Category Archives: Technology

VAT: Output tax on credits? A Tax point case

By   September 18, 2017

Latest from the courts

In the Scottish Court of Session case of Findmypast Limited the issue was whether the sale of credits represented a taxable supply, the tax point of which was when payment was received.

Background

Findmypast carries on a business of providing access to genealogical and ancestry websites which it owns or for which it holds a licence. If a customer wishes to view or download most of the records on the website, they will be required to make a payment. This may be done by taking out a subscription for a fixed period, which confers unlimited use of the records during that period. Alternatively, the customer may use a system known as Pay As You Go. This involves the payment of a lump sum in return for which the customer receives a number of “credits”. The credits may be used to view records on the website, and each time a record is viewed some of the credits are used up. The credits are only valid for a fixed period, but unused credits may be revived if the customer purchases further credits within two years; otherwise they are irrevocably lost.

Technical

Findmypast accounted for output tax on the price of the credits at the time when they were sold.  As a consequence, VAT was paid, not only on credits which were used, but also on credits that were not redeemed (The tax point therefore similar to the current rules on the sale of single use face value vouchers. Rules here).

The taxpayer claimed repayment of the VAT accounted for on the sale of unredeemed vouchers during a period which ran up to May 2012 when the legislation was changed.

The question was whether output tax should have been accounted for at the time when the vouchers were sold or at the time the vouchers were redeemed. If the tax point was the date of redemption, then the claim would be valid. The court identified the following issues:

  • What is the nature of the supply made by the taxpayer to customers?
    • Was it was the supply of genealogical records selected by the customer and viewed or downloaded by them?
    • Or was the supply a package of rights and services, which conferred a right to search the records and download and print items from the taxpayer’s websites?

If the former is accurate, the supply only takes place if and when a particular record is viewed or downloaded.  If the latter, the supply includes a general right to search which is exercisable as soon as the credits are purchased, with the result that the supply takes place at that point.

A subtle distinction, but one which has an obviously big VAT impact.

Decision

The Court decided that where credits were not redeemed, the taxpayer is entitled to be repaid the output tax previously declared as no tax point was created. In the Court’s view, Findmypast was making the relevant documents available in return for payments received. HMRC’s contention that there was a complex, multiple supply of the facility to find and access genealogical documents such that payment created a tax point was dismissed. The court further found that the relevant payments did not qualify as prepayments (deposits) because it was not known at the time of purchase whether the credits would be redeemed (many were not) or indeed at what time they would be redeemed if they were.  It was also decided that the credits were not Face Value Vouchers per VAT Act 1994, Schedule 10A, paragraph 1(1) as they are rather mere credits that permit the customer to view and download particular documents on the taxpayer’s website, through the operation of the taxpayer’s accounting system.  And that they are not purchased for their own sake but as a means to view or download documents.

Commentary

Readers of my past articles will have identified that multiple/single supplies and tax points create have been hot topics recently, and this is the latest chapter in the story.

This case highlights that any payments received by a business must be analysed closely and the actual nature of them determined according to the legislation and case law. Not all payments received create a tax point and

Some will not represent consideration such that output tax is due. Careful consideration of the tax point rules is necessary.  Not only can the correct application of the rules aid cashflow, but in certain circumstances (such as set out in this case) it is possible to avoid paying VAT on receipts at all.

VAT: Latest from the courts – extent of exemption for financial services

By   July 5, 2017

 

Coinstar Limited

In the Upper Tribunal (UT) case of Coinstar Limited the issue was whether the services Coinstar provided were exempt supply of financial services via Value Added Tax Act 1994, Schedule 9, Group 5, item 1 – “The issue, transfer or receipt of, or any dealing with, money, any security for money or any note or order for the payment of money.”

Background

I’ve no doubt that you’ve seen those kiosks with machines in supermarkets into you which you tip your bag full of loose change in return for a voucher.  The voucher can then be redeemed at the checkout against the supermarket bill. Coinstar provides this service and charges 9.9% of the value of the coins inserted into the machine.  HMRC considered this to be a table service of “coin counting”, while Coinstar claimed that it was an exempt supply under the above legislation.

