Dear Tax Wizards: see, this is why you can’t have nice things

September 25, 2014

I really wish I had got around to reading the consultation on VAT and adapted motor vehicles before it closed, actually.  It’s about a proposal to alter the conditions under which wheelchair users can buy adapted vehicles without having to pay VAT.  Let’s pause for a moment and think about that.  Wheelchair users – and it’s clear from the condoc we’re talking about people using a wheelchair because of a permanent disability, not a broken leg, and that mobility scooters aren’t counted as wheelchairs for the purposes of this relief – can buy a car (or a boat – bizarrely, I first thought, but that was just my ignorance speaking) that is specially adapted for their use and they don’t have to pay VAT – on the cost of the entire vehicle, not just of the adaptations.

Now I’m going to pause there and point out that disability isn’t a simple binary, and some people might use a wheelchair some times and not others (People with relapsing-remitting MS, for example) and some people might have mobility problems yet find crutches and a mobility scooter better adapted for their needs.  Nevertheless the policy aim, of relieving people with disabilities from this particular tax burden, seems laudable.

And what happens?

1.18 The relief is being targeted and abused by individuals and organisations that purchase vehicles at the zero rate of VAT in order to sell them on for profit. This is clearly not what the relief was designed or intended for.

So… we have a laudable policy aim, a piece of legislation that is being clearly abused, and we tweak the law to try and delineate more clearly between the virtuous and the sinner?  This is how tax law becomes complex.


3.5 Rather than adapting vehicles to meet the needs of the individual disabled wheelchair user, some dealers add the same low cost, easily removable, item to all the vehicles they zero-rate using the relief. These adaptations do not meet the individual needs of wheelchair users that require the vehicle to be substantially adapted.

Does HMRC have evidence to back up this assertion?  Because if they have, why are they not prosecuting the fuck out of the “some dealers” who are doing this?  I mean, what kind of person sees a piece of tax legislation that is supposed to help out people with disabilities and thinks to themselves “hey, if I get one of the lads to weld a bit of junk on the side I can make 20% on this!”  How do you sleep at night?

And then.

3.16 HMRC and the police have found that the relief is being abused by individuals and organisations purchasing expensive vehicles with minor, low cost, adaptations at the zero rate of VAT. They remove the adaptations immediately after purchase and sell the vehicles on for profit.

3.17 Some motor dealers have colluded in purchasing vehicles at the zero rate of VAT from one another. They then sell the vehicles on for significant profit.

3.18 Criminal gangs have been exploiting the relief to launder money and finance other illegal activity.

And again, why are we faffing about tweaking the law and not prosecuting the “individuals and organisations” to the full extent of the law, listing them on the “most wanted” website and showing us the thrilling details on “Saints and Scroungers“?

From the impact assessment:

The best estimate is that annually the adapted motor vehicles relief costs £65 million, of which about £25 million could be from fraudulent sales.

£25 million quid? How many people are working on hunting these people down, collecting evidence, and getting them in front of the courts?

Not enough.  A couple of years ago the ARC union said that if they could have £45.5m invested in another 150 trained lawyers and 50 legal assistants, they thought they could bring in £2,000m. (Line 7 of the table)  How about we just do that, and see?


(For the avoidance of doubt, yes, I think tweaking the law to make it a bit clearer – only one vehicle per person every three years – is a good idea.  But faffing about with mandatory declarations and fussy attempts to define the permissible adaptations aren’t.  Prosecute the bastards, please, and remember that disability isn’t a binary)




(Edited 25/9 to remove the duplication of “consultation” in the first sentence)


  1. So far as I’m aware, they *are* “prosecuting the fuck out of the “some dealers” who are doing this”. The problem with major prosecutions is that it takes years to resolve them, and the naming and shaming regime only allows HMRC to include closed cases.

    • I understand why it might take years to settle a civil tax case, where the arguments are complex and the law unclear. But why should it take “years to resolve” a criminal case of outright fraud? A three years between vehicles limit and a dealer declaration won’t prevent outright fraud by criminal gangs, so why faff about making the law more complex?

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