Tax

Revenue’s latest R&D guidelines explains

Aug 01, 2019
Paul Smith breaks down the three most significant changes in the latest edition of Revenue’s R&D tax credit scheme guidelines.

In a recent Oireachtas debate, Deputy Mary Butler asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation: “What is being done to ensure we reach the EU average spend? Will Ireland meet the 2020 target to spend 2.5% of GNP on research and development annually?” To which the Minister replied: “It is unlikely that many European countries will reach the target of 2.5%. Where Ireland stands and how well we are doing, we can only go on the European and global statistics we get. Under the heading, Excellent Science, a report from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) noted that Ireland is tenth in the global scientific ranking. A few examples of our global rankings in different areas are: second in animal and dairy, immunology, and nanotechnology; third in material science; fourth in agricultural science; fifth in chemistry; and sixth in basic medical research… I have been all over the world and our 18 research centres are recognised as being par excellence throughout Europe and the world. We are doing exceptionally well.”

A key part of Ireland’s national development strategy is to develop “a strong economy supported by Enterprise, Innovation and Skills”. The research and development (R&D) tax credit scheme forms part of the overall corporation tax offering aimed at fulfilling this strategy. The primary policy objective behind the tax credit is to increase business in Ireland, as R&D is considered an important factor for increased innovation and productivity. Reflecting these considerations, the Government’s Innovation 2020 Strategy aims to achieve the EU 2020 target of increasing overall (i.e. public and private) R&D expenditure in Ireland to 2.5% of GNP by 2020.

The R&D tax credit scheme is administered by the Office of the Revenue Commissioners, which issued its latest guidelines on 6 March 2019. It is almost four years since the previous guidelines were published (April 2015) and in the interim, a number of significant events relating to the wider research, development and innovation (RD&I) landscape have happened:

  • The Knowledge Development Box was introduced in 2015;
  • The updated OECD Frascati Manual was issued in 2015;
  • The Department of Finance reviewed the R&D tax credit scheme in 2016;
  • An R&D Discussion Group was formed in 2017; and
  • The Department of Business Enterprise and Innovation’s Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund was introduced in 2018.
It was expected that the latest guidelines would provide additional clarity on issues set out in previous ones, insight from the increased number of audits, and recommendations for continued best practice. There are 14 changes in all, most of which are relatively minor, and are therefore not discussed in this article. I will instead evaluate the more significant changes and briefly comment on the upcoming Department of Finance review of the R&D tax credit scheme.

Change 1: Suggested file layout for supporting documentation

An important consideration is that in defending a claim, the burden of proof is on the claimant to evidence their entitlement to tax credits. It should therefore come as little surprise that the principal focus of many audits is on supporting documentation.
Although the legislation is silent on the nature of the documentation required to support an R&D tax credit claim, Revenue conducts audits using its own guidelines and provides a copy to the experts appointed to assist Revenue. The guidelines give indications of records that should be maintained to satisfy the science and accounting tests.

The latest guidelines have, for the first time, introduced a “suggested” file layout for supporting documentation. This should be of benefit to existing claimants who have inadequate record-keeping and who are considering upgrading their systems and processes to be audit-ready. It may also be of benefit to potential claimants who are assessing what must be done to prepare a robust claim and, in time, defend it – the adage being that “your first step to claiming is also your first step to audit”.

Revenue also benefits by potentially standardising the audit process and its inherent costs. At a recent audit this author attended, the Revenue inspector commented: “If we knew then what we know now, there may have been less need for the audit”. With Revenue’s increased adoption of e-auditing, a standardised R&D file structure could reduce the time and cost of on-site audits for both Revenue and claimants.

Although the suggested file layout has advantages, it could be costly and administratively difficult for claimants to adopt. Furthermore, although the words “suggested” and “non-obligatory” are used, we can but assume that in time it could become a de facto requirement. This raises the question as to whether claimants would be disadvantaged in not using it or in having an incomplete file.

In addition, claimants frequently receive an Aspect Query (Revenue’s R&D questionnaire, comprising 23–25 questions) into their claim in advance of a full audit. In answering the Aspect Query, a report setting out one’s entitlement to claim is typically furnished. That report is often laid out in the same format as the Aspect Query and although additional questions may be raised, the reports are not generally rejected by Revenue.

Therefore, if reports in the Aspect Query format are broadly acceptable to Revenue, a suggestion is for Revenue to consider amending its Aspect Query rather than asking claimants to amend their processes. The R&D tax credit was introduced to defray the cost for claimants in the carrying on of R&D activities. There is no tax credit for the costs of record-keeping or file management.