Decision

The UT affirmed the decision of the First Tier Tribunal and dismissed HMRC’s appeal, ruling that Coinstar was providing an exempt financial service. The Transaction was not a coin counting service, but a service of exchanging a less convenient means of exchange into a more convenient one which was provided in return for the 9.9% fee.  This involved a change in the legal and financial status of the parties such that the exemption applied.

Commentary

Another case which demonstrates the fine line between exemption and taxable treatment of “financial” services.  HMRC’s argument here was that this was a single supply of coin counting (which is outside the exemption) but clearly, a person emptying their big pots of change into the machine did not want it to be simply counted, the aim was to obtain a voucher in return for the shrapnel (or, if feeling philanthropic, there is an option to donate the coins to charity – for which Coinstar made no charge). It is fair to observe that just because a supply may be “financial” in nature it is not automatically exempt.  It pays to check the liability of such services because, as may be seen, HMRC often attack exempt treatment.  I have recently had to untangle a position where there was doubt about whether an online service amounted to exempt intermediary service. HMRC ultimately agreed that exemption applied in this case, but that was not their starting point.

VAT: More on agent/principal – Latest from the courts

By   July 3, 2017

Lowcost Holidays Ltd

There is a very important distinction in VAT terms between agent and principal as it dictates whether output tax is due on the entire amount received by a “middle-man” or just the amount which the middle-man retains (usually a commission). It is common for the relationship between parties to be open to interpretation and thus create VAT uncertainty in many transactions.

It appears to me that this uncertainty has increased as a result of the growing amount of on-line sales and different parties being involved in a single sale.

By way of background, I looked at this issue at the end of last year here

The case

On a similar theme, the First Tier Tribunal (FTT) case of Lowcost Holidays Ltd the issue was whether the Tour Operators’ Margin Scheme (TOMS) applied to Lowcost’s activities.

Background

Lowcost was a travel agent offering holiday accommodation in ten other EU Member States, and other countries outside the EU, for the most part to customers based in the UK. The issue between the parties is whether Lowcost provided holiday accommodation to customers as a principal, dealing in its own name, under article 306 of Directive 2006/112, the Principal VAT Directive and therefore came within TOMS or whether it acted solely as an intermediary or agent (in which case TOMS would not apply and the general Place Of Supply rules apply).

Decision

The FTT found in favour of the appellant. HMRC had argued that Lowcost was buying and selling travel and accommodation as principal, however, the FTT decided that the contracts which Lowcost entered into with; hotels, transport providers and holidaymakers were clear that the arrangement was for the appellant acting as agent. The helpful Supreme Court case of SecretHotels2 (which I commented on here) was applied in this case. The main point being that the nature of a supply is to be determined by the construction of the contract – unless it is a ‘sham’ and great weight was given to the terms of Lowcost’s contracts rather than what HMRC often call the “economic reality”.  Specifically highlighted to the court was the fact that Lowcost set the prices for the holidays, which HMRC pointed out would be inconsistent with an agency arrangement. The FTT decided that this was outweighed by the actual terms of the contracts.

Consequently, as Lowcost acted as agent (for the providers of the services not the holidaymaker) the Place Of Supply was determined by reference to where the supply was received under the general rule.  In this case, this is VAT free when the services were received by principals located outside the UK.

As with all TOMS and agent/principal matters it really does pay to obtain professional advice.

VAT evasion by non-EU online sellers

By   April 26, 2017

Investigation by The National Audit Office (NAO) into overseas sellers failing to charge VAT on online sales.

The NAO have investigated concerns that online sellers outside the EU are avoiding charging VAT. Full report here

The NAO has published the findings from its investigation into the concern that online sellers based outside the EU are not charging VAT on goods located in the UK when sold to UK customers. Online sales accounted for 14.5% of all UK retail sales in 2016, just over half of these were non-store sales, mainly through online marketplaces.

