HMRC’s methods of establishing underdeclarations
HMRC have always taken interest in cash businesses as they see them as a revenue risk. We have heard, anecdotally, that there is an ongoing campaign to target cash businesses which HMRC suspect are under-declaring takings. Such businesses are usually retail and commonly restaurants and take aways (which I shall use as an example in this article). A retail business is obliged to keep certain records. For sales, this is a record of daily gross takings (DGT) and this is the area I will focus on as it is where “suppression” of income generally occurs. In a very crude example, the owner, or a member of staff does not ring up a sale and the payment is pocketed. There are more sophisticated ways in which suppression occurs, but this is the most common.
Even in this day and age where most payments are made by credit or debit cards, there is still significant scope for declarations to be inaccurate.
There are a number of ways in which HMRC can determine the accuracy of VAT declarations. These may be from the usual bank and accounts reconciliations, mark up exercises, to, say, counting take-away containers to build up a picture of the turnover. The following are also ways in which HMRC test the credibility of declarations:
- Compliance checks
These usually take place in the evenings when a restaurant is open for business (or soon after it closes). Officers gain entrance, question staff, examine records for that and previous days, and remove certain records. From this information they can build up a picture of trading. These visits are usually unannounced.
- Invigilation exercise
HMRC observe how the business operates and check that all sales of food and drinks are rung into the till. This is usually with the agreement of the business.
- Test meals
HMRC staff will purchase a test meal and at a later time check to see if it has been recorded correctly. It may be that this method will be repeated at a suspect restaurant by different HMRC staff, perhaps in the same evening. If any of the sales are not recorded correctly, it may be insufficient in itself to create an assessment, but it will confirm suspicions of suppression and lead to further action.
While posing as customers, HMRC will also count the number of covers, the amount of take aways, the number of staff, how orders are taken and paid for, and how payments are made.
Members of HMRC staff park outside a restaurant (usually in an unmarked van) and watch the activities of the restaurant. They count the number of people dining and the numbers of people exiting with take aways. This observation may also record the number of deliveries and other relevant information that they are able to obtain from what they can see. This exercise may be carried out over a number of days/nights or even weeks.
In more complex suppression, the value of purchases may also be suppressed in order to present a more credible picture to an inspector. This may be more common if the purchases are zero rated food (on which the business would not claim input tax). HMRC may attempt to build up a picture of sales by the volume of actual purchases made. They often check the restaurant’s suppliers’ records to get a full picture of trade.
Information obtained by one of the above methods may, on its own, be insufficient to raise an assessment, but combined with information obtained in different ways will more often than not result in one (should the exercises demonstrate an under-declaration of course).
HMRC do not have the right to attend a taxpayer’s premises at any time. The law says that inspections may be carried out “at any reasonable time”. This means that that if a business owner is busy, or the time is outside normal office hours, or there is not access to all of the relevant information, or the request is unreasonable for any other reason, the business owner (or his adviser) may request that an inspector leaves and makes an appointment at a future reasonable time. This is sometimes easier to do in theory than in practice, but a taxpayer’s rights are set out in The Finance Act 2009, Schedule 36, part II.
A business has no right to refuse a “regular” inspection but these are arranged for an agreed time in any case.
The VAT Act 1994, Schedule 11 states that the requirement to produce records is limited to being provided at such time as HMRC “may reasonably require”. So, again, if HMRC are making demands that a business feels are unreasonable, it is within its rights to refuse to allow access and to make a mutually agreed and acceptable appointment to allow access to premises and records. This may lead to a discussion, but HMRC do not have unfettered rights to access premises or records.
Regardless of how HMRC have gathered information, any assessment must be made to the best of their judgement and must be “an honest and genuine attempt to make a reasoned assessment of the VAT payable”. If the business is able to demonstrate that this was not the case, the assessment must be removed. Broadly, this will entail demonstrating that things that ought to have been considered were ignored, or that things that have been included should not have been. Generally, the most common ways to challenge an assessment based on the above exercises are; that the period considered was not representative, or not long enough to be representative, or that the tests carried out were insufficient to demonstrate a consistent pattern of trading. There are usually specific facts in each case that may be used to challenge the validity and quantum of an assessment.
Of course, it is hoped that no business which makes accurate declarations is troubled by such investigations. However, if a business feels that HMRC is being unreasonable with its demands it should seek professional advice before agreeing to permit HMRC access.
Matters change however, if HMRC have a Search Warrant or a Writ of Assistance in which case HMRC are able to compel a business to allow entry or inspection.
As always, we advise that any assessment is, at the very least, reviewed by a business’ adviser.