Increasing numbers of footballers under investigation by HMRC over tax issues

Increasing numbers of footballers are under investigation for tax issues by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

ITV News can reveal HMRC is now looking into the financial affairs of 173 players, 40 clubs and 38 agents, as it claws back £355 million from the sport.

These latest figures show an increase in the number of players and agents under investigation but fewer clubs.

In October, HMRC was investigating 171 players, 44 clubs and 31 agents.

The focus on football comes after the 2017 budget when all businesses were instructed to change "image rights" to employee payments.

Image rights, a tool used by clubs and players to avoid paying employment tax, has been extensively used in football.

The financial incentive for players to create their own Image Rights Company (IRC) is it could save them millions in tax.

Clubs can pay a player's IRC as part of their wages and they would be liable for 19% corporation tax rather than 45% as an employee. That represents a saving to the player of £26,000 on every £100,000.

In 2017 budget businesses were instructed to change 'image rights' to employee payments. Credit: PA

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Mel Stride MP, said: "HMRC is clear that everyone must pay what they owe under the law – regardless of their wealth or status.

"The department's work in the football industry is the latest demonstration of this ongoing effort and we look forward to continued co-operation with clubs and players throughout 2019."

That co-operation between HMRC and the football industry is at times turbulent.

It's now almost two years since Newcastle United and West Ham United were raided by HMRC officials on the same day.

Both clubs deny wrongdoing and were furious at the aggressive nature of the investigations, so much so that Newcastle claimed it was unlawful.

The trouble with that was it meant airing the dirty laundry in public.

West Ham was raided by HMRC in 2017. Credit: PA

HMRC are usually secretive and very careful with their language when it comes to ongoing inquiries, but Newcastle's appeal forced them to outline their case. HMRC told the court that they believed Newcastle "systematically abused the tax system" by secretly paying players and agents during transfers.

The judge ruled the warrant was indeed lawful but HMRC has yet to conclude its investigation, publicly at least.

West Ham wanted a cache of 12 million emails to be either returned to them or destroyed – again though a judge ruled in favour of HMRC.

Both clubs are yet to be found guilty of any wrongdoing.

Raids on that scale are very rare and the tax office is mainly trying to recoup money from football through civil, rather than criminal proceedings.

This is why you are not likely to see high profile Premier League stars dragged through the courts like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have been in Spain.