VAT rules require that all traders based outside the EU selling goods online to customers in the UK should charge VAT if their goods are already in the UK at the point of sale. In these cases, sellers should pay import VAT and customs duties when the goods are imported into the UK and charge their customers VAT on the final selling price. The sellers should also be registered with HMRC and are required to submit regular VAT returns.

Some of the key findings of the investigation are as follows:

HMRC estimates that online VAT fraud and error cost between £1 billion and £1.5 billion in lost tax revenue in 2015-16 but this estimate is subject to a high level of uncertainty. This estimate represents between 8% and 12% of the total VAT gap (The VAT gap is the difference between the amount of VAT that should, in theory, be collected by HMRC, against what is actually collected) of £12.2 billion in 2015-16. UK trader groups believe the problem is widespread, and that some of the biggest online sellers of particular products are not charging VAT. These estimates exclude wider impacts of this problem such as the distortion of the competitive market landscape.

HMRC recognised online VAT fraud and error as a priority in 2014, although the potential risk from online trading generally was raised before this. In 2013 the NAO reported that HMRC had not yet produced a comprehensive plan to react to the emerging threat to the VAT system posed by online trading. The report found HMRC had developed tools to identify internet-based traders and launched campaigns to encourage compliance but had shown less urgency in developing its operational response. Trader groups claim that online VAT fraud has been a problem as early as 2009, which has got significantly worse in the past five years. The Chartered Trading Standards Institute shares this view. Based on the emergence of the fulfilment house (a warehouse where goods can be stored before delivery to the customer) model, HMRC recognised online VAT fraud and error as one of its key risks in 2014 and began to increase resources in this area in 2015.

HMRC’s assessment is that online VAT losses are due to a range of non-compliant behaviours, but has not yet been able to assess how much is due to lack of awareness, error or deliberate fraud. Amazon and eBay consider that lack of awareness of the VAT rules is a major element of the problem. Amazon and eBay have focused on educating overseas sellers and providing tools to assist with VAT reporting and compliance. HMRC’s strategic threat assessment, carried out in 2014, concluded it was highly likely that both organised criminal groups based in the UK and overseas sellers in China were using fulfilment houses to facilitate the transit of undervalued or misclassified goods, or both, from China to the UK for sale online.

HMRC introduced new legal powers to tackle online VAT fraud and error in September 2016. The new joint and several liability power gives HMRC a new way to tackle suspected non-compliance, and is the first time any country has introduced such a power for this purpose. The new powers include making online marketplaces potentially jointly and severally liable for non-payment of VAT when HMRC has informed them of an issue with a seller, and they do not subsequently take appropriate action.

Conclusion

Online VAT fraud and error causes substantial losses to the UK Exchequer and undermines the competitiveness of UK businesses. Compliance with the VAT rules is a legal requirement. Not knowing about the rules does not excuse non-compliance. The UK trader groups who raised the issue report having experienced the impact of this problem through progressively fewer sales. They consider HMRC has been slow in reacting to the emerging problem of online VAT fraud and error and that there do not seem to be penalties of sufficient severity to act as a substantial deterrent.

It is too soon to conclude on the effectiveness and impact of HMRC’s new powers and whether the resources devoted by HMRC to using them match the scale of the problem. We recognise that HMRC must consider effort and efficiency in collecting VAT but its enforcement approach to online trade appears likely to continue the existing unfair advantage as perceived by UK trader groups. This is contrary to HMRC’s policy of encouraging voluntary compliance and it does not take account of the powerful effect that HMRC’s enforcement approach has on the operation of the online market as a whole. We intend to return to this subject in the future.

Further to the above, this article suggests that HMRC should have acted even earlier.

VAT – Latest from the courts: treatment of web-based introductions

By   September 14, 2016

notes-money-2First Tier Tribunal (FTT) – What intermediary services may be exempted?

