The Wakefield College case and ‘non-business’ for VAT

The Court of appeal has released its judgment in the case of Wakefield College v HMRC [2018] EWCA Civ 952.

This case has implications for all charities because it is about the VAT relief (a zero rate) applicable to the construction of new buildings for charities. The relief applies where a building is used for non-business purposes – “relevant charitable purpose”. Where any business use would be exempt, (for example education provided by charities), the charity will prefer its activities to be regarded as non-business so that it is not charged VAT which it cannot claim.

The Court of Appeal decision in Longridge on the Thames [2016] EWCA Civ 930, in September 2016 appeared to establish that there is limited scope for ‘non-business’ charitable activity for the purposes of the ‘relevant charitable purpose’ test.  Longbridge claimed the key test was whether the charity’s ‘predominant concern’ was the making of supplies for a consideration. It argued that its policy of subsidised pricing and use of volunteers showed that it was predominantly concerned with providing access to sporting activity and not with ‘making supplies for a consideration’. But Longridge lost in the Court of Appeal – the court thought that neither predominant concern nor the quantum of the charges were relevant. At that time, however, the Wakefield case was still running.

In Wakefield HMRC denied VAT relief for the new college building on the basis that more than 5% of the use would be ‘business’.  The issue was whether the provision of further education courses to students living locally who paid a fixed, but publicly subsidised fee, amounted to the carrying on of a business activity.

The College argued the subsidised courses were not “business” based on the CJEU decision of Finland, in which it was decided that means-tested payments, made by a minority of service users for legal advice, was not consideration because it relied on determining the means of the payer not the value of the service, and that was not a clear enough ‘link’ for the payment to be made ‘for’ the services.  This line of argument was later followed in the CJEU in Gemeente Borsele, where a municipal body charged parents for school transport, but only those travelling over a certain distance, and only to the extent families could pay, meaning it received only 3% of the actual cost of the service. The College argued that it, too, only charged a small percentage, and had kept fees low because of the economic circumstances of the local residents. It thus argued that despite charges being fixed for all qualifying applicants, this was a form of means testing, as in Finland and Gemeente Borsele, and it was therefore not receiving ‘consideration’ for these courses and thus not in ‘business’ to that extent.

Decision

The Court of Appeal found that the College was carrying on an economic activity and thus zero rating could not apply. Briefly this was because its activities were not comparable to those in Finland and Bosele. Its sole activity is the provision of educational courses, whereas the transport in Borsele and the legal services in Finland were very much ancillary to their principal activities as public bodies. The provision of courses to students paying subsidised fees was a significant, albeit minority, part of the College’s total operations and the fees paid by such students were significant in amount, both in value and in relation to the cost of providing the relevant courses. Furthermore, the fees paid by the students were calculated by reference to the cost of providing the courses, and not to the means of the individual students.

Why it matters

HMRC suggested that about 50 other cases, involving approximately £120m of VAT, would be affected by this decision. The Court made some interesting comments, derived from reading the French version of the Finland and Borsele cases, and said whether there is a supply for consideration and whether that supply constitutes an economic activity are two separate questions. A supply ‘for consideration’ is  necessary, but is not sufficient in itself for an actvity to be an ‘economic activity’. The first condition requires  the payment to be made under a legal relationship with reciprocal performance between the supplier and the recipient, i.e. the ‘direct link’. The economic activity condition means also showing that the supply is made ‘for the purpose of ‘obtaining an income. But ultimately the Court decided that here the “direct link” test was met anyway, because the fees were not means-tested.

Thus it seems likely that the position after Longridge remains, i.e. that the only use that is not to be regarded as ‘business’ is in cases where there is no ‘remuneration’ (for which read payment or ‘consideration’). Unfortunately HMRC may now be likely to argue that, even in very small operations where below-cost payment is received, (such as in the cases of St Pauls and Yarborough nurseries) construction services may not qualify for relief.

 

 

Making Tax Digital for VAT – under a year away

We are less than a year (or only 4 VAT returns to go) before the ‘Making Tax Digital’ deadline of 1 April 2019.

