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Teacake set to cost taxman £3.5m


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Chocolate teacakes were wrongly classed as a biscuit for two decades


The UK Treasury is facing a £3.5m bill, because of VAT wrongly imposed on a Marks and Spencer teacake, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled.


Customers paid VAT for 20 years before the authorities accepted the product was a cake, which does not command VAT. The UK argued that paying back the total sum would "unjustly enrich" M&S as customers had paid the money. The ECJ ruled that, in principle, VAT had to be repaid in full, but left the final decision to the British courts. That decision will be taken by the House of Lords and HM Revenue and Customs said it was too early to make a comment.


"This is a very complex judgment on which it would be premature to make any comment until the House of Lords has handed down its judgment," Revenue and Customs said in a statement.


Marks and Spencer welcomed the ruling. "We are pleased with the outcome which endorses our position. We're optimistic that the House of Lords will now find in our favour and hope that this will conclude the matter and draw a line under this protracted litigation," a spokeswoman said.


Cake or biscuit


UK tax officials acknowledged that chocolate teacakes had been wrongly classed as biscuits in 1994, prompting M&S to launch a legal battle to have the wrongly-paid VAT returned.


Under UK tax rules, most traditional bakery products such as bread, cakes, flapjacks and Jaffa Cakes are free of VAT, but the tax is payable on cereal bars, shortbread and partly-coated or wholly-coated biscuits. The complexity of the legal battle surrounds the difference made by the tax authorities between companies classed until 2005 as repayment and payment traders.


While M&S was classed as a payment trader which owed VAT to the government at the end of a financial quarter, it argues that the main supermarkets, which were owed VAT by the authorities, were treated differently on the issue of chocolate teacakes. It complains that HM Revenue and Customs handed supermarkets back the VAT wrongly paid by customers on chocolate teacakes, while refusing to do the same for Marks and Spencer.


Unjust enrichment


Customs officials point to a ruling by the VAT and Duties Tribunal which said that M&S would not have made much more profit on the teacakes if VAT had been removed. In the tribunal's opinion, compensation of more than 10% (£350,000) would have amounted to unjust enrichment of the company.


But the European Court of Justice says the principle of "fiscal neutrality" means that tax authorities cannot make a distinction between different companies. It says it is up to the House of Lords to decide whether such a distinction was made.





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I can imagine the tax-man having to go though the entire records of Marks & Spencer to try and track down the people who had purchased M&S's teacakes...


...well I can't because those records would have been destroyed, and it will be impossible to track down a cash transaction.

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