This piece on research and development tax relief was originally published in the R&D Tax Credit Insider newsletter on LinkedIn.
What does the money achieve?
R&D tax relief is an important government policy intended to incentivise businesses to incur expenditure on R&D that is ultimately expected to bring economic benefits. Efficient operation of the system behind it is vital to achieve this. One issue around tax reliefs more generally is that, once introduced, their costs and benefits generally get much less scrutiny than other direct government spending, even if they end up costing significantly more than forecast. It is critical that what is essentially government spending is producing beneficial results for the taxpayer alongside the claimant businesses.
There has long been debate about whether and how much R&D tax relief benefits the economy. Most advisers have stories of businesses that would not have been able to fund their innovations without the reliefs, and the generally held view is that businesses bring forward their R&D investment due to a greater appetite for risk resulting from the existence of the support. However, it also seems clear that at least a proportion of claims are made in relation to expenditure that was incurred without the businesses being aware of the relief so they could not have been incentivised to carry out that R&D.
The complexity of the schemes means many businesses and their ordinary advisers do not feel able to make claims themselves. This has resulted in the large market for R&D claims specialists in the same way that the increasing complexity of tax generally has increased the tax advice market. Of concern for R&D relief is the clear growth of firms of advisers using inappropriate marketing and promotion to persuade businesses to make unreasonable claims, taking a percentage cut in the process. It seems to be well accepted (and confirmed by HMRC estimates of fraud and error) that a proportion of the relief has been going to businesses who do not qualify, along with the fees to their advisers, in some cases a significant percentage of the claim. Recent years have seen little in the way of scrutiny from HMRC which has presumably encouraged more of this approach.
A further cut of the pot also goes in interest and fees to finance companies offering upfront loans against future receipt of claim repayments. It is understandable that businesses wish to improve their cashflow when waiting for repayments. However, the reliefs were not intended to support businesses changing their croissant recipe along with their associated advisers and finance companies.
These concerns have led to the legislative changes coming in this year, including the reduction in benefits in the SME scheme, which will ultimately impact genuine R&D claimants and their advisers alongside the less reputable end of the market.
This piece will not rehearse the extreme examples of R&D projects claimed to be eligible for relief by a variety of less reputable advisers but it is clear that these are the source of significant numbers of problem claims.
The changes to legislation requiring pre-notification of claims six months after the end of the accounting period will go some way to preventing speculative backdated claims that appear to be part of the ‘overmarketing’ problem.
The requirement to identify advisers compiling the claims alongside a responsible officer within the claimant business is also expected to improve compliance. However, the first pre-notifications won’t happen until around September 2024 and it will be getting on for two years before HMRC are receiving information in a digital format to enable proper targeting of risk assessment. This is plenty of time for many more spurious claims, which could lead to further losses in the region of £1bn based on most recent estimates of fraud and error, which would further discredit the system.
Many people within the industry have been advocating for compulsory professional regulation for R&D advisers (and more widely in the tax adviser industry)1. Research has shown that 80% of advisers that are not members of professional bodies have no professional qualification2, which is surely unusual in the financial services industry and gives rise to significant risks to both clients and HMRC. However, consultation last year on improving the tax advice market resulted in no changes and intentions for a further consultation that has not yet appeared. In the meantime, problem advisers, who are generally unregulated, are continuing to abuse the system and potentially cause financial damage to those unwittingly accepting their advice if boundary-pushing claims are eventually refused.
The issue of regulating tax advice is obviously a complex one and there is no straightforward answer but the fact that HMRC are still failing to deal properly with problem agents results in poor outcomes for everyone involved in R&D reliefs. It is therefore critical that targeted compliance efforts against problem advisers are stepped up prior to the new legislation kicking in.
HMRC approach and resources
TaxWatch recently submitted evidence to the Public Accounts Committee enquiry into managing tax compliance following the pandemic and many of the issues raised are relevant to how R&D policy is formed, how it works in practice and how HMRC handle compliance3.
The report highlights issues with increasing complexity of tax legislation alongside the closure of the Office for Tax Simplification, reductions in the numbers of tax professional staff in HMRC and inexperienced staff working in compliance, lack of long term funding and resourcing for compliance, and lack of evaluation of new legislation and different compliance approaches.
- urgently explaining the new mandate to be given to HMRC and the Treasury to simplify the tax code
- committing greater funding to compliance given its positive return on investment
- putting in place long term resource planning to ensure a consistent and robust compliance response
- putting in place a programme of evaluation in relation to all new legislation and compliance projects
- considering what other action can be taken against problem advisers.
As Malcolm Henderson said in a previous piece, the majority of staff at HMRC want to provide good customer service, and the experience held within the previous specialist R&D units encouraged claims where they were due as well as ensuring compliance with the rules4. Obviously that level of support has been overwhelmed by the huge increase in the numbers of claims, and the current rush to tackle compliance concerns has resulted in the reported scattergun approach to identifying risks and inconsistent treatment between different officers.
Of particular concern is recent evidence from the Institute for Government that between March 2016 and March 2022 there has been a reduction of 8,160 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) staff working within the tax profession in the civil service.5 A reduction of that level of highly qualified staff within HMRC obviously impacts on their performance across all sectors and will almost certainly affect the department’s approach to R&D compliance.
There is clearly a concern in the R&D industry that HMRC’s approach to compliance is not working. It has been suggested that compliance staff are not properly trained for the role and do not have enough experienced support to advise on the R&D definition. There appears to be a general feeling that they are often challenging the wrong cases, costing businesses time and money, creating a disincentive to make future claims
The definition of R&D belonged to the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) (possibly now Science, Innovation and Technology?). That definition is a specific difficulty as it is vital for establishing eligibility but is not a tax concept. The original R&D teams had sector specialist who were available to assist with applying the definition. It is not clear whether those roles still exist, except for software cases where staff from the Chief Digital and Information Office (CDIO) are providing guidance. However, this raises the question whether there are non-tax professionals within government who would be better able to test claims against the eligibility definition, alongside the tax compliance staff dealing with other aspects.
It seems clear that without a significant improvement in HMRC’s compliance performance on R&D cases, the schemes are likely to suffer further damage impacting on the overall benefits to the economy.
1Raising standards in the tax advice market: Summary of responses and next steps, HMRC, November 2020, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/934614/Raising_standards_in_the_tax_advice_market_-_summary_of_responses_and_next_steps.pdf
2Understanding the characteristics of unaffiliated tax agents, HMRC, November 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1037031/Understanding_the_characteristics_of_unaffiliated_tax_agents.pdf
3Written evidence submitted by TaxWatch, Public Accounts Committee, January 2023, https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/115783/pdf/
4R & D tax credits: Customer service examined, R & D tax credit insider, 2 February 2023, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/rd-tax-credits-hmrc-customer-service-examined-rufus-meakin?trk=news-guest_share-article
5Civil Service Staff Numbers, Institute for Government, 15 December 2017, https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/civil-service-staff-numbers