A lot has changed since research and development (R&D) tax relief was introduced in 2000. With each passing year, the incentive has attained greater awareness and adoption. HMRC’s annual analysis consistently shows more businesses claiming each year.
But there are concerns that this increase in R&D tax relief is not driving an increase in business R&D expenditure, according to reporting from the ONS. As a result, HMRC and the Treasury are taking a closer look at how the relief is targeted. This increased emphasis on quality means more compliance checks (or enquiries, as they are commonly called).
Software R&D is an area of particular focus for HMRC, with the approach to reviewing software R&D claims evolving significantly in recent years. In 2018, we took part in a working group which updated HMRC’s guidance on software R&D.
We also recently reported that HMRC has started sending ‘nudge’ letters to businesses making claims for software R&D urging them to review and address any errors in their claims. This proactive approach complements HMRC’s long-established use of its internal software team to support enquiries into R&D claims.
R&D tax relief remains a stable and generous tax incentive and a good fit for software businesses or those doing software R&D. But adjustments are required to reflect changes in policy and practice from HMRC and ensure that your business is enquiry-ready.
Why is HMRC focused on software R&D tax credit claims?
Software R&D has become a focal point of compliance efforts for a few reasons. Of course, the reason HMRC initiates an enquiry varies from case to case.
Some cases are flagged for a specific risk or because of a change in the value or nature of the R&D claimed. For others, HMRC may simply be ‘fact finding’ with no specific concerns apparent. HMRC has also recently initiated a random selection process for enquiries. Whatever the trigger, enquiries always need to be carefully managed.
But for software R&D in particular, the trend towards greater scrutiny is happening for a number of reasons, namely:
- Complexity: Software is a complex field. The sector uses lots of jargon and technical terms, so it can be difficult to articulate an advance in software capability to a non-software specialist. Companies often underestimate the level of technical detail HMRC require when conducting an enquiry.
- Fast-moving: Software development is an area where the technological baseline progresses quickly. What was R&D a few months ago might be routine now due to the open-source approach the sector takes to development. Similarly, this makes it difficult for HMRC to keep up with the boundary between routine and R&D activities. This places the onus on the business to provide the right evidence that their project was R&D when it was undertaken, even if an enquiry is taking place months or even years later.
- Not all code is R&D: All software development involves creating new code. But only some new code is R&D. There is no easy way to differentiate this without software expertise and an understanding of the concepts in the tax definition of R&D, so defining eligibility and the boundaries of any R&D work can be tricky.
- It’s diverse: There are a multitude of disciplines and specialisms within the field of software development. This makes explaining the challenges you faced in your particular project all the more challenging, and HMRC will not necessarily have a software specialist on their team who has similar experience.
- Sub-sectors are secretive: In the software industry, deducing the wider baseline of what is ‘new’ is hard since a lot of cutting-edge development is very secretive. This is particularly the case in fin-tech, for instance. This puts the onus on software experts to make these assessments and, in my experience, even the most brilliant software professionals aren’t always confident making these calls.
Common software R&D claim errors
When you couple the unique complexities of software development with the worrying trend in the R&D tax advice market for spurious advisers providing bad advice, it makes sense for this sector to take extra care.
Software R&D errors generally fall into two rough categories: simple errors and complex errors. Simple errors are rooted in bad advice. For example, a firm is told by a poor-quality adviser that they can claim for implementing an off-the-shelf expenses software package. Or replacing a paper-based process with some simple software, improving efficiency in their business but not adding anything to capability across the field of software.
These errors can be avoided by engaging an experienced, regulated adviser who will steer you well clear of basic errors, or by reading up on the definition of R&D and accompanying guidance (keeping to information from reliable sources of course!). These sorts of mistakes are worryingly commonplace and a big part of the reason why HMRC has zoned in on the software sector.
A software specialist edge
Here’s how our software specialists give Old Mill and its clients an edge when claiming for software R&D or dealing with an HMRC enquiry.
Complex errors are, as the name suggests, more nuanced and often come down to translating your R&D projects and expenditure to HMRC.
At ForrestBrown, we have helped many businesses that have carried out genuine software R&D but have still faced challenges from HMRC. In these cases, the issue was not so much the R&D in and of itself.
Instead, our support focused on presenting the information clearly, consistently and coherently. In software projects, there needs to be a particular emphasis on clearly identifying the boundaries of the R&D activity from wider commercial projects.