The first stage of Making Tax Digital (MTD) will apply to all VAT registered businesses who are over the VAT turnover threshold (£85,000 until March 2020) from the first VAT return which starts after 1 April 2019. The regulations passed into law in March 2018. HMRC have published an Explanatory Note, a draft VAT Notice and a draft Addendum document outlining ‘user journeys’, which uses diagrams to explain the digital links required between records. These can be accessed here but are subject to future amendment. A detailed chart which compares the current rules with those expected under MTD for VAT can be found on the CIOT website here and we reccommend reading this.

The regulations provide that VAT registered businesses (including charities) must keep an electronic account of information specified in the amended regulations, and must use an approved form of software to prepare and render VAT returns. Under MTD, businesses must keep certain mandatory records in a digital format within ‘functional compatible software’, able to interface with HMRC’s systems, and thus send and receive information to and from HMRC. Taxpayers using multiple accounting software packages to record or calculate information that drives VAT return data must digitally link them to be MTD compliant.

Most of our clients use software to keep their accounting records. However, we are aware that very few of them actually use that software to calculate and declare VAT returns, due to the complexities of partial exemption and business/non-business adjustments. If you are using spreadsheets for that you need to start thinking about how any adjustments calculated via spreadsheet are going to get back into a digital format for submission to HMRC under MTD. At the very least we recommend contacting your software supplier to check whether they will be providing any support, and looking at the ‘user journey’ Addendum document from HMRC. You may need to upgrade to use ‘cloud’ based accounting software.

The main and important issue is that information transfer between internal interfaces and with HMRC must be ‘digital’ (and via third party software) where the records are part of the Making Tax Digital for Business (MTDfB) journey, but adjustments (such as partial exemption) will still apparently be able to be calculated separately and manually via spreadsheet– i.e. this step is not part of the ‘MTDfB journey’. It is noted that the information to be recorded also includes a requirement to separately identify the value of income into standard rated, reduced rated, zero-rated, exempt or outside the scope outputs. HMRC plans a “soft landing” in the first year to allow organisations to transition to the new rules.

The draft regulations provide for exemptions from the digital requirements based on turnover, inability to use electronic systems for religious or practical reasons, and for businesses subject to insolvency. Exempted businesses may opt for the obligations in the regulations to apply to them if they so wish. The amended regulations also provide rules for how business records should be preserved.

Pilot scheme

Businesses can sign up to take part in a MTD pilot exercise from 1 April 2018. The benefit of taking part in the pilot will be being ahead of the game, getting access to support, being kept up to date on how the system is developing, an opportunity to influence the look and feel of the final version, and feedback on how you are getting on with the submissions. There is more information on the pilot here, but please contact us if you need more help.

 

The VAT registration threshold – too high?

As was expected in the Spring Statement the Chancellor announced a call for evidence into the effect of the current VAT registration threshold on growth, The Government believes that the current ‘cliff edge‘ VAT registration threshold may act as a disincentive to growth of small businesses and to consequent improvements in productivity. This was noted by the Office of Tax Simplification in its review of VAT published last year, and which recommended that the Government examine the current approach to the VAT threshold.

Business views on the threshold are divided. Some argue that having a high threshold has the benefit of keeping the majority of small businesses out of VAT altogether, avoiding all the administrative requirements that accompany the tax. Others consider that a lower threshold would reduce distortions of competition.

The Government’s call for evidence is split into three sections:

  • the first explores in more detail how the threshold might currently affect business growth
  • the second looks in more detail at the burdens created by the VAT regime at the point of registration, and why businesses might manage their turnover to avoid registering
  • the third considers possible policy solutions, based on international and domestic examples.

We recommend that any small enterprises, including charities, which are currently trading below or near the threshold explore the paper and the questions it asks as this could mark a fundamental change to the way VAT operates in the UK.