Background

The provision of intermediary services (putting those who require a financial product in touch with those who provide them) is exempt from VAT if certain conditions apply.  Broadly, the requirement is mainly the need to provide something more than just the introduction, eg; negotiation of credit. If a business acts as a mere conduit or in an advertising capacity its supplies will be standard rated.

The case

In the FTT case of Dollar Financial UK Limited TC05334 (Dollar) the applicant received web-based services from overseas The Reverse Charge was applied to these supplies (details of the Reverse Charge here). Dollar provides “payday loans” which are themselves exempt from VAT.  As Dollar was unable to recover all of the VAT on the Reverse Charge it represented a VAT cost to the business.  However, if the supplies were exempt there would be no need to apply the Reverse Charge and so the loss would be avoided.

The FTT was required to consider what precisely the suppliers (so called lead generators) provided to Dollar in return for a commission based on the value of the loan.  The lead generators operated websites which are mainly comparison sites and which referred potential borrowers to loan providers such as Dollar. HMRC formed the view that these services did not amount to intermediary services and hence were subject to the Reverse Charge.

The FTT ruled that there were differences between the two examples of services received by Dollar.  In one example it was decided that despite;

  • there being no legal relationship between the lead generator and the potential borrower
  • that the leads were sold to the lender offering the best commission
  • that the assessment for loan suitability was quick, only involved only a few basic checks, and did not require any judgment or discretion, and
  • that only 1% of the introductions resulted in offers of loans to borrowers,

the appellant was acting as more than a mere conduit or in an advertising capacity, and was providing exempt introductory services. Consequently, there was no need to apply the Reverse Charge.

In the other example, the Tribunal considered that a single supply of online chat assistance was more akin to an outsourced, principally back-office function which did not amount to intermediary services and was therefore standard rated such that Dollar must apply the Reverse Charge.

Commentary

This case demonstrates the need to identify precisely what is being provided by a business’ suppliers and to review contracts intently.  A small change in the circumstances between one supply and another may result in different VAT treatment. This is a comprehensive judgement and it is worth reading in its entirety if a business is involved in these type of transactions.  We recommend that advice is sought by those businesses which could be affected by this case; either as supplier or recipient.

VAT – Latest from the courts; use and enjoyment provisions

By   April 25, 2016

mobile (2)Telefonica Europe Plc and Telefonica UK Limited 

The VAT Use and Enjoyment provisions set out an additional layer of rules which establish the place of supply of certain services. They apply to; telecommunications and broadcasting services; electronically supplied services (for business customers); hired goods; and hired means of transport. Broadly, effective use and enjoyment takes place where a recipient actually consumes the services, regardless of any contractual arrangements, payment, or beneficial interest. The intention of this provision is to correct instances of distortion which remain as a result of considering only where the provider and the customer belong. HMRC give the example of supplies such as telecommunications services which are actually consumed outside the EC, to be subject to UK VAT. Of course, the converse is that it would be distortive for there to be no EC VAT on such services where they are consumed in the UK.

In the Upper Tribunal case of Telefonica Europe Plc and Telefonica UK Limited the dispute involved the way in which the appellant calculated the value of its mobile telephone services which were used and enjoyed outside the EC (and thus UK VAT free). Over a number of years Telefonica had an agreement with HMRC whereby the amount of outside the EC supplies was calculated by reference to revenue, ie; comparing call, text and data income relating to non-EC supplies to total income.

HMRC subsequently formed the view that this method of calculation was distortive because higher charges were made to non-EC users than EC consumers.  HMRC proposed a “usage methodology” which used call times, texts sent and volume of data used. As may be expected, this resulted in a lower percentage of supplies that were outside the scope of UK VAT thus increasing HMRC’s VAT take.

The appellant contended that the usage methodology was contrary to EC and UK VAT legislation.  Not surprisingly, the UTT rejected this argument, deciding that Telefonica had not established that HMRC’s proposal was unlawful.