As noted, software innovation constantly changes, but enquiries can occur several years after the project took place. Defending an R&D project which was truly novel at the time but now fairly routine can place a lot of pressure on a company’s technical staff. Good records go a long way, and sector expertise from your R&D tax adviser can make a vital difference here in supporting your competent professionals.
Many companies underestimate the level of challenge they might receive from HMRC. Some years ago now, part of the role of HMRC’s R&D specialists was to help educate companies on R&D tax relief. However, with the number of claims this team now handles, the onus today is very much on the business to present its case for relief to be due.
This means that understanding the drivers behind HMRC questions has become essential to securing a successful outcome when software R&D claims are enquired into. Our specialist enquiry support team provide both technical advice and help you with a strategy for resolving the enquiry to achieve the best possible result.
Are you facing an HMRC enquiry into your software R&D claim? ForrestBrown can help resolve the issue >
How ForrestBrown can help with your software R&D claim
All of the complexity presented here can be simplified with good advice. Not just tax advice, but tax advice combined with sector expertise and HMRC practice insights.
At ForrestBrown, we have software developers on our team. The assessment of your R&D projects sits with your software team, but this can be an unwelcome burden if HMRC challenges your claim: it’s up to you to defend your assessments.
Tom Heslin MSc
- Leads our sector specialist team
- On the HMRC subcommittee that drafted software guidance for R&D tax relief
- Master’s in Medical Image Computing
Expertise & specialisms
- Machine learning
- Communication of highly technical R&D claims
- HMRC policy
Tom is a software expert at the cutting-edge of technical innovation and HMRC policy. One of our sector specialists at ForrestBrown, his knowledge and experience is invaluable in optimising software claims.
He sits on the HMRC subcommittee that issues software guidance for R&D tax relief. As such, the team utilises his extensive expertise to ensure we deliver robust and accurate advice to our clients.
With a master’s degree in Medical Image Computing from University College London, Tom has a deep understanding of image processing techniques. He can apply mathematical and statistical formulae to large datasets and machine learning.
On top of extensive experience in the R&D tax relief industry, Tom has held a range of technical positions spanning various industries. In e-learning he engineered tools to aid international broadcast of lectures. In medical technology he helped develop an online CBT tool to help manage unhealthy lifestyle habits.
Tom also uses his industry insight to improve the future of R&D tax reliefs for the software industry. Not only does he work with our clients to represent their views in response to R&D consultations, he also communicates key information to our clients on technical webinars and in key content such as his work in IT Pro Portal, Tech Monitor, SME Web and Business Leader publications.
A natural communicator, Tom is able to express highly technical R&D claims in a clear and compelling way. He is passionate about helping science and technology firms maximise their funding to drive innovation and breakthroughs.
Ben Wyatt LLB
- Expert in a huge range of developer and cloud technologies.
- 15 years of agency experience working across many sectors.
- A dedicated resource at ForrestBrown for uncovering digital innovation.
Expertise & specialisms
- Web design and development
- Cloud technologies
- Digital awareness
- UK law
Ben is a digital expert at the forefront of tech trends. A digital sector specialist at ForrestBrown, his extensive knowledge is invaluable to our clients who are pushing the boundaries of innovation.
He began his career as a law and philosophy graduate in publishing, but quickly developed a keen interest in web design and build. At the time he worked for family law publishing house Jordan Publishing, but he moved from there into the world of digital agencies.
Ben has amassed more than 15 years of digital agency experience since then, some at general agencies; others specialising in sectors such as travel and product development. These include 3Sixty, Bray Leino, Zone and Potato.
Ben has also developed expertise in AWS, Azure and Google Cloud as cloud technology has emerged. In his senior roles he has led teams of developers and been involved in wider business management.
His extensive experience at agencies has led him to work across many sectors, including legal, transport infrastructure and entertainment. Past projects include internal tools such as events planning platforms and interactive gaming that utilises augmented reality.
Ben’s expertise is tremendously valuable to our clients at the cutting edge of digital innovation. He works directly with them and our R&D tax practice to uncover all qualifying innovations for robust R&D tax credit claims.
Tree MA FBCS
Senior Sector Specialist
- Software, electronics and physical sciences specialist.
- Former CTO with 30 years’ experience in high-tech businesses.
