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Engineer wins VAT flat-rate appeal

29th May 2014
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An engineering business has won an appeal against HMRC after it disputed the legality of official guidance on the VAT flat-rate scheme (FRS) for small businesses.

When mechanical engineer Neil Harris registered his Cumbrian-based company for the FRS in 2009 none of the categories on the list supplied by HMRC appeared relevant to his business. After advice from his accountant he registered under "Any other activity not listed elsewhere", with a flat rate of 12%.

Following a VAT inspection three years later, HMRC ordered that Harris should have registered in the category ‘Architect, civil and structural engineer or surveyor’. HMRC’s cited its own flat-rate scheme guidance leaflet, which placed "engineering consultants and designers" in the 14.5% VAT category.

It demanded arrears of £8,891 plus a 35% penalty, later reduced to 15% after a review.

Harris and his accountant, Trevor Morris of TaxAssist Whitehaven, challenged the decision on the grounds that a mechanical engineer is not a civil or structural engineer.

To support their case against HMRC they got advice from Glyn Edwards, a VAT consultant at Wolters Kluwer CCH, which provides information and services to accountants.

The first-tier tribunal ruled in Harris’s favour. He walked away with nothing to pay and, as he had fee protection insurance with CCH, his accountant’s fees and the cost of Glyn Edwards’ time were also covered, CCH said.

“The key to the whole issue was that the guidance notes had no backing in law,” Harris said. “I wouldn’t have known that, but Glyn did. I would have lost the case on my own.”

Glyn Edwards commented: “Although there was a relatively small amount of tax at stake, this could have caused the collapse of Mr Harris’s business. This has been a successful outcome and establishes an important principle. But I do wonder how many other engineers have been misled by the VAT guidance notes from HMRC into using a category that is only intended for structural and civil engineers.”

The tribunal's decision (TC/2013/03647) hasn't been published yet, although AccountingWEB has seen a copy.

Replies (16)

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By essex accountant
30th May 2014 13:24

most interesting

I have 40 - 50 clients registered at 14.5% when they should have been at 12%!! i will consider re-registration for them all. I am also a CCH user and will check with them first

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Replying to Adam12345:
By Carl London
02nd Jun 2014 11:36


essex accountant wrote:

I have 40 - 50 clients registered at 14.5% when they should have been at 12%!! i will consider re-registration for them all.


Also considering this for someone. But will this mean not being able to rejoin the FRS for 12 months?

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By daveforbes
02nd Jun 2014 11:10

mechanical vs. civil engineering

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By RogerCB
02nd Jun 2014 11:11

Similar experience

We had the same situation with a client and after discussing it with Taxsafe, put forward the same argument.  HMRC would not comment on our argument or confirm the trade sector the client had to use (despite a written request from us), but said they would not disagree with a sector chosen by the company as long as this was a reasonable choice.  The client thinks his original choice is reasonable and so has not changed.

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By AndrewV12
02nd Jun 2014 11:21

Typical HMRC

Why did not HMRC just disagree with the decision and advise the engineer to use a different rate going forward.  Typical of HMRC in creating an  insufficient guidance lists, and just adding on  kop out 'Any other activity not listed elsewhere'.   Why not create a water tight list in the first place. 


Looks like the engineer was lucky and got off by a technical point.  But well done Mr Edwards for being aware of it.

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By Allandfrost
02nd Jun 2014 13:16

Choosing a flat rate %

This decision is understandable when the rate was selected by our view of the "best fit" of the business to the published rates.   On-line registration now does not give the flexibility in that HMRC give a rate.  Does anyone think that the rate suggested would be open to being challenged?

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By 7555775
02nd Jun 2014 15:10

Guidance notes are ........
Guidance Notes!

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By nickselectaccounting
02nd Jun 2014 15:15

What I find interesting is that when you apply for the Flat Rate Scheme online, using the Agent Dashboard, HMRC use the SIC code as a basis of Flat Rate selection.

Which was not the one that I had selected for a number of reasons. I had considered reporting this however had planned to stick with the higher flat rate than automatically applied for.

This could be a point for concern or even a basis of argument when considering a challenge? Compare the SIC code to the Flat Rate as per HMRC?

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Nigel Harris
By Nigel Harris
02nd Jun 2014 20:55

Why won't HMRC advise?

In the early days of Flat Rate VAT I would routinely phone HMRC's central VAT number to try to get guidance on selecting the correct flat rate percentage. Every time they basically said it's up to the taxpayer to choose and HMRC reserve the right to disagree and penalise them afterwards.