So then the outcome would be expected to be that the usage methodology should be used, but no.  It was decided that the most accurate method would be one based on the time a customer has access to the network outside the EC; which differs from both the usage and revenue methods. 

This type of dispute is quite common and also appears regularly in partial exemption situations. There are nearly always alternative ways to view apportionment calculations and it pays to obtain professional advice; not only to ensure that a fair result is achieved, but as assistance with negotiations (which may avoid having to go to Tribunal).  

VAT e-audits: A warning

By   October 15, 2015

The increase in the sophistication and use of data analysis software has enabled HMRC and tax authorities worldwide to increase the number of indirect tax VAT e-audits.e-audit B&W

This has led to an increase in, and higher quantum of; assessments, penalties and interest.  The use of more automated resources means that HMRC is capable of auditing a greater amount of information from a greater number of businesses.

Even greater care must be taken now with recording and reporting transactions and the application of calculations such as partial exemption.  The need for accurate and timely records has never been more important. It’s crucial that the basics of compliance are taken care of, as well as seeking advice and reviews on specific issues.

These issues are summarised here

Please contact us if you feel that your VAT systems need to be checked, or if you have any doubts about the accuracy of your business’ indirect tax reporting.

We offer a full range of reviews, from a straightforward healthcheck to a full report on a business.

As the severe motto has it:  Comply or die!

VAT – Are e-books books? Update on ECJ’s decision 5 March 2015

By   March 5, 2015

Books-oldBooks are zero rated for VAT purposes, but only (currently) if they are of the traditional dead tree variety. The zero rating does not extend to e-books which are standard rated for VAT. There has been a long standing argument between EC Member States (and between other interested parties) that similar content should not be taxed at different rates solely depending on the method of delivery. This argument is about to be tested in the courts. The UK is not permitted by the EC to extend its current zero rating for printed matter, however, it is expected that the contention in this case will be that the inclusion of new products will not extend the zero rating, but rather the development of technology has created a supply that should be covered by the existing zero rating legislation.

If it is accepted by the courts that all types of book should attract the same rate of VAT, it may mean that the rate will be equalised upwards. So, by the end of the year we could be looking at VAT of 5% being added to books, newspapers and other printed matter which was hitherto VAT free – A “tax on learning” as previous protests had it when there was a threat to tax free books.

UPDATE

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has today ruled that France and Luxembourg must raise their reduced VAT rates on sales of  e-book. This will conclude ongoing disputes (see above) between EC countries over whether e-books may be treated similarly to printed books at the nil or reduced rates.  The UK and Germany were the main protagonists in challenging those Member States where e-books have been treated the same as printed versions.

Initially, Luxembourg and France began reclassifying e-books at the same rate as printed books – 3% and 5.5% in 2012. Subsequently, Italy and Malta joined them at the start of 2015, reducing the rates to 4% and 5%.

These rates where challenged by the UK and Germany who asked the EC to impose rules to ensure that e-books could not take advantage of the printed book rates.  Today, the ECJ published its ruling, stating that since e-books do not have the same physical characteristics as printed books and therefore cannot benefit from the printed book reduced VAT rules.

This decision does seem to go against common sense,but the ECJ’s hands were somewhat tied by the VAT rules which were introduced before e-books existed.

VAT implications of renewable energy sources

By   January 15, 2015

Website MXW0001_5

If you own land and install solar panels (which we shall use as an example, although the rules apply equally to any way of generating renewable power), it is relatively straightforward; as you are either consuming the power, or are the provider supplying electricity back to the National Grid.

Where the position may get slightly more complicated is where a solar panel business buy the ‘space’ to install energy producing equipment from someone else. Many businesses are renting the roof space from others upon which to install the solar panels. The businesses may pay the roof owners with ‘free’ electricity in return for renting out this space. Supply of electricity to the owners of the site

For a solar panel business leasing a site, the supply of electricity to the owners of that site is deemed to be a supply of goods.

