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.