19/09/2013 08:09 BST | Updated 18/11/2013 05:12 GMT

UK Open for Business - Please Tread Carefully

Britain is open for business, the Government is keen to say, and there are signs over the past few weeks that global firms are indeed looking seriously at entering the door.

Yes, the UK offers a business-friendly tax culture. Yes, the workforce is trained and motivated in many areas. But there are complications that could trip up the unwary.

For example, employment law is some of the most complicated in the developed world.

A global company may prefer to keep someone self-employed, only to find that Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs takes one look at the contract and decide otherwise, opening up a slew of tax and rights issues. Furthermore, getting work status wrong from the start can leave a business liable for backdated tax, national insurance and interest, not to mention a penalty. Early advice on payroll tax obligations and employee rights is crucial.

Neither is it easy, or often even possible, to replicate a contract and benefits package from overseas.

In fact, there are significant issues to do with the taxation of employees brought over. A brave person would try to determine without advice whether relocation and accommodation costs will be taxed, let alone whether national insurance is owed for short term secondments (answer: sometimes, sometimes not).

Yet, it is surprising how often firms arrive having taken little commercial or tax advice. A global concern needs to make some basic decisions about itself before it even gets here. Is the UK a branch, a limited company or Limited Liability Partnership? The tax consequences are different for each.

Research and development is something the Government is very keen to encourage on these shores, and offers tax breaks as a result. There is even the prospect of getting hard cash from the tax authorities.

But the regulatory jungle is not impenetrable and there is a very useful way for a multi-national to buy itself time to set up its affairs whilst still getting on with business: Outsource UK compliance obligations until fully established.

This buys time to focus on commercial priorities, leaving an expert to deal with VAT, payroll, human resources and company secretary obligations. It is also cost effective.

At some point there is the whole question of physical location. London and the South-East are tempting for firms, but other areas of the country attract grant or loans and are worth considering, not least because property is often cheaper.

Technical issues to be aware of include transfer pricing. The UK follows internationally-recognised rules for cross border transactions between affiliated entities, but big firms need to have a written transfer policy.

An adviser will say that the current UK tax position makes it a good place for a group holding company. Shares held by a UK company and then sold can be exempt from capital gains tax, but only in certain circumstances. Virtually all dividends received by a UK company will be exempt from UK taxation. And there is no withholding tax on dividends paid to shareholders wherever they are based.

But there is an elephant in the room: GAAR, the new General Anti-Abuse Rule. The drafting is deliberately vague, but the intent is clear. Tax authorities are determined to crack down on what they consider excessive tax avoidance. The rule itself, introduced this year, remains untested in the courts.

We can expect an increasing number of global firms to set up shop in the UK, particularly as by 2015 this country will have one of the lowest corporation tax rates in the G20. But deciding to come here and being ready when you arrive are two separate things.