Membership Subscriptions and VAT – the Harley Davidson case

Membership subscriptions are always an area of contention for charities. Some charities benefit from a VAT Extra Statutory Concession for non-profit membership bodies under which HMRC allow subscriptions to be apportioned to reflect the underlying VAT treatment of the specific benefits. This is useful where the benefits include printed material which is generically zero rated, and which allows for a reduction in VAT charged on the subscription. Alternatively where the benefits would otherwise be exempt, it increases VAT recovery on costs.

HMRC have recently argued that this concession only applies to formal membership bodies whose members are able to vote (e.g. at AGMs) and cannot apply to ‘friends’ and ‘patron’ schemes. In addition, HMRC have also tended in recent years to argue that ‘membership’ is a single supply which is essentially standard rated, unless the predominant benefit is printed matter. The 2015 Serpentine Gallery tribunal decision supported HMRC’s view; the tribunal asserting that supporters were not members, and that the ‘basket of supplies’ they received was a single (or ‘composite’) standard rated supply of ‘association’ with the Gallery.

But with the Harley Davidson tribunal case there is now some more encouraging news for charities who operate membership schemes without that level of member involvement, and whose use of the ESC might therefore have been challenged. Harley Davidson won on the basis that the package of benefits arising from payment of its membership fee could be treated as a multiple (or ‘mixed’) supply where every element is afforded its own VAT treatment. The case considered whether under VAT law, not concession, their membership subscription was apportionable to reflect different liabilities such as printed magazines. The tribunal found as a fact that it was apportionable.

This is an important case, and we await news of whether HMRC will appeal. It is possible that they will not, hoping that this will mean that they can argue Harley was decided on its facts. Many charities operating membership schemes may however be closer to the Harley fact pattern than to Serpentine. Unless HMRC appeals successfully, it may be easier for charities to argue that they need not rely on the ESC (and thus do not need voting members) as the supply can be apportioned as a matter of VAT law. We await further developments, but in the meantime please get in touch if you wish to discuss your circumstances.

VAT in the Autumn Budget

VAT – related measures in the 2017 Autumn Budget

VAT registration threshold – Not the expected drop in the registration threshold, but the Government has said it will consult on the ‘design’ of the threshold in response to the Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) report on the simplification of VAT.  In the meantime, the threshold will be maintained at the current level of £85,000 for two years from April 2018. Therefore, the position will continue as follows:

  • the taxable turnover threshold that determines whether a person must be registered for VAT will remain at £85,000
  • the taxable turnover threshold that determines whether a person may apply for deregistration will remain at £83,000
  • the registration and deregistration threshold for relevant acquisitions from other EU Member States will also remain at £85,000

Comment – This will come as a relief for many in the small business sector who would have been facing additional administrative costs as well as potentially having to update systems for the Making Tax Digital reforms. However, it remains the case that the Government is looking to reform registration, so this should be regarded as a temporary pause for thought.

Import VAT after Brexit – Businesses currently benefit from postponed accounting for acquisition VAT when they buy goods from the EU. This means no business has to pay VAT upfront before being able to deduct it on returns, which is an important cashflow advantage. Once the UK leaves the EU all goods bought from the EU will be liable to import VAT, which is currently payable on entry. The Government announced it would take this into account when considering potential changes following EU exit and will look at options to mitigate any cash flow impacts

Comment – this is very important and potentially welcome news for importers as the current system could create very serious cashflow issues for many businesses.

Review of VAT rates and exemptions – the Chancellor responded to the OTS VAT review proposals and noted that the Government’s ability to amend the scope of the various rates and exemptions is limited to some extent by EU law at present (while the UK remains in the EU) but agrees that there is merit in a review of the current system of VAT rates and reliefs in the longer term, and HMRC and HM Treasury officials will continue to engage with the OTS on this subject.

Anti-avoidance measures

VAT fraud in labour provision in the construction sector – Following a consultation in March 2017 into options for tackling fraud in construction labour supply chains, the government will introduce a VAT domestic reverse charge to prevent VAT losses. This will shift responsibility for paying VAT on construction services along the supply chain to remove the opportunity for it to be stolen. Changes will have effect on and after 1 October 2019. The long lead-time reflects responses to the consultation and the government’s commitment to give businesses adequate time to prepare for the change. The reverse charge will not apply to zero-rated services, nor supplies to the ‘final customer’.

