in their guidance at point 4.11 in Chapter 4 that they would not argue that travel is just ordinary commuting ‘where the extra distance involved is 10 miles or more each way’.

That comment by HMRC is their interpretation of the law, rather than the law itself, but it does give you some idea of how successful a claim to expenses might be. If you were to travel from home to a temporary workplace that was very close to your permanent workplace, you should expect that the costs of doing so would be ordinary commuting costs and so no tax relief would be available.

The situation is less clear cut where you are travelling to a place that is not in the same vicinity as your usual office (even though it may be the same distance away) – this is because it is not ‘broadly the same journey as the employee’s ordinary commuting journey’.

Gradually going back into the workplace

You may be wondering about travelling from home to the office or your usual workplace for 1 or 2 days a week.

Even if the home can be thought of as a workplace during lockdown, starting to go back in part time wouldn’t be allowable workplace to workplace travel. This is because on the days you are travelling into the office to work there substantively, home is just home and in the context of you travelling to the location as part of things slowly returning to normality, this probably wouldn’t count as a temporary workplace. It is a permanent workplace (albeit one you are at infrequently for now) and this is just ordinary commuting.

What if I have no usual workplace?

An employee who has no usual workplace (that is, is an ‘itinerant’ worker) can deduct all of their travelling expenses, even where the journey starts from home. This treatment is unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Domiciliary care workers are an example of such workers – a principle that was recently confirmed in the case of Amara Akhtar (even though HMRC initially sought to deny tax relief on the travel between her home and the first and last job of the day).

Example 1: Stuart

Stuart lives in Glasgow, but works in an office in Edinburgh, his permanent workplace. Due to the coronavirus he is now temporarily working from home.

On Wednesday, he has to travel from home to the office in Edinburgh to pick up some files. As he is only based at home temporarily, it would seem the costs of this trip are likely to be ordinary commuting and he would probably not obtain tax relief on them. He could phone HMRC to check.

On Thursday, he meets a client, suitably socially distanced, in Falkirk (about half way between Glasgow and Edinburgh). He travels from home. The costs of this travel should receive tax relief.

On Friday, he is asked to pick up a parcel from Greenock (a town about the same distance away from Stuart’s home as Edinburgh is). This travel is in the opposite direction from his normal commute to Edinburgh and we would suggest a claim for tax relief on the travel expenses be made in this case.

Example 2: Steff

Steff is a care worker and lives in Manchester. She makes visits to various people in their homes.

As explained on our Issues facing paid care workers page, it is likely Steff should be able to get tax relief on the costs of all her journeys visiting clients during the coronavirus pandemic – assuming she is a taxpayer. Steff might also want to check out her pay position with our factsheet Minimum wage, tax and tax credits for care workers.

Contact: Gillian Wrigley (click here to Contact Us)
(First published: 14/09/20)

 

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