On 20 March 2020, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, introduced several measures to support businesses.  This note discusses the recent VAT announcement and suggests a few VAT working capital opportunities which businesses may wish to consider.

VAT announcement on 20 March 2020

VAT payments due from businesses between 20 March 2020 and the end of June 2020 will be deferred.

No VAT registered business will have to make a VAT payment normally due with their VAT return to HMRC in this period. Payment of VAT will be deferred to the end of the tax year.

What does this mean in practice?

HMRC has not yet issued detailed guidance on how the tax year will be defined.  The tax year for VAT typically runs to the end of 31 March, 30 April or 31 May (depending on the VAT return periods of an individual business).

Therefore, our understanding is that VAT payments for the period from 20 March 2020 to 30 June 2020 will be deferred until the VAT return periods ending 31 March, 30 April or 31 May depending on the VAT return periods of each business deferring payments.

For example, for those companies with a 31 May 2020 VAT tax year will be able to defer its current VAT until 7 July 2020.

VAT working capital management

The following VAT working capital procedures should be considered.

Time to Pay “TTP” agreements

HM Treasury has announced a stepping up of resource and a specific COVID-19 helpline that businesses can call. TTP allows a business to defer current (as opposed to prospective) tax debts (principally corporation / income tax, payroll taxes and VAT – but theoretically any other tax or duty) by paying in instalments over a 3-12 month period.

As part of the process, directors are expected to provide written confirmation that each instalment will be made.

HMRC have made it clear that they see themselves in this instance as lender of last resort (and not of first resort).  Therefore, the taxpayer must demonstrate that all other sources of finance have been pursued and exhausted. It is, however, critical to ensure supporting facts (and documentation) are available to evidence cashflow concerns.

Businesses with a Customer Compliance Manager should discuss this with them in the first instance.  All others are encouraged to contact HMRC’s helpline on 0800 0159 559.  The process can take less than an hour in a simple situation where the amount to be deferred is less than £750K.  Agreement for deferral of larger sums will take longer.

Managing VAT cash flow effectively

The starting point for managing VAT cash flow effectively is to have a good understanding of the VAT flows within the business.  These are as follows:

  • VAT paid on sales; and
  • VAT paid on purchases; VAT paid on imports; acquisitions tax paid on intra-EU purchases of goods and VAT accounted for on services provided by overseas suppliers under the reverse-charge mechanism.

Information needs to be split by country and, ideally, by legal entity.

Once this position has been identified, VAT processes can be targeted to determine whether the business has adopted an optimised VAT cash flow position.

Change to monthly VAT returns

VAT return periods can be changed or moved from quarterly to monthly cycles to speed up VAT repayments or delay VAT payments.

Payment on account reduction 

All VAT-registered businesses with a VAT liability of £2.3 million or more in a period of 12 months or less, are required to make interim payments at the end of the second and third months of each VAT quarter in advance of their quarterly VAT returns. These are payments on account of the quarterly VAT liability. A balancing payment for the quarter, that is the quarterly liability less the payments on account made, is then made with the VAT return.

A trader may suffer a reduction in the volume of his business and thus a reduction in the amount of VAT payable. In this scenario, problems may arise if the monthly payments are calculated by reference to a higher base than is currently appropriate. In an extreme case, the trader may find that the payments on account made in months one and two exceed his quarterly liability and that he is entitled to a repayment on the submission of the return. Thus, the amount of the monthly payments should be revised where there is a material reduction in the VAT payable by the trader. Where the total VAT payable for a period of one year ending after the end of the reference period is 80% or less of the total VAT payable for the reference period, the payments on account may be determined by reference to the lower amount, providing written approval from HMRC is obtained.

Businesses may wish to consider making a payment on account reduction.  Further guidance is set out here - Payment on account - HMRC guidance

Invoice timing

VAT incurred on purchase invoices that are received at the end of a VAT quarter can often be recovered (from HMRC) before the VAT shown on the invoice needs to be paid to your supplier. 

Where invoice processing results in VAT being recovered in a later VAT period, accrual can be agreed to accelerate the recovery of VAT. This can apply to VAT incurred on most expenses including rent, imports and late supplier invoices.

Under normal VAT accounting rules, input tax can generally be recovered when the business is in possession of a valid tax invoice from the supplier. Many businesses recover input tax later than they are entitled to.

Digital data tools are available to help businesses calculate the percentage of input tax they typically recover late. Options include adjusting the accounts payable process to ensure earlier VAT recovery by way of a manual accrual or seeking HMRC approval to uplift the input tax figure on the VAT return by a fixed percentage each period. The added benefit of an exercise of this nature in the current climate is that it provides the business with a one-off injection of cash the first time it is done.

Furthermore, Digital data tools can further enhance input tax recovery and cash flows by identifying invoices with VAT that have been entered into the accounts payable system gross with no VAT being claimed – this may be due to uncertainty on the part of the accounts payable staff as to whether they are in possession of a valid tax invoice to support input tax recovery.

Self-billing arrangements could also be introduced to accelerate the recovery of VAT on regular costs.

Invoice timing – sales outputs

The timing of sales invoices.  While sales invoices must be issued at specific times, cash flow can be improved by raising sales invoices at the beginning of a VAT return period. 

Issuing a proforma invoice or a request for payment for services instead of a sales invoice should not create a VAT tax point.  Consequently, no VAT will be due to HMRC until after a payment is received from a customer (at which point an invoice should be issued). 

Bad Debt Relief

The VAT declared on sales invoices can be claimed back from HMRC where the invoices remain unpaid after six months.

However, the opposite is also true, VAT recovered on unpaid purchase invoices should be repaid to HMRC after six months.  This is a real concern which could result in unexpected VAT liabilities.

Staff expenses 

Several businesses routinely under-recover the VAT they incur on staff expenses. HMRC has discretion to allow retrospective VAT reclaims, for up to four years.

Recover overseas VAT 

Globally nearly 170 countries have a VAT system. Some countries have reciprocal arrangements with the EU and UK and in certain circumstances VAT incurred on overseas travel, subsistence and other costs can be recovered.

This is an area that can produce bottom line savings or cashflows can be improved by filing claims quarterly rather than annually.

VAT planning for the smaller business

A number of VAT accounting schemes can be used by smaller businesses to pay less VAT or pay it later.

Smaller businesses can choose to adopt the flat rate scheme, and this can result in a VAT benefit.  The scheme allows a business to charge standard rate VAT on its sales.  However, it only pays an element of this VAT to HMRC.  This can result in a VAT saving. 

Businesses with a turnover below £1.35m can use the cash accounting scheme which results in VAT on sales being declared and paid to HMRC after customers have paid.