Identifying qualifying R&D in the field of software development

This post is part of our Entrepreneurial team’s regular series of blogs.

The number of Research and Development (R&D) Tax Relief claims made in the computer science and information technology industries has rapidly increased in recent years. With that, HMRC have invested time and resources into educating their inspectors to identify qualifying and non-qualifying activities within software development claims. This is because, although the Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) guidelines (that define the qualifying criteria for R&D tax relief) apply equally to all fields of science and technology, HMRC recognised that there had been difficulties in the past in applying them to some software projects and therefore determining whether they were eligible for relief.

As well as training their staff internally, HMRC published guidance for claimant companies to assist them when preparing claims, to accurately capture only qualifying activities and costs. A summary of the key points are as follows:

Advancing knowledge or capability in the entire field

The advance or appreciable improvement being sought needs to advance the knowledge or capability across the whole field of computer sciences and information technology, rather than the company’s own knowledge or capability. Whether the advance applies to the entire industry or only the company can sometimes be hard to ascertain in a fast-moving industry such as computer sciences. This should be considered by a competent professional working in the field and by reference to publicly available information.

Focus on the underlying technology

The technological advance being sought should focus on the underlying technology being developed i.e. the algorithms and methodology, rather than the commercial output of the software. This is because software can be developed to provide functionality that is novel, however the methodology applied to achieve this is routine, and therefore non-qualifying.

How to identify technological uncertainties

As with all other industries, the claimant company must also face technological uncertainties when seeking to achieve the advance. Technological uncertainties arise when how to achieve the aim it is not readily deductible by a competent professional or by applying existing methodology. Examples of technological uncertainties that HMRC provide include:

  • Developing new or improved data architectures that cannot be achieved with readily deducible solutions, e.g. pushing beyond the boundaries of existing readily available database engines.
  • Extending software frameworks beyond their original design, where knowledge how to extend these was not available or readily deducible at the time.
  • System uncertainty when working with multiple components, resulting from the complexity of the entire system, rather than how the individual components behave, i.e. components cannot be assembled into an established pattern.

Separate the R&D project from the commercial project

R&D projects must be carefully defined within the larger commercial project. Any activities that do not attempt to overcome technological uncertainties do not qualify for relief and fall out-with the project for tax relief purposes. Specific activities that HMRC state do not qualify for R&D tax relief include:

  • Planning activities associated with non-R&D elements of the project such as financial, marketing and legal aspects.
  • Development of routine aspects of the software, such as the user interface, rather than the underlying technology.
  • Testing only qualifies if the purpose of the testing work is to feed back into the development, not to validate that it works properly once the technological uncertainties have been resolved.
  • Deployment or release activities that transfer software to production systems generally happen after the uncertainty is resolved and, as such, do not qualify.
  • Maintenance activities or minor fault fixing where no technological uncertainties arise do not qualify.

HMRC are increasing resources in their R&D team and diverting and re-training staff from other areas to enable them to process and accurately analyse the eligibility of claims. Therefore, it is important that companies consider and adhere to the above guidance when making software development claims.

Here at C+T we have extensive experience in preparing R&D claims in the computer sciences sector and our report to support a claim is designed to give HMRC all of the information it requires to assess its eligibility and prevent an enquiry being opened to request more details.

Our team of experts are on hand to help you through the claim process, give you peace of mind that all relevant factors have been considered, and significantly reduce the risk of an enquiry. If you have any questions, get in touch and we can advise.

If you would like further advice regarding the availability of Research & Development Tax Relief relief, please get in touch with us.