When HMRC recently issued a Brief setting out changes to the VAT treatment of compensation and early termination payments, the guidance was given in the context of a recent European court ruling relating to cancelling mobile telephone contracts. Closer inspection, however, highlights the danger from any HMRC or Government announcement of a change in approach – the potential for the change to have an unexpected impact or consequences in other sectors.
Hitherto HMRC’s guidance made clear that when customers are charged to withdraw from agreements to receive goods or services, these charges were not generally for a supply and were outside the scope of VAT. Most early termination payments have been treated as compensation for the loss of future profit, and therefore not subject to VAT. However, HMRC has now concluded that these early termination fees should be subject to VAT, because it is considered that the payments represent a charge for the supply of goods or services which a customer contracted for. HMRC say that most early termination and cancellation fees are therefore liable for VAT – even if they are described as compensation or damages.
Consequences for the Real Estate sector
The Real Estate sector is likely to be impacted significantly by the change in approach. The new policy raises a concern that VAT is liable to be charged on lease “break payments” / early termination payments whether specified in the lease or negotiated separately between the landlord and the tenant and where the option to tax has been applied. Other property-related payments made to secure the early termination of long-term contracts including liquidated damages may also fall to be subject to VAT – for example, the payment to a facilities management company to terminate a contract early. The policy sees a supply rather than outside the scope compensation.
It is also possible for leases and other agreements to terminate early if a particular event occurs such as the customer breaching the terms of the lessor or an associate business calling in receivers. Contracts may stipulate that such events cancel their terms or effectively allow the lessor to terminate as though there had been a breach and require a fee to compensate the lessor. As with other payments envisaged under a contract, this is a further consideration for a supply and will be subject to VAT.
Dilapidation payments have long been treated as compensation for tenants’ failure to meet their lease obligations and outside the scope of VAT. The new policy does not affect this position, as true dilapidation payments stem from the tenants’ failure to maintain the building during the lease – but it is important that agreements reflect the position correctly and accurately.
In a further twist, HMRC’s announcement broke with the normal approach of making changes in tax policy applicable prospectively. HMRC have set out that they consider that the policy applies retrospectively and requires taxpayers who may not have accounted for VAT on such fees to correct the errors for supplies in the last 4 years. If taxpayers have had a specific ruling on the point from HMRC (and getting rulings from HMRC is increasing challenging these days), their treatment can change prospectively from the date of the HMRC announcement on 2 September 2020.
We understand that representations have been made to HMRC in relation to this retrospective tax-grab, on the grounds that taxpayers have a legitimate expectation to rely on HMRC published guidance and fiscal certainty but there is no indication that HMRC will alter that approach. It could even be seen an opportunistic tax-gathering measure in the current circumstances.
Given the new guidance, taxpayers who have paid or received compensation, termination payments or similar should review the contractual and VAT treatment and consider an adjustment if appropriate. The VAT team at MHA Henderson Loggie would be happy to provide assistance in that process if required.
Alan Davis | VAT Partner & Chairman | email@example.com
Allan Easton | VAT Consultant | firstname.lastname@example.org