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Easy fix costs Rugby League Club

Keeping up with your tax obligations can sometimes seem a drag: forms to be filled in, changes to keep abreast of and an incessant focus on the detail.

Mistakes can be costly. A few dollars here and there might be overlooked but get it much more wrong and you can be facing penalties for not taking reasonable care.

The IRD doesn’t get penalised for mistakes however. As long as they get it right eventually, failure to comply with the law is of no consequence.

To quote the Court of Appeal:

Ms Deligiannis accepts that the Commissioner has acted incorrectly in accepting GST returns filed by Mr Cullen in the Society’s name for periods before May 2016. But the Commissioner cannot be estopped by her previous errors of law from performing her statutory obligations to apply the revenue statutes correctly

The case was CIRRM Cullen CA239/2017 [2017] NZCA 448 a decision of the Court of Appeal issued on 12 October 2017.

The IRD won the case and the taxpayer was refused a $15,000 refund even though IRD had originally accepted it was due and payable.

The case is a reminder how costly it can be for taxpayers when they don’t get right some pretty basic housekeeping and how the playing field favours the tax collector.

The Tamaki Rugby League Club set up as an incorporated society under the Incorporated Societies Act in 2006. Over the next ten years the Club was struck off the Incorporated Societies Register and later reinstated twice and placed in liquidation once.

The second time it was struck off was in 2012 and it wasn’t reinstated again until June 2016. So, between 2012 and June 2016 it was operated as an unregistered unincorporated body or organisation.

The Club registered for GST while it was a valid incorporated society. It filed GST returns, made payments, and claimed GST refunds even during periods when it was struck off the Register of Incorporated Societies. IRD accepted these returns, processed them and paid out refunds.

The court case came about after the Club filed a return on 10 June 2016 covering the GST period April/May 2016. During April and May 2016 and at the time the GST return was filed on 10 June the Club was not a properly registered incorporated society. It had been struck off the incorporated societies register.

IRD initially accepted the GST refund was due but was not sure to whom it should be paid because the Club was not a validly registered incorporated society and the return had been filed using the GST registration number for the incorporated society.

IRD issued a notice of assessment reducing the refund from $14,951 to $101. A representative of the Club, Mr Murray, filed a Notice of Proposed Adjustment challenging the assessment and the IRD did not issue a Notice of Response. Mr Cullen started a court case asking for a declaration that the GST return was valid.

The High Court had found in favour of the Club deciding that in essence there was an entity, albeit an unregistered one, which was carrying on the taxable activity of the Club and which was entitled to the refund.

The IRD appealed to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal decided the Club was registered for GST as an incorporated society and there was no separate GST registered entity that was not an incorporated society. It was irrelevant that there might have been another entity carrying on the taxable activity. The fact was, there was no separate GST registration of any such entity. The Court of Appeal also held Mr Murray had no standing to issue the court case on behalf of the Club as an incorporated society. The IRD’s appeal was allowed and the taxpayer lost.

This would not have ended up this way if the Club had maintained its registered status as an incorporated society and not been struck off. In fact, the Club was reinstated as an incorporated society just a few days after the GST return was filed. However, that did not fix the problem. The IRD still won because the letter of the law said the Club did not exist as an incorporated society at the time it filed the GST return and during the period to which the return related.

So the taxpayer wasn’t allowed a slip up. Even though in substance the Club was conducting its activity just as it had before it was struck off and the IRD had been accepting and processing the returns up until June 2016, the fact was, at that date, technically it was not properly registered as an incorporated society and according to the Court of Appeal could not file a GST return while struck off the Incorporated Societies Register.

I’m a bit surprised there isn’t discussion in the judgment about section 51B of the GST Act. Often the full legal submissions are not included so it’s difficult to know whether the Court was asked to consider this section.

Section 51B provides that a person is treated as a registered person for GST purposes if they are not otherwise registered but supply goods or services representing that GST is charged on those supplies. Under the GST Act a “person” includes an unincorporated body of persons.