The business installing the solar panels is the taxable person (if they are, or should be registered for VAT) and they are supplying the owners of the site with a ‘cheap’ supply of electricity in the course of the furtherance of their business.

The supply of electricity for domestic use is a reduced-rate supply under Group 1 of Schedule 7A VATA 1994. The reduced rate of VAT is 5%. If the site owner is using the electricity for domestic purposes then the reduced rate of 5% should apply. If the electricity is being used for business purposes then the supply becomes standard-rated at 20%. However, if there is mixed use, then so long as more than 60% of the use is domestic then the whole supply will be treated as ‘qualifying use’ ie; domestic, and the 5% will apply to the entire amount. Generally speaking, VAT charged at 5% is fully or partly irrecoverable by the recipient.

So in this scenario, the land owner is providing something in exchange for this electricity use; the land owner is giving the solar panel business the use of his land. Therefore this is ‘consideration’ for a service; even if it is ‘non-monetary’ consideration.

This means that the solar panel business will have to calculate a value for this consideration and then charge 5% (or 20%) VAT as necessary, on this amount if they are VAT registered.

The value placed on this non-monetary consideration is not usually a concern for the land owner making the supplies of this land, as this land supply is itself exempt from VAT.

The supply of the land
This is a supply of land by the owner of the site. Unless the land has been ‘opted to tax’ (OTT) then this supply will be exempt from VAT. If the land has been OTT by the landowner – the parties will need to look at the valuation of the (non-monetary) consideration as this will be subject to VAT at 20%. If there is no OTT and the supply is exempt; for a non-VAT registered person, this will have no impact, and this income will not be included in taxable supplies which count towards the VAT registration threshold. If a VAT registered entity makes exempt supplies of land, consideration must be given to his partial exemption position.

VAT consequences of the Feed-In Tariff
In recognition of the higher cost of producing electricity in this manner, people participating in the Feed in Tariff scheme will receive payment under a “generation tariff”. This payment is not consideration for any supply and it is therefore outside the scope of VAT.

Supply of electricity to the electricity board
In addition to the Feed-In Tariff there is the additional income which you may receive from the electricity board ie; the “Export Tariff”. These payments are “consideration for supplies of electricity by people participating in the Feed in Tariff scheme to the electricity company, where they are made by taxable persons in the course of their business”. The export tariff is not outside the scope of VAT and therefore it is a supply of electricity made in the course of the furtherance of your business to the electricity supplier. It will attract standard rated VAT as it is not the supply for domestic use.

 Further…

A recent Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU – the EU’s highest court) case has ruled in favour of the taxpayer after he argued that solar panels installed on his house constituted a business for VAT purposes. This is good news for any people who supply any energy into the grid and are paid a feed-in tariff (FiT) for doing so.

It means that anyone receiving the FiT can VAT register and reclaim (at least some) VAT incurred on the purchase and installation of solar panels plus input tax incurred on any other goods and services relating to the panels.

The supply and installation of “energy saving materials”, including solar panels, is currently subject to a reduced VAT rate of 5% in the UK. The European Commission is currently challenging this policy, arguing that the tax incentive goes beyond the scope of the law. The VAT Directive only allows Member States to apply reduced VAT rates to a limited number of goods and services, which are specified in an annex to the directive. So the cost of buying and installing solar panels may increase in the future.

It is anticipated that HMRC will need to deal with “thousands” of extra registration applications resulting in significant additional VAT repayments.

MOSShop opens!

By   October 7, 2014

Just a reminder that the Mini One Stop Shop (MOSS) will open on 20 October 2014.        078045-black-white-pearl-icon-business-globe

The MOSS is for suppliers of digital services to customers across the EC.

Official notification here

A full explanation of MOSS and digital supplies here

We advise that any provider of; telecoms, broadcasting and electronic services seeks specialist professional advice before the changes come into effect.  We have many clients that are involved in cross-border provision of digital services so are ideally placed to assist with whatever query you may have on this issue.