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image of teddy waving goodbye | accountingweb | Les howard final VAT article

VAT’s all folks!


It’s been quite a journey in VAT and beyond for Les Howard. Before he bows out as an AccountingWEB contributor he takes a look back over his decades in tax.

2nd May 2024
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So, here it is, my final contribution to AccountingWeb.

My journey in VAT started back in April 1983, with my arrival at the offices of HM Customs & Excise in Peterborough, located in a converted pea factory. Within 11 years, I made the leap to the private sector and started as a freelance VAT consultant, working with a 486 PC on a MFI desk. 

This modest start subsequently grew into the business. I am pleased to say that my friend Rebecca Porter has now bought the business and is developing it into a significant force in the VAT arena.

I recall dealing with LVO (local VAT offices), which meant I could develop contact with more experienced VAT officers. I still hold the view that this provided better support for taxpayers. Solutions were often pragmatic, but thereby encouraged compliance. The more recent centralised system of a small number of large offices has removed that personal touch. I think many in the profession would look back fondly to those days. 

Playing with VAT

Successive governments have played with VAT and indirect tax more generally. This has resulted in numerous VAT schemes and now more than 30 indirect taxes. I coined the word “complification” to describe this trend. It leaves even small businesses and charities struggling to be fully compliant, and to know which option is most suitable. A decision can have significant unexpected consequences; and it can be difficult to know with certainty that an adviser has covered off all relevant factors when giving advice.

I stumbled into representing clients at tribunals. My first case was to do with road tax invoiced with second-hand cars and triggered a change in HMRC policy. 

Quad squad

I later acted in the precedent case concerning quad bikes, which considered whether the margin scheme would apply to sales of second-hand quads. (In those days, the margin scheme applied to selected items only.) The tribunal chairman announced in our favour at the conclusion of the hearing, to which the HM Customs and Excise (HMCE) solicitor said: “See you at the court of appeal.” 

As it happened, 48 hours before the appeal was due to be heard, HMCE withdrew. Shortly afterwards the margin scheme was extended to all second-hand goods. So, perhaps, I contributed to that relaxation.

Learning curve

Much later I found myself sitting on tax tribunals, as a non-legal member. The cases I hear are not restricted to VAT, so that has been something of a learning curve, as I try to get my head around high-income child benefit charge (HICBC), restoration cases involving “smuggled” cigarettes, and much more. 

One of the bugbears of those of us in tax and accounting is having to deal with HMRC. My observation is that HMRC has suffered under-funding over many years, leaving staff poorly trained. There is a consequential lack of a coherent approach to legislation and the way VAT works. As a result, taxpayers suffer long delays, and have to deal with badly worded correspondence from HMRC.

Another major issue that needs to be comprehensively addressed is the whole question of employment intermediaries, whether they be TV personalities or Uber drivers and everything in between. In contrast to fast-moving commercial organisations, HMRC has been slow at addressing the various direct and indirect tax questions. A root-and-branch rewrite of relevant legislation is long overdue, to provide clarity and fairness for taxpayers. 

Looking ahead

So my next chapter begins. I am working with a small number of select clients, plus continuing to do some tribunal work. Eventually, I expect to retire entirely… Eventually!

In the meantime, a final thank you to fellow AWEBers for your company over the years.


Replies (18)

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By Tom+Cross
02nd May 2024 12:54

I wish you a long and happy retirement, Les. You have always been a bedrock of sound advice and wise counsel, with first hand knowledge of the "good, the bad and the ugly" which is what we "old-timers" have seen, at first hand, across the last 50 years, within HMRC.

You will be missed.

Thanks (3)
By paulwakefield1
02nd May 2024 12:55

All the best for the future Les. Your contributions here have been much valued by me over the years.

Thanks (1)
By accountantccole
02nd May 2024 13:13

Good luck and thank you for your contributions

Thanks (1)
By Justin Bryant
02nd May 2024 13:39

Les is (no) more. (That optical illusion of the (muppet-like) fuzzy bear with the very furry face (and paws) got me - force of habit possibly from dealing with certain people here.)