If the Club had been collecting subscriptions from members and making other supplies and purporting to charge GST on those supplies while not a valid Society section 51B(1)(a) may have operated so that the Club was “treated” as a registered person for GST purposes. There would still be issues to debate over whether a return filed purportedly using another GST registered person’s GST number is sufficient to amount to a “GST return” on behalf of the Club under section 16 or 18 of the GST Act. It was a return of sorts, even if the GST number on it was not the GST number of the unincorporated Club and, of course, the IRD had been accepting them in the past. But, that doesn’t count unfortunately.

Iain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Australia jumps ahead of NZ in taxing digital commerce

The Australian Government has released draft legislation proposing to apply GST to downloads and streaming of digital content and other services supplied from offshore to Australian consumers.

This will affect media such as games, movies, e-books and music downloaded over the internet by Australian resident consumers. GST will also apply where an Australian consumer buys other services from offshore such as legal, accounting, architectural, medical or other similar services.

There will be measures to allow the GST to be collected from operators of electronic distribution services in addition to the offshore supplier and a simplified registration regime appears on offer. A lot of the detail will appear later in Regulations.

The States of Australia still need to approve the legislation but it is intended to apply from 1 July 2017.

So Australia gets an early jump on NZ. Bets are on something similar being announced in the NZ Government’s Budget this month.

The practical issues with these measures have been well debated now and no complete or ideal solution has been found. Australia is essentially following the EU lead.

The Australian approach tilts the playing field completely in the opposite direction. At the moment, products sold electronically from offshore (such as e-books) are not taxed as highly as goods purchased online and imported into the country.

When this measure comes into force the preference shifts in favour of goods purchased online. That is because, for goods bought over the internet and imported into Australia there is a threshold of $1,000 below which no tax is payable. There is no suggestion at this stage to apply a similar threshold to imported services. How this impacts consumer choices (such as buying hard copy books over the internet rather than an e-book) remains to be seen.

The thorny issue of the low value import threshold just won’t go away.

 

 

Iain

 

 

 

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Govt raises stakes for online shoppers

The NZ Prime Minister says his government will go it alone if the OECD doesn’t move quickly enough to impose GST or VAT on online sales.

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=11418586

The fact the Prime Minister is raising this now is significant. The OECD is working on a multilateral solution for governments losing tax revenue from digital commerce. The next reporting deadline is towards the end of 2015. The question is, will Mr Key wait that long? He doesn’t say.

Other countries have already moved on this. The EC requires certain overseas companies to register and collect VAT on products sold to consumers in the EC. South Africa has done the same and there are others.

The likely multilateral solution will focus on enforcement in my view. Legislating to require non-resident companies to register for GST here is an important first step and most companies will comply. However, many may not and the Government will need a mechanism to enforce the law. That’s where an OECD wide solution could be helpful.

Prime Minister Key is suggesting some mechanism to block digital retailers from access to OECD consumers if they do not comply with the VAT/ GST law.

Clearly this issue is now well and truly in the Government’s spotlight. NZ retailers have been pushing for something to be done for some time now and will be watching developments closely.

Cheers

Iain

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What’s the IRD working on?

IRD has published its Public Rulings work programme for 2014/15.

You can find the full document here:

http://www.ird.govt.nz/resources/7/7/77d3ecdd-6305-408a-8b88-541e509f487b/download-pr-work-programme-2014-2015.pdf

Given GST is by far the most interesting tax here are the key points from the programme:

Currently consulting on (consultation period closed)
Time of supply when no supply made. This ruling covers when, if at all, GST has to be accounted for if a supply does not proceed. It’s pretty esoteric stuff but does have some practical implications for land transactions especially.

Currently consulting on (consultation period still open)
GST treatment of payments made to state schools. This covers school “donations” and other payments to schools and discusses when GST applies. Mainly affects state schools and provides more clarity over the treatment of what is a bit of a minefield.

