VAT for SMEs – do you need to register? - Robinsons London

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VAT for SMEs – do you need to register?

Value Added Tax

This post is just one part of a 12-part guide to setting up a new business. Download the full business set-up guide to discover everything you need to know about satisfying HMRC and steering clear of any unwanted penalties and fines. 

VAT is a tax on consumer expenditure and is ultimately paid by the final customer. Most business transactions involve the supply of goods or services and VAT is payable if they are made:

  1. in the United Kingdom
  2. by a taxable person
  3. in the course or furtherance of business and are not specifically exempted or zero-rated

VAT is collected by HM Revenue & Customs and is normally payable quarterly.



There are two different types of registration – compulsory and voluntary:

a) Compulsory

A person who makes taxable supplies becomes liable to be registered if:

  1. At the end of any month, the value of his taxable supplies in the period of one year then ending has exceeded the registration limit, which is £85,000 from 01 April 2017.
  2. At any time, there are reasonable grounds for believing that the value of his taxable supplies in the next 30 days will exceed the £85,000 limit.
  3. If, where a business carried on by a taxable person is transferred as a going concern, the taxable supplies for the twelve months prior to the transfer exceed £85,000.

In the most common situation, i.e. (1) above, the person must notify HMRC of the liability within 30 days of the end of the month in which the value of the taxable supplies first exceeded £85,000. If, for example, the value of the taxable supplies first exceeded £85,000 in the twelve months to 31 March, then HMRC must be notified by 30 April and VAT registration would commence on 1 May.


b) Voluntary

In certain circumstances, it is possible to register on a voluntary basis for VAT even though the value of taxable supplies may never exceed £85,000. This is normally only beneficial where the majority of supplies are being made to customers who are themselves VAT registered, e.g. it would not be beneficial for a domestic painter with taxable supplies of £30,000 to be registered, whereas it may be beneficial for a commercial or industrial painter with the same level of supplies.

The other situation in which a voluntary registration might be beneficial is where the supplies are all zero-rated and no VAT is charged on the transaction. All VAT suffered by the trader on expenses can be reclaimed from HMRC.

In summary, the advantages and disadvantages of a voluntary registration are as follows:



  • enables input VAT suffered to be reclaimed;
  • a VAT number can give the impression that a business is larger than it actually is which sometimes can increase the possibility of obtaining work.



  • the requirement to prepare VAT returns on a quarterly basis and to submit them and if applicable pay over the VAT due within one month of the quarter end – is the amount of work involved worth it for the amount of input VAT that can be reclaimed?
  • HMRC may periodically visit the business (about every five years, but depends upon the risk of errors) to ensure that VAT is being properly accounted for. There may be penalties for incorrect returns.
  • Where most of the customers cannot reclaim VAT, such as domestic consumers, your prices will be uncompetitive compared to non VAT registered suppliers.


Taxable Persons and Supplies

b) Taxable Persons

It should always be remembered that it is a person that is registered for VAT and not a business. If a person has two separate different businesses, both with taxable supplies of £50,000, then that person will be required to be registered for VAT and account for VAT at the appropriate rate on the total supplies of £100,000.

It is possible to mitigate the effect of VAT by having one of the businesses operated by a limited company or by a partnership with a relative, but professional advice needs to be taken since HMRC have the power to still treat the two businesses as one if strict criteria are not met.

a) Taxable Supplies

Taxable supplies are all supplies made by a business either to a third party or to the trader himself (goods for own use), which are not exempt supplies. Taxable supplies therefore include zero-rated supplies.

The major categories of exempt supplies are:

  • Land (but not buildings)
  • Insurance
  • Postal services
  • Betting, gaming and lotteries
  • Finance
  • Education
  • Health and welfare

It is important that at the outset of a business, a trader establishes the VAT status of any supplies being made to avoid mistakes, e.g. the services of a physiotherapist are exempt, whilst the services of an acupuncturist are standard rated.