May I state the obvious: what a totally stupid system!

The flat rate trade list is far too brief, even if you refer to the expanded notes in the HMRC Manual.

It needs to be far more detailed to avoid this type of dispute, Surely, with the experience of years since flat rate was introduced they could come up with a better list?


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By brian.barrett
03rd Jun 2014 01:18

Potential Challenge Against Any Penalties?

Firstly I think we should be careful using the 'P' word as the World Cup rapidly approaches!

More seriously, it is an obvious decision of anyone when joining the scheme as to how the typical amount of VAT due on the flat rate percentage compares to doing a full calculation.  If the rate means your VAT liability is much higher than doing a full calculation, you may not wish to take the option.  (Of course the relative simplicity of the scheme may encourage you to put up with a slightly higher VAT liability.)

If the incorrect rate has been applied, therefore, I find it reprehensible that the penalty is based on the difference between the rate used and the rate you 'should have used' because had it been established you should use the other [lower] rate you may not have chosen the flat rate scheme!

As such perhaps any penalty could be argued should be based on the difference between your typical full calc VAT bill and the [incorrect] rate you used.  HMRC will argue that the rate you should have used gives the VAT liability 'typical' of your business, but you may be able to argue that it does not.

Given the result of this appeal, perhaps all of the above may be academic, but it may be that penalties could be imposed in more 'blatent' cases.

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Chris M
By mr. mischief
03rd Jun 2014 05:39


It's bonkers on two fronts:

1.  The list of trades seems to have been drawn up by a monkey given 5 minutes and the back of a fag packet.  I have  a number of clients who are Project Managers and Programme Managers, not exactly unusual job titles.  12% and trebles all round, folks!

2.  I have about 20 clients in FRS and the average annual profit per client is £4k per year.  So that is one accountant where the client base is making an £80k profit on VAT just because some numptie years ago got delegated the job of setting up the categories.  New clients can barely believe their luck when I tell them about this!  In a time of austerity with daft bedroom taxes and pastie taxes and the like I can't understand why this little wheeze has been left alone.


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Replying to Wanderer:
By trotters
06th Jun 2014 12:37

I have around 100 project managers/programme managers and I believe the best fit for the flat rate scheme is "Management consultancy", this is usually 14% unless they are IT managers at 14.5%.

Have you had a problem with HMRC at all?


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Chris M
By mr. mischief
06th Jun 2014 19:37

Acid test

For me, management consultants are people like KPMG, Bain and Co and the rest who operate specifically under the terms of a management consultancy contract.  I am putting this to the test in a small sort of way.  A new client was given no guidance by her previous accountant on just about anything including VAT, chose 14.5%.

She is a project manager.  She does not operate under the terms of a consultancy agreement or contract.  I have written to HMRC - as part of a response to a letter from them asking about some of her VAT returns where she got things all wrong - stating my opinion that she fits the 12% category on the basis that she is not a management consultant, surveyor or any of the other specific activities listed at 14.5%

I'll update this thread in 10 weeks time when HMRC reply.

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By essex accountant
23rd Jun 2014 13:36

CCH advice

i have spoken to them today. They say a move to 12% cannot be backdated as this was the rate chosen by the trader, even though the choice was made in the light of HMRC guidance civen on their website, which was incorrect.

However, i was advised that 12% is the rate that can now be used and that the trader can just decide to use this rate from now on in the light of the recent appeal decision. CCH say there is no need to inform HMRC, but to use the lower rate from now on. 

However the HMRC website says:

If you change flat rate percentages you must write and tell us within 30 days of the change taking place. You should write to:

National Registration Service
HM Revenue & Customs
Imperial House
77 Victoria Street
DN31 1DB 

i think HMRC needs to be informed of the new rate. What do others think? I will call CCH this afternoon and ask them about this.



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Replying to Margaret Bell:
By dodonnell
20th Aug 2014 10:56

Hi essex accountant

May I ask whether you came to a conclusion on this please?




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By Mikolaj
06th Mar 2015 10:18

Registering for flat rate

These days when following online vat registration, or even historically when registering via the paper route, the trader simply applies for the Flat Rate Vat scheme.


No rate is automatically applied, guidance is given as when completed online, HMRC ask for a sic code or trade sector code, and the appropriate flat retae vat %'age is displayed during the application. Notwithstanding, it is up to the trader to select the most appropriate flat rate for the specific industry in which they are trading. It is always best to keep copies of the relevant investigations when selecting the appropriate flat rate, to evidence your decision.





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