Commentthis is a significant change for businesses commissioning and carrying out building work. Depending on which party in the supply chain is responsible for accounting for the tax this may be complex where zero rate or reduced rate supplies apply.  As part of the consultation HMRC were asked to consider very carefully the impact where VAT is charged at multiple rates such as in residential and charitable buildings. The definition of final customer will be the key.

Online VAT fraud

The Government announced a package of measure designed to tackle online VAT fraud which passes responsibility for monitoring to online trading platforms.

Extending HMRC powers to UK businesses – The government will legislate in Finance Bill 2017-18 to extend HMRC’s powers to hold online marketplaces jointly and severally liable (JSL) for the unpaid VAT of sellers on their platforms to include all UK traders. This extension is to help tackle the UK hidden economy and eliminate the risk of overseas traders establishing a UK shell company simply to escape the existing JSL regime. This will come into force on Royal Assent in the spring.

Extending powers on overseas businesses – The government will legislate in Finance Bill 2017-18 to extend HMRC’s powers to hold online marketplaces JSL for any VAT that a non-UK business selling goods on their platforms fails to account for, where the business was not registered for VAT in the UK and that online marketplace knew or should have known that the business should be registered for VAT in the UK. This will come into force on Royal Assent in the spring.

VAT number display – The government will legislate in Finance Bill 2017-18 to require online marketplaces to ensure that VAT numbers displayed for businesses operating on their website are valid. They will also be required to display a valid VAT number when they are provided with one by a business operating on their platform. This will come into force on Royal Assent in the spring.

Split payments – To reduce online VAT fraud and improve how VAT is collected, the government is looking at a split payment model. This is where the VAT due on a supply is paid direct to the tax authority by the customer. Following the call for evidence launched at Spring Budget 2017, the government will publish a response in December.

Encouraging compliance by users of digital platforms – The government will publish a call for evidence in spring 2018 to explore what more digital platforms can do to prevent non-compliance among their users.

Penalties

Late Submission Penalties and Late Payment Interest – The government will reform the penalty system for late or missing tax returns, adopting a new points-based approach. It will also consult on whether to simplify and harmonise penalties and interest due on late payments and repayments across different taxes. Final decisions on both measures will be taken following this latter consultation.

Other

Accident Rescue Charities Grant Scheme – A grant will be provided to help accident rescue charities meet the cost of normally irrecoverable VAT.

Access to VAT refunds for Combined Authorities – legislation will be amended to ensure UK Combined Authorities and certain fire services in England and Wales will be eligible for refunds of VAT they incur on costs. At present the Scottish Police and Fire Services are not eligible. Through Finance Bill 2017-18, legislation will be amended to ensure that Scottish Police and Fire Services will be eligible for VAT refunds.

VAT and vouchers – The government will consult on plans to legislate in Finance Bill 2018-19 to ensure that when customers pay with vouchers, businesses account for the same amount of VAT as when other means of payment are used, aligning the UK with similar changes being made across the rest of the EU.

VAT and Air Passenger Duty in Northern Ireland – Early in 2018, the government will publish a call for evidence which will consider the impact of VAT and Air Passenger Duty on tourism in Northern Ireland, to report at Budget 2018.

The VAT registration limit – up or down?

Since the publication of the Office of Tax Simplification’s report earlier this month there has been a lot of speculation as to what the Chancellor might do about the VAT registration threshold in this week’s budget.

The suggestion has been that the threshold could be dropped to around the higher tax rate limit of c£43,000, or even to the national average wage, i.e. £26,000 a year, but at the moment we don’t know for certain if the government will implement this, or when it could happen. The average threshold in Europe is around £20k. The idea of lowering the threshold, especially to the lower of those two options, has been met with a lot of anger in the small business community.

What are the issues?