Change 2: Eligibility to claim for sub-contracted R&D activity

The guidelines have reversed Revenue’s position that “outsourced activity must constitute qualifying R&D activity in its own right”. In the past, outsourced activities needed to be the R&D of the company carrying on the activities. With this change, they now must be the R&D of the claimant. This is constructive as it considers entitlement to tax credits from the claimant’s standpoint and reflects the reality of sub-contracting where the claimant lacks specific expertise and requires outside assistance to support its in-house R&D activity.

The positive impact of this change will be the confidence it gives claimants to include sub-contracted activities that may previously have been omitted from claims, as the claimant could not determine whether the outsourced activities constituted R&D when performed by the contracted party.

Change 3: Materials used in R&D activities, which may be subsequently sold

R&D tax credit/relief schemes in other jurisdictions (such as Canada, Australia and the UK) have a legislative requirement to deduct from claims saleable products resulting from R&D activities. In Ireland, there is no such legislation, but the 2015 guidelines introduced this requirement without worked examples. The latest guidelines have updated the wording to read “where it is reasonable to consider that there will be a saleable product” and have provided three examples.

Revenue is effectively placing the onus on the claimant to assess, based on a “reasonable to foresee” test, whether the materials were utilised “wholly and exclusively in the carrying on by the company of R&D activities”. This assessment seems to be at odds with the legislation, wherein other than a requirement to make a deduction for expenditure met by grant assistance, there is no reference to eligible expenditure having to be reduced for income from the sale of materials or saleable product derived from R&D.

In the author’s opinion, whether materials have a post-R&D resale value should not detract from the fundamental and legislative reason for which their cost was incurred – namely, to carry on R&D activities. Guidelines do not make the law, and are but an aid to its interpretation.

Department of Finance Review

The Department of Finance has a duty of care over public expenditure and this year, in co-operation with the Office of the Revenue Commissioners, it will conduct its triennial review of whether R&D tax expenditure remains fit for purpose. The R&D tax scheme benefits not only claimants, but wider society also through development, employment, education and so on. However, the R&D headline cost figures do not reflect the full cost of the scheme to the Exchequer.

It will be a full review (unlike 2016, which was economic only) and will cover four pillars – relevance, cost, impact and efficiency – to determine if the scheme remains valid. It will be conducted along two strands:

  • A cost-benefit analysis (statistical in nature); and
  • A tax policy unit analysis, involving a public consultation.
It is encouraging that since the last review: 
  • There has been no change in the R&D legislation;
  • The OECD-compliant Knowledge Development Box scheme has come into operation;
  • Ireland is ranked tenth in the 2018 Global Innovation Index;
  • Ireland is ranked ninth in the 2018 European Innovation Scorecard; and
  • Ireland is ranked fourth in the OECD Tax Database in terms of R&D tax incentives (tax and grants).

Conclusion

The expectations of the latest guidelines have largely been met, and hopefully the R&D Discussion Group will function as a collaborative forum to influence future updates.Yes, there is increased focus on supporting documentation, but broadly, the status quo remains. For now, you could say of the RD&I landscape in Ireland and the R&D tax credit guidelines respectively: “You rock. You rule!”

The big three

The three significant changes to Revenue’s R&D tax credit guidelines of which claimants should be aware are as follows:

Change 1: 

Suggested file layout for supporting documentation. The layout will benefit existing claimants who have inadequate record-keeping and who are considering upgrading their systems and processes to be audit-ready. A standardised R&D file structure could also reduce the time and costs of on-site audits for both Revenue and claimants.

Change 2: 

Eligibility to claim for sub-contracted R&D activity. The guidelines have reversed Revenue’s previous position that “outsourced activity must constitute qualifying R&D activity in its own right”. This is constructive as it considers entitlement to tax credits from the claimant’s standpoint and reflects the reality of sub-contracting, in that the claimant lacks specific expertise and requires outside assistance to support its in-house R&D activity.

Change 3: 

Requirement to deduct the cost of materials used in R&D and having resale value. The guidelines update the wording and provide three examples regarding saleable materials used in R&D activities. Revenue is effectively placing the onus on the claimant to assess, based on a “reasonable to foresee” test, whether the materials were utilised “wholly and exclusively in the carrying on by the company of R&D activities”.

Paul Smith is Senior Tax Manager, Global Investment & Innovation Incentives (Gi3), at Deloitte.