Thanks (0)
By Tornado
02nd May 2024 13:52

Yes, Happy Retirement.

Much of what you say about the relationship between HMRC (Inland Revenue and H M Customs & Excise) and practitioners is very true. The was a genuine effort to work together to arrive at equitable solutions and this approach is sadly missed these days. Also, Revenue Staff were generally well trained and knew what they were talking about and I often learned much from them.

I still have copies of all our VAT Returns going back to 1st April 1973 with the first period being 1st April 1973 to 31st August 1973 with 17 Boxes to complete and an amount of £187.47 to pay. Output Tax Rate was 10%

Unfortunately you will still have to pay VAT on most of what you buy when retired, but wouldn't it be great if people over retirement age were exempted from paying VAT on anything!

Thanks (2)
By JCresswellTax
02nd May 2024 14:10

An Aweb legend! Happy Retirement

Thanks (1)
By stepurhan
02nd May 2024 14:31

Your knowledge has been an invaluable asset on these forums. I hope you will continue to make some time to call by, even if just to say hello.

Thanks (1)
By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
02nd May 2024 14:41

I have learnt a lot from your articles and posts over the years.

Your long contributions to this forum have been well received and you have certainly been a long time asset to our community.

I hope you enjoy your SEMI-retirment Les

And quite agree. HMRC are hugely underskilled which is where 90% of the issues come from.

Thanks (1)
By Rammstein1
02nd May 2024 15:30

I've always read your articles over the years and learned a lot from the simple way you explain the complications of VAT. Enjoy your retirement!

Thanks (1)
By TaxTeddy
02nd May 2024 16:25

I always considered yur comments to be authoritative and pragmatic. I hope you are proud of your AWEB contribution. You should be.

All the best

Thanks (1)
By FactChecker
02nd May 2024 18:14

Wishing you a slightly less frenetic time ahead ... you may find that semi-retirement means getting paid less often, but nicely counter-balanced by not taking on jobs that don't hold any interest.

The shame, for everyone else, is that another adult has left the stage (and there aren't many left)!

Thanks (4)
By richard thomas
02nd May 2024 22:03

Les - best wishes for a long and happy retirement. I remember you as the wise and experienced member helping the newbie judge I was to learn about the tax that I feared the most, my own experience in HMRC and IR before that being in IT and CT.

Thanks (3)
Ivor Windybottom
By Ivor Windybottom
03rd May 2024 11:46

Best wishes for a long and happy retirement. Thank you for all the helpful advice provided to the community.

Thanks (1)
By [email protected]
03rd May 2024 15:43

Happy retirement Les, though you never truly do, I started just before you and I believe shared a course or two with you. The solutions you referred to came back to bite HMRC on a number of occasions so there was a definite need to move away from the gentleman's agreement. I would take issue with the underfunding, HMRC are funded they choose how to spend it . They are not qualified as a purchasing organisation, software organisation, Fujitsu! And sadly they don't like tax. (Direct Tax trained moving to non coal face because they don't like confrontation? Etc. They are very good at building new non delivery department. The closing down of customer advice shows you the direction HMRC wishes to go. The days of the candle officer trying to do right for the public purse and the taxpayer is long in the past. Now replaced how can I use this to get on. Sacking colleagues the right way was always a plus,not improvement of a trained member of staff. Good luck

Thanks (0)
By Paul Crowley
03rd May 2024 16:49

Always much appreciated.
Regularly told my former partners that VAT will be biggest PII risk to the average accountant in practice.
Still believe that now.

Thanks (0)
By Sarena
03rd May 2024 22:10

Best of luck in the future and thank you for your contributions, which many of us have sought out and valued. You will be missed

Thanks (0)
paddle steamer
07th May 2024 11:01


Do keep popping in here for a digital coffee and biscuit even if no longer writing articles, your input has always been clear and helpful to those of us on here who are vat illiterates.

Many thanks.


Thanks (0)
By thestudyman
08th May 2024 07:14

Thank you Les for your fantastic contributions to this website.

All the best for your retirement.

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