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view of the river Cam in the city centre of Cambridge, England with university students rowing on the river for exercise and teamwork practice. Boathouse buildings behind on riverbank,

VAT: Hidden depths of University rowing


Rickie Lowery explains how a complex relationship between the boathouse owner, Cambridge University rowing clubs, and the rowers led to a VAT muddle the FTT had to untangle. 

14th Jan 2022
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Supplies of sport related activities to individuals can, potentially, be treated as exempt from VAT purposes. Where the supplies are made via a club, are those supplies made to the club or the individual club members?


Cambridge University Boathouse Limited (CUBL) owned a boathouse and leased it to several Cambridge University rowing clubs (the clubs), each of which was a company limited by guarantee. These clubs were responsible for putting forward rowers for the annual boatraces against Oxford University.

VATA 1994 Sch 9 Group 10 Item 3 exempts services made by eligible bodies to individuals where the supply is closely related to sport or physical education and the individual takes part.

The issue

CUBL had previously treated their supplies to the clubs as standard rated and reclaimed the related VAT, including £575,000 incurred on the building of the boathouse. However, in October 2018 HMRC refused several VAT repayment claims, it then raised assessments, on the basis that VATA 1994 Sch 9 exempted the supplies.

HMRC and CUBL both agreed CUBL was an eligible body and the supply was closely related to sport. They also agreed that the supplies were made to the clubs, not the individuals.

HMRC cited a Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) case: Canterbury Hockey Club v HMRC, which had determined that VATA 1994 Sch 9 could still apply for supplies to corporate bodies, where the true beneficiaries of the supply were the individuals taking part.

Who were the ‘true beneficiaries’ in this case, the clubs or the rowers themselves? The first tier tribunal (FTT) was asked to decide (TC08304).

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Replies (3)

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By Hugo Fair
16th Jan 2022 11:11

Whilst we don't know the full facts of the background scenario, the facts as reported show HMRC in one of its characteristically determined moods ... determined to be seen as a sore loser that is.

The first hint is whenever HMRC trot out that hoary chestnut - an assertion that .. by allowing (the) appeal, the FTT would “open the floodgates”! What that emotive statement has to do with the facts of the case being pleaded eludes me.

But the coup de grâce is when HMRC, having lost the case, say that there are still “further issues” to be considered before it would permit the recovery of VAT for the relevant periods. So if at first you don't succeed, simply change your line of attack ... and keep up this form of attrition for as long as necessary.

Thanks (2)
Replying to Hugo Fair:
paddle steamer
17th Jan 2022 15:11

I thought this one sounded a tad desperate

"HMRC then argued that the successful rowers were paying for the use of the boathouse by giving up their image rights and providing free labour to the club"

Thanks (1)
Replying to DJKL:
By Hugo Fair
17th Jan 2022 17:19

Quite ... that scraping sound is HMRC dredging the bottom of the river (having completed their efforts to do the same to a nearby barrel)!

Thanks (2)