You have a purchase invoice showing VAT. You are VAT registered, and you will use the goods or services purchased for your business… can you claim it?
Assuming a business is not partly exempt or not subject to a restriction of recovery of input tax due to non-business activities (and the claim is not for a motor car or business entertainment) the answer is usually yes.
However, HMRC is now, more than ever before, concerned with irregular, dishonest and inaccurate claims. It is an unfortunate fact that some people see making fraudulent claims as an “easy” way to illegally obtain money and, as is often the case, honest taxpayers are affected as a result of the (understandable) concerns of the authorities. Missing Trader Intra-Community (MTIC) or “carousel” fraud has received a lot of publicity over recent years with an estimate of £Billions of Treasury money being obtained by fraudsters. While this has been generally addressed, HMRC consider that there is still significant leakage of VAT as a consequence of dishonest claims. HMRC’s interest also extends to “innocent errors” which result in input tax being overclaimed.
In order to avoid unwanted attention from HMRC, what should a business be watching for when claiming credit for input tax? Broadly, I would counsel making “reasonable enquiries”. This means making basic checks in order to demonstrate to HMRC that a business has taken care to ensure that a claim is appropriate. This is more important in some transactions than others and most regular and straightforward transactions will not be in issue. Here are some pointers that I feel are important to a business:
Was there a supply?
This seems an obvious question, but even if a business holds apparently authentic documentation; if no supply was made, no claim is possible. Perhaps different parts of a business deal with checking the receipt of goods or services and processing documents. Perhaps a business has been the subject of fraud by a supplier. Perhaps the supply was to an individual rather than to the business. Perhaps a transaction was aborted after the documentation was issued. There may be many reasons for a supply not being made, especially when a third party is involved. For example, Co A contracts with Co B to supply goods directly to Co C. Invoices are issued by Co B to Co A and by Co A to Co C. It may not be clear to Co A whether the goods have been delivered, or it may be difficult to check. A lot of fraud depends on “correct” paperwork existing without any goods or services changing hands.
Is the documentation correct?
The VAT regulations set out a long list of details that a VAT invoice must show. Full details on invoicing here If any one of these required items is missing HMRC will disallow a claim. Beware of “suspicious” looking documents including manually amended invoices, unconvincing quality, unexpected names or addresses of a supplier, lack of narrative, “copied” logos or “clip-art” additions etc. One of the details required is obviously the VAT number of the supplier. VAT numbers can be checked for validity here
Additionally, imports of goods require different documentation to support a claim and this is a more complex procedure (which extends to checking whether supplies of goods have been made and physical access to them). A lot of fraud includes a cross border element so extra care should be taken in checking the validity of both the import and the documentation.
Ultimately, it is easy to create a convincing invoice and HMRC is aware of this.
It is important to claim input tax in the correct period. Even if a claim is a day out it may be disallowed and penalties levied.
Is there VAT on a supply?
If a supplier charges VAT when they shouldn’t, eg; if a supply is zero rated or exempt or subject to the Transfer of A Going Concern rules, it is not possible to reclaim this VAT even if the recipient holds an apparently “valid” invoice. HMRC will disallow such a claim and will look to levy penalties and interest. When in doubt; challenge the supplier’s treatment.
Place of supply
Only UK VAT may be claimed on a UK return, so it is important to check whether UK VAT is actually applicable to a supply. The place of supply (POS) rules are notoriously complex, especially for services, if UK VAT is shown on an invoice incorrectly, and is claimed by the recipient, HMRC will disallow the claim and look to levy a penalty, so enquiries should be made if there is any uncertainty. VAT incurred overseas can, in most cases be recovered, but this is via a different mechanism to a UK VAT return. Details on claiming VAT in other EC Member States here
One-off, unusual or new transactions
This is the time when most care should be taken, especially if the transaction is of high value. Perhaps it is a new supplier, or perhaps it is a property transaction – if a purchase is out of the ordinary for a business it creates additional exposure to mis-claiming VAT.
To whom is the supply made?
It is only the recipient of goods or services who may make a claim; regardless of; who pays or who invoices are issued to. Care is required with groups of companies and multiple VAT registrations eg; an individual may be registered as a sole proprietor as well as a part of a partnership or director of a limited company, As an illustration, a common error is in a situation where a report is provided to a bank (for example for financing requirements) and the business pays the reporting third party. Although it may be argued that the business pays for the report, and obtains a business benefit from it, the supply is to the bank in contractual terms and the business cannot recover the VAT on the services, in fact, in these circumstances, nobody is able to recover the VAT. Other areas of uncertainty are; restructuring, refinancing or acquisitions, especially where significant professional costs are involved.
There are additional rules for electronically issued invoices. Details here
A business may issue invoices electronically where the authenticity of the origin, integrity of invoice data, and legibility of invoice content can all be ensured, and thestomer agrees to receive invoices electronically.
- ‘Authenticity of the origin’ means the assurance of the identity of the supplier or issuer of the invoice
- ‘Integrity of content’ means that the invoice content has not been altered
- ‘Legibility’ of an invoice means that the invoice can be easily read.
A business is free to choose a method of ensuring authenticity, integrity, and legibility which suits its method of operation. e-invoicing provides additional opportunities for fraudsters, so a business needs to ensure that its processes are bulletproof.
If a claim is significant, or unusual for the business’ trading pattern, it is likely that HMRC will carry out a “pre-credibility” inspection where they check to see if the claim is valid before they release the money. Another regular check is for HMRC to establish whether the supplier has declared the relevant output tax on the other side of the transaction (a so-called “reference”). Not unsurprisingly, they are not keen on making a repayment if, for whatever reason, the supplier has not paid over the output tax.
What should a business do?
In summary, it is prudent for a business to “protect itself” and raise queries if there is any doubt at all over making a claim. It also needs a robust procedure for processing invoices. If enquiries have been made, ensure that these are properly documented for inspection by HMRC as this is evidence which may be used to mitigate any potential penalties, even if a claim is an honest mistake. A review of procedures often flushes out errors and can lead to increased claims being made.