Items currently in progress (nothing publicly available yet)
Secondhand goods claims for fishing quota/coastal permits and certificates of compliance.
Late return fees for hired goods.
Lotteries, raffles, sweepstakes and prize competitions.
Retirement villages Interpretation Statement update.
Non-profit bodies and section 20(3K).
GST and relationship property agreements.

Watch out for something to be published on the above. Fishing companies, secondhand goods traders, hire businesses, charities, aged care providers and relationship property lawyers will be particularly interested in these.

Known issues but NOT currently being worked on
GST and parking fines.
Partnership capital contributions.
GST under the Project to Reduce Emissions programme.
Single versus multiple supplies.
Directors’ fees and fees for board members.
GST and bare trusts.
Legal services provided to non-residents relating to transactions involving NZ land (a political hot potato).

If these issues concern you then it looks like you’ll be waiting until after 2015 before seeing progress.

It’s a pretty comprehensive work programme, especially when all the other (less interesting) taxes are added in. The IRD will have had to fix priority areas based on internal and taxpayer feedback.

Some of these issues are pretty important and when finalised will go a long way to improving the integrity of the tax system for many taxpayers. It’s a pity some of the not insignificant extra resources given to the IRD in recent years to audit taxpayers could not be diverted to allow this work to be completed more quickly.

Cheers

Iain

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Global VAT alignment edges closer

At the Global Forum on VAT in Tokyo last week 86 countries signed up to the first agreed framework for applying VAT to internationally traded services and intangibles. The new guidelines set out core VAT principles to be applied when taxing services and intangibles, will ensure more consistency between countries, will reduce double taxation and will protect the neutrality of business to business (“B2B”) transactions.

While an important step in the right direction, the more vexing question of how to tax internationally traded business to consumer (“B2C”)services and intangibles has been left for another time.

The Global Forum on VAT occurs under the umbrella of the OECD and provides a platform for global discussions on VAT. The first session took place in November 2012. Last week was the second occasion academics, tax administrators. business representatives and others were invited to discuss VAT policy trends and developments.

The main output from this latest session was a set of new OECD Guidelines on applying VAT across borders.

The Guidelines can be downloaded from the the OECD website – here: http://www.oecd.org/ctp/consumption/international-vat-gst-guidelines.htm

The focus of the Guidelines is B2B transactions. They discuss place of supply rules, the well known “destination principle” (B2B services should be taxed in the country where the customer is located) and mechanisms available to countries to allow non established foreign businesses to recover VAT incurred there.

None of this is startling news for New Zealand. We’re already ahead of this stuff thanks to our super charged GST system. Just this month we’ve seen a new streamlined registration and GST recovery system come into place for overseas businesses incurring GST here.

The really challenging question for New Zealand, and every other country with a VAT, is how do you tax B2C services and intangibles traded across borders? Unlike goods there’s no border control in place to capture internationally traded services and there’s no existing registration system to collect the tax from the customer/consumer.

This really is the more urgent question in my view. Countries are attempting to deal with the issue on their own (eg South Africa and the EU) but global cooperation and alignment are critical. Some States in the USA have implemented mechanisms to apply state taxes to inter-state B2C online sales (such as e-books) and the latest evidence suggests these measures are improving the sales of local bricks and mortar retailers at the expense of online retailers such as Amazon.

Last week’s Forum in Tokyo urged the OECD to finalise work on the VAT treatment of B2C services in time for the next Global Forum on VAT in November 2015. That seems like a long time to wait, but as we all know, achieving global consensus on anything is a slow process.

Cheers

Iain

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“Australia should follow NZ GST”?

NZ’s GST is certainly the most efficient form of VAT in the world.

The “VAT Revenue Ratio” is used by the OECD as a measure of VAT efficiency. The average in the OECD is about 50%.

The least efficient is Turkey’s VAT at about 30%. NZ ranks top at a little more than 95%, followed closely by Luxembourg.

Australia’s VAT Revenue Ratio is around 45%.