- MA in Physics from Cambridge
Expertise & specialisms
- Video streaming and media processing
- Artificial intelligence
- IoT technology
Tree has been at the forefront of tech for more than two decades. His expertise spans computer game design, digital music, databases, cloud services, artificial intelligence, psychological assessments and IoT technology. He also has a degree in Physics from the University of Cambridge.
Tree’s career started with a game programmer role, developing high-profile games for the original Sony Playstation. Since then, he has worked with cutting-edge tech startups.
Two notable projects Tree has worked on include writing the first open source cross-platfrom library for beacons for iOS and Android, and writing GPU-based server software to convert video and images in real time for hexagonal pixel displays.
Tree brings his background as a CTO to support our associations in the software and hardware space. Speaking on webinars, writing content (such as his published article in IT Pro Portal) and speaking to association members, Tree helps businesses to identify how they can make efficiencies when placing technology claims.
Possessing a combination of technical flair and business acumen, Tree has a passion for helping tech firms innovate and grow. He has witnessed firsthand the impact that R&D tax reliefs can have on growing an innovative team. After joining ForrestBrown in 2019, he has been able to channel his knowledge and creativity to help our digital technology clients maximise their funding from R&D tax relief and worked on a number of responses to government consultations regarding the future of the tax relief.
David North BEng MBCS
Senior Sector Specialist
- Digital and software specialist.
- 20 years’ experience in digital, both in programming and leading software teams.
- Degree in electronic engineering.
Expertise & specialisms
- Electronic engineering
David is a software expert within our sector specialist team and a massive technology enthusiast. With more than 20 years’ industry experience, his knowledge is invaluable in supporting our clients with complex, software-based R&D tax credit claims.
David has a degree in Electronic Engineering with Management Studies from Aston University and this is where his interest in programming began. The passion quickly transformed into a career, mainly in digital agencies.
He has led development teams at Rockpool Digital, 3Sixty Design, Wildscreen and True Digital in head of technology roles, providing an invaluable client-side perspective. That included several roles as Senior Developer and Head of Technology.
While in these positions, he has worked on projects for many household name brands including RAC, Honda, Sainsbury’s and Sky.
A key part of the value that David brings to ForrestBrown’s clients is being able to make programmers feel at ease. That means they’re able to open up about crucial technical details, so David can translate this project information into what HMRC wants to see.
Dave also uses his software experience to help members of our logistics industry partners. Speaking on webinars, networking at events and curating educational materials, Dave helps businesses in this sector to understand how they can claim for their software development projects.
Indeed, the recommendations clients and co-workers have given David over his career highlight his ability to communicate and make complex subjects understandable to everyone involved. Combining those interpersonal skills with deep technical knowledge is a powerful combination.
David’s main driver at his role at ForrestBrown is maximising the scope of the R&D claims. He does this while ensuring a high level of quality and robustness to each claim, so that businesses receive the best possible levels of support.
When you work with ForrestBrown, challenge and validation are built into our process. Our software experts vet your assessments, helping to unpack the legislative definitions in a way that your team can understand and apply to your work.
This creates robust, quality-assured claims that secure maximum financial reward for you. Tom Heslin, associate director and senior software specialist, is uniquely positioned to do this since he quite literally helped write HMRC’s software guidance.
Our specialists, like Tom, speak to your software experts as peers. This saves time but, most importantly, enables us to give you a realistic assessment of risk. That is:
- How HMRC will likely view your project(s).
- What misunderstandings or challenges are possible.
- What further evidence is available to protect you from a lengthy debate with them.
For a comprehensive overview of claiming R&D tax relief for software development, read our article on the topic >
We never guarantee that a client can avoid an HMRC enquiry. They sometimes happen randomly. But we do absolutely ensure that our clients will be enquiry ready.
The support we provide can take many forms, depending on the needs of your business. We’ve supported businesses already dealing with an enquiry from HMRC, whether their claim was prepared by a different adviser or by themselves.
We also regularly support clients with targeted advice on the impact of business changes, or consultancy to get enquiry-ready, such as reviewing claims or records. And for complete peace of mind, the ForrestBrown team can handle your R&D tax relief claim from end-to-end, including full enquiry support.
Unmatched software insight
ForrestBrown offers substantial technical expertise in the software sector. This results in R&D tax relief claims which are robust and unlock the full value of your R&D. Whether your business is facing a specific challenge or if you are looking for ongoing consultancy, we can help.