Tax Rates

There are three rates of VAT:

  1. 20% – the standard rate of VAT, applying to any sales of standard-rated goods or services
  2. 5% – for certain supplies of fuel and power and sanitary goods
  3. Zero-rated – the four main areas of zero-rated goods are:
  • Food and agriculture (but excluding pet food and most catering)
  • Printed matter, including books and newspapers
  • Young children’s clothing and footwear
  • Passenger transport (but excluding hire cars, taxis and parking)

Any VAT charged by the business, whether at 20% or 5% is known as output VAT and the total charged or collected in the VAT quarter is payable to H M Revenue & Customs.


Input VAT

Input VAT is the VAT that you are charged on your business purchases and expenses (the other persons output VAT) and is normally recoverable in full by a trader who only makes standard rated or zero-rated supplies. Businesses that make some exempt supplies (known as partially exempt businesses) have different recovery rules. The total input VAT suffered in the quarter is deducted from the output VAT charged or collected and the difference is either the amount of VAT due to HMRC or the amount repayable by HMRC. The majority of input VAT is recoverable but there are special rules for:

  • cars
  • petrol supplied for private usage;
  • business entertaining;
  • goods sold under a VAT second-hand scheme.

To reclaim VAT you have been charged as input VAT, you must hold valid evidence that you have received a taxable supply, which normally means a valid VAT invoice from a registered trader showing his VAT number and the amount of VAT charged.


Quarterly Returns

As mentioned earlier, as part of the Making Tax Digital project, all VAT registered businesses above the registration threshold will need to keep their accounting records in a digital format and update  HMRC quarterly  from April 2019. Currently most businesses manually input their VAT details and are not required to maintain computerised accounting records.



There are penalties for errors in VAT returns. More details can be found at the HMRC website:


VAT Checklist


  • Should the business be registered?
  • Is basis of registration correct?
  • Are details on registration certificate correct?
  • Do procedures exist for notifying H M Revenue & Customs of relevant changes?
  • Review position at regular intervals.
  • Is the Cash Accounting Scheme for VAT available and would it be beneficial?
  • Is the Annual accounting scheme available and would it be beneficial?
  • Is the flat rate scheme available and would it be beneficial?
  • Is it necessary to register for online filing of VAT returns or is this beneficial?
  • Are any of the special schemes for retailers applicable?


Preparation of VAT Returns

(Most businesses fill in the return and submit online these days)

  • Review sources of information.
  • Prepare draft return.
  • Check for accuracy and completeness.
  • Submit the return and make payment (if outputs exceed inputs)


Input Tax

  • Do any restrictions on input tax exist? If “Yes”, does an agreed method exist and does this method maximise input tax?
  • Are invoice additions and calculations checked?
  • Is input tax claimed at the earliest tax point?
  • Are all claims properly supported? Ensure all supporting invoices kept.


Output Tax

  • Are all income heads reflected for VAT accounting?
  • Are all potential sources of notional supplies considered?
  • Are all potential sources of income (asset sales, etc.) covered by VAT accounting system?
  • Is VAT captured at the correct tax point?
  • Is VAT correctly applied where appropriate?

As mentioned in the checklist there are various schemes which may be suitable for your business such as the flat rate scheme, annual accounting and cash accounting. We will be pleased to discuss the implications of these schemes with you and help you decide if they may be advantageous in your circumstances.


Money Laundering Regulations

HM Revenue & Customs have responsibility for administering certain aspects of The Money Laundering Regulations 2007, particularly relating to High Value Dealers (HVDs).

HVDs are those traders who may receive 15,000 Euros (approximately £12,000) in a single transaction or a series of linked transactions. The Regulations principally apply if cash or cash equivalent are offered in settlement.

If you believe you may be a HVD you should discuss this with your advisors or visit HMRC’s website at

Further, if you believe you may be affected by the Regulations as they related to regulated businesses, you should discuss this with your advisors as the penalties for not complying are serious.