Well, there is a lot of evidence that the current £85k limit is a barrier to growth. This is because the limit causes a ‘cliff edge’ effect where a small business approaching the limit needs a lot more turnover to compensate for suddenly having to add 20% to all its income. So many businesses decide to ensure they stay just short of the threshold by various means, for example by closing for a month each year. That causes ‘bunching’ of business around the threshold and prevents business expansion that might lead to job creation.  Plus, some businesses split themselves artificially into separate operations simply to avoid the limit (“disaggregation”) – with a lower limit there will be much less incentive to do this.

Who might be affected?

On the other hand, lowering the limit substantially would affect hundreds of thousands of self-employed small business owners such as plumbers, gardeners, decorators and similar, who are not planning any whizzy entrepreneurial growth but who are just making a living outside of traditional employment. These businesses already have limited income and will be affected by having to add 20% to their charges – and will have very few costs to offset as input tax. Their customers will be members of the public with no ability to deduct the VAT.

There will be a number of hurdles: –

  • The UK has had a high threshold for a long time and HMRC has not to date had to deal with thousands of small businesses;
  • HMRC guidance has been criticised in the OTS report – it will need to be helpful to a lot of businesses new to VAT;
  • If the lower threshold also brings businesses into Making Tax Digital that will be a big change on top of the requirement to register;
  • The biggest impact will be on businesses which deal direct with the public;
  • For small charities the effect could be very difficult unless the Government also raises the de minimis limit for exempt  activities;
  • Prices will go up, with a possible effect on sales – some businesses may fold.

The OTS suggested some ways in which these effects could be lessened. There could be for example a lower rate for labour intensive service businesses or a change to the VAT Flat Rates, or a tapering requirement to register (though that might make things more complex, not simpler).

We can only guess what is coming. But the in the context of recent press reports on how far richer people seem to be engaged in various off-shore tax planning schemes to avoid paying VAT, the political backlash might not be “Paradise” for the Chancellor.

 

VAT simplification – a tax that is showing its age

On 7 November 2017 the Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) laid in Parliament and published its first report on VAT setting out a range of proposals for simplifying the tax. What was meant to be a simple tax has become highly complex and the OTS report says it has not kept pace with changes in society.

The report contains 23 recommendations for simplifying the tax. Its lead recommendation on the future level and design of the VAT threshold has prompted debate. By enabling many small businesses to stay out of the VAT system the high threshold is a form of simplification, but it costs the UK around £2bn per annum, and evidence suggests that many growing businesses are discouraged from expanding beyond this point. The report looks at options for reducing the current ‘cliff edge’ effect resulting in a ‘bunching’ of businesses just before the VAT threshold, and an equally large drop off in the number of businesses with turnovers just above the threshold.

The 8 core recommendations are:

  • the government should examine the current approach to the level and design of the VAT registration threshold, with a view to setting out a future direction of travel for the threshold, including consideration of the potential benefits of a smoothing mechanism
  • HMRC should maintain a programme for further improving the clarity of its guidance and its responsiveness to requests for rulings in areas of uncertainty
  • HMRC should consider ways of reducing the uncertainty and administrative costs for business relating to potential penalties when inaccuracies are voluntarily disclosed
  • HM Treasury and HMRC should undertake a comprehensive review of the reduced rate, zero-rate and exemption schedules, working with the support of the OTS
  • The government should consider increasing the partial exemption de minimis limits in line with inflation, and explore alternative ways of removing the need for businesses incurring insignificant amounts of input tax to carry out partial exemption calculations
  • HMRC should consider further ways to simplify partial exemption calculations and to improve the process of making and agreeing special method applications
  • the government should consider whether capital goods scheme categories other than for land and property are needed, and review the land and property threshold
  • HMRC should review the current requirements for record keeping and the audit trail for options to tax, and the extent to which this might be handled on-line.

 

Summer Newsletter

Welcome to our Summer news update. Since the last one we don’t seem to have much more clarity on what the post-Brexit business landscape will look like, but we have seen the publication of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which is the most significant piece of constitutional legislation for decades.

We’ve also seen some important cases on property development in relation to pub conversions and student accommodation, and VAT has now become the focus of the upcoming changes to the government’s Making Tax Digital programme.

