Ding Dong – Avon calling (for VAT)

By   December 21, 2017

Latest from the courts

The CJEU case of Avon Cosmetics Limited considered the validity and completeness of a specific UK derogation called a “Retail Sale Direction”.

Background

Avon Cosmetics Limited (‘Avon’) sells its beauty products in the UK to representatives, known colloquially as ‘Avon Ladies’, who in turn make retail sales to their customers (‘direct selling model’). Many of the Avon Ladies are not registered for VAT. As a result, their profit margins would not normally be subject to VAT. As an example; an Avon Lady may buy goods from Avon at £50 and sell them at £70. In HMRC’s eyes, the £20 difference is not taxed.

“Lost VAT” Derogation

That problem of ‘lost VAT’ at the last stage of the supply chain is typical of direct selling models. In order to deal with the problem, the UK sought and obtained a derogation from the standard rule that VAT is charged on the actual sales price. In Avon’s case that derogation  allowed HMRC to charge Avon VAT, not on the wholesale price paid by the unregistered Avon Ladies, but instead on the retail price at which the Avon Ladies would go on to sell the products to the final consumer. However, the way the derogation is applied does not take into account the costs incurred by the unregistered representatives in their retail selling activities, and the input tax that they would normally have been able to deduct had they been VAT registered (‘notional input tax’). In particular, where Avon Ladies buy products for demonstration purposes (not to resell but to use as a selling aid) they cannot deduct VAT on those purchases as input tax.  The result is that the disregarded notional input tax in relation to such costs ‘sticks’ in the supply chain and increases the overall VAT charged on the direct selling model over that charged on sales through ordinary retail outlets.

Challenge

The appeal by Avon concerns the interpretation and validity of the Derogation.

In particular

  • whether there is an obligation to take into account the notional input tax of direct resellers such as the Avon Ladies
  • whether there was an obligation for the UK to bring the issue of notional input tax to the EC’s attention when it requested the Derogation, and
  • what would be/what are the consequences of failing to comply with either of those obligations?

Result

The CJEU found that neither the derogation authorised by Council Decision 89/534/EEC of 24 May 1989 authorising the UK to apply, in respect of certain supplies to unregistered resellers nor, national measures implementing that decision infringe the principles of proportionality and fiscal neutrality. Therefore, output tax remains due on the ultimate retail sale value, but there is no credit for any VAT incurred by the Avon Ladies.

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