The Australian Treasury Secretary thinks they can learn from NZ’s GST and argues for a further shift in Australia from income taxes to GST. See: http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/world/9900014/Aussies-should-follow-our-GST-lead

If efficiency is the goal then the evidence seems compellingly in favour of the Secretary’s argument.

However, political realities seem to pull most countries in the opposite direction.

Yes VAT is spreading around the world as the tax of choice for governments but, increasingly those governments are voting for multiple rates, exemptions and zero rating when designing their version of VAT.

When the GFC hit we saw governments making greater use of reduced rates to stimulate activitiy. There is now a growing trend to use penal VAT rates as policy tools to discourage certain “undesirable” consumption (e.g for environmental reasons). Policies like these make a VAT system less efficient but they also make it more politically acceptable and relevant.

Perhaps the questions are: how long can NZ resist these political pressures and is it more likely we will follow the Aussie lead?

Iain

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GST and online shopping – is there a cure?

The NZ Government has delayed the Customs / IRD report on GST and online trading to allow the issue to be considered as part of the wider review of how global corporates are taxed. I think the merger of the issues was unavoidable. They are closely linked and the ultimate solution will be multilateral.

Nevertheless we’ve just come through another peak retail season with shoppers confirming their increasing appetite for internet purchases. Senior politicians have taken notice of the amount of GST being lost to the government and local retailers wonder why their overseas competitors continue to have this advantage over them.

As I see it, there are two interim solutions:
1. Remove the low value import threshold.
2. Introduce a domestic low value threshold for GST purposes.

Each has its own challenges and each means more compliance costs for someone. The first option appeals more however because it is consistent with perserving the integrity of our existing GST system.

cheers

Iain

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Labour Party drops GST policy on food

Labour has officially abandoned its policy to remove GST from fresh fruit and vegetables. See here:
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=11190292

Anyone who has heard David Cunliffe speak on tax policy since he was appointed Labour’s leader should have seen this coming. He’s never really been a big supporter of the proposal so far as I’ve observed.

Some GST consultants might have held out hope the policy would go through for the sake of their own pockets. It certainly had potential to create some interesting work for lawyers and other advisors.

New Zealand’s approach of keeping exceptions to GST to as few as possible is undoubtedly preferable from a tax system design perspective. This decision by the Labour Party is good news for the country because it means our GST system will not lose some of its current efficiency. If fresh fruit and vegetables were exempt from GST a greater proportion of every dollar collected by the tax would be spent on administration and compliance.

Having said that, many countries have learnt to cope with exceptions for food and there are ways of achieving the policy outcomes Labour was seeking without creating an administration and compliance nightmare for taxpayers and the IRD. It’s certainly something we may have to consider should a future government be tempted to increase the GST rate further.

Iain

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At least it’s a start

There’s a lot of chatter about South Africa’s proposed law requiring foreign businesses to charge VAT on sales of digital products to South African residents. If passed the law will cover things like music, videos, software and games sold on line.

At the moment, like many countries, South Africa’s VAT system struggles to cope with on line sales. New Zealand is the same. There are reverse charge rules but these just don’t work effectively for this sort of thing.

So the proposed answer is to force foreign on line businesses to register for VAT in South Africa if they receive funds from South African bank accounts for on line sales or they sell to South African residents.

A lot of people have rightly pointed to the practical difficulties enforcing a law like this. There’s no question they are pretty challenging. But frankly I can’t see countries like South Africa giving up just because it’s difficult. This is a growing issue and it’s a major inequality in all VAT systems. It needs to be dealt with.

The US has just passed an Act covering the same issue in relation to their State sales taxes. It’s called the Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013.

The EU has also legislated in this area, and yes, it’s obviously a little less challenging when it’s within one economic union.

The debate in Australia is increasing as it is in New Zealand. We now know the NZ IRD are looking at the issue.

Technology and more inter-governmental cooperation on tax matters will make it easier so I think it’s a fair bet we’ll see attempts made to reign this one in sooner rather than later.

Iain