As always if you have any questions on VAT give us a call on 0208 492 1901 or drop Soc or Linda an email.

Pub and shop conversions

We report on the VAT pitfalls that can occur in converting commercial buildings into residential as illustrated by two recent cases. Get in touch if you are not clear on the rules. Read more

When is student accommodation a dwelling for VAT?

A recent case has highlighted some important VAT differences that contractors and sub-contractors need to be aware of when working on student accommodation. Read more

UK VAT Brexit and EU law- an example

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in clause 4(1) aims to convert EU law applicable in the UK the day before the UK leaves the EU into domestic law. This will then be “frozen” and any question as to the meaning of EU-derived law will be determined in the UK Supreme Court by reference to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) case law as it exists on the day we leave the EU.

This is not such a change for us VAT practitioners, because the legislative structure of the UK VAT Act and domestic VAT Regulations are, in principle anyway, meant to reflect EU principles. One of these is that UK VAT laws are as far as possible, meant to be construed in accordance with the Principal VAT Directive (PVD) and the case-law of the Court of Justice of the EU. Where UK law deviates from EU law that principle can be an important benefit for UK taxpayers, who can argue against HMRC for the ‘direct effect’ of the EU provisions, as can be seen from the case of The Learning Centre (Romford) Ltd  in which the tribunal has ruled that HMRC were wrong to force the company to charge VAT on welfare services.

The Bill however provides that the principle of ‘direct effect’ is abolished as from exit day.  From exit day, therefore, it will no longer be possible to base a tax claim on the PVD itself, and the case above, if heard after then, might therefore have had a different outcome.

Making Tax Digital

The Government announced major changes to the timeline for the implementation of Making Tax Digital (MTD). Under the new timetable only businesses with a turnover above the VAT threshold (currently £85,000) will have to keep digital records and only for VAT purposes, though they can volunteer to do so for other taxes. There is still a lot of detail to flesh out. Read more

The VAT problem with pubs

Two recent cases, Languard New Homes Ltd and MacPherson illustrate the continuing VAT issues with non-residential conversions, particularly problems with conversion of pubs and shops.

Normally if a developer carries out work on an existing flat or house and sells a long lease in it afterwards, he will incur VAT of 20% on the works and the sale of the lease will be exempt. The exemption means that the developer can’t claim the VAT on the works and related costs.  This additional VAT cost increases the cost of residential conversions, particularly in comparison with new builds where the construction services and sales are normally zero-rated.

However, the sale of a newly converted non-residential property which creates additional dwellings can be zero rated, which is important, because it means that the developer can claim VAT on contractors’ fees and related costs.

The problem lies with the legislation on conversions, which states that this only applies to conversion of non-residential buildings or non-residential parts of buildings. If there is any part of the building which was residential before, the conversion of a non-residential part does not allow you to zero rate the sale of the final dwelling unless the result of that conversion was to create an additional dwelling or dwellings.

This causes a big headache for pub and shop conversations, where often there was some associated residential accommodation for the landlord or staff. Often this accommodation is on upper storeys with the commercial below, but on conversion the building may be divided into new residential units vertically, not horizontally, meaning that the new dwellings all incorporate a part that used to be commercial and a part that was always residential.

This is what happened in the cases of Languard and MacPherson. The Upper Tribunal has decided that none of the dwellings in either case had been created by converting part of a building that had not been previously designed for use as a dwelling, because they had been created from an amalgamation of the non-residential parts and the residential parts. Consequently, nether company has succeeded so far in obtaining zero -rating and thus recovery of input tax.

Why it matters:These are disappointing decisions because the point of this legislation was to encourage the redevelopment of existing commercial properties into dwellings, to address housing shortages and use “brownfield” sites. It is hoped that the Office of Tax Simplification will look at this as part of its current review of VAT,  as the complexity of the rules and HMRC’s enforcment of them appears to be thwarting that policy intention.

Developers and builders need to understand the rules about conversions to maximise VAT recovery and avoid errors. If you would like to discuss this case or similar developments give us a call.