10 Insider Tips and Tricks for Your R&D Tax Credits Claim

R&D Tax Credits

Using our experience of R&D Tax Credits – spanning almost a decade – we’ve compiled our top 10 insider tips and tricks to help your company maximise your claim and avoid a dreaded HMRC enquiry.

1. Figure out how big your are

When it comes to R&D Tax Credits, HMRC says companies come in two sizes: SME (small to medium) and large. SMEs usually qualify for SME Tax Credits (which are far more generous), while large companies are only eligible for the RDEC (Research and Development Expenditure Credit) scheme. There are some exceptions, which we’ll cover later.

Before tackling your claim, you need to work out how big you are. Under R&D tax law, HMRC says a large company is one with:

  • More than 500 employees
  • An annual turnover over €100 million AND/OR a balance sheet over €86 million

A business that falls below any of these criteria is considered an SME and qualifies for SME Tax Credits. Make sure you check out our handy guide on working out how big your business really is and what to do if it changes size.

2. Don’t take Tax Credits for ‘Grant’ed

If you’ve received grant funding, it could affect your tax credits claim. The nuance here is whether your grant contributed to the projects that you’re claiming tax credits for. In that case, it depends on what kind of grant you’ve received. There are two kinds: notified state aid and non-notified state aid.

Notified state aid grant: If your grant was notified state aid, you can’t claim tax credits under the SME scheme for the project that’s been funded by the grant. However, you can claim for tax credits under the RDEC scheme.

Non-notified state aid grant: If your grant was non-notified state aid, your project’s eligibility for R&D Tax Credits depends on how the grant contributed towards its funding.

  1. If the grant funded the whole of the project, you should file under the RDEC scheme, which will return up to 8% of your development costs. That’s in addition to the grant funding you’ve already received. Note: This scheme only covers the qualifying expenditures of payroll, externally provided workers, and R&D consumables. Subcontracted expenses can’t be included in your claim.

  2. If the grant didn’t contribute towards any of the project’s R&D-related expenditure, then it won’t affect your tax credits claim.

  3. If the grant funded only a portion of the project’s R&D expenditure, you can claim tax credits through a combination of the RDEC and SME schemes. Tax credits from the RDEC scheme will apply to the expenditure covered by the grant. Tax credits from the SME scheme will apply to the remainder.

It might look a little complicated, but if done correctly your business could benefit from both tax credits and grant funding at the same time, giving you a lot more money to invest in your business’s growth. Here’s more info about claiming for grants and tax credits at the same time.

3. Know what you can (and can’t) claim for

Knowing what you can and can’t claim for is one of the most important parts of the process. It’s also pretty difficult. On the one hand, you want to claim as much as possible to maximise your windfall. On the other, incorrectly claiming for things is an instant red flag for HMRC and could delay your claim or trigger a lengthy enquiry.

Costs that qualify for R&D Tax Credits are called ‘qualifying expenditures’. You can find a full list of them here. If you still aren’t sure if you can claim for something, the best thing to do is speak to an R&D Tax Credits expert.

In the meantime, here’s how to avoid the two most common mistakes companies make:

  1. Remember to always work in your company’s financial year, not HMRC’s tax year.  Expenses outside of the financial year you’re working in aren’t eligible in that year’s claim. So always double check you’re claiming for expenditures in the right calendar and time frame.

  2. Unfortunately, you can’t list your directors as subcontractors. HMRC always cross-checks your listed directors. If they appear on Companies House, your claim will be flagged and could be delayed. Make sure your directors are correctly listed. Also, you can’t claim directors’ dividends as qualifying expenditure in your application.

4. Be savvy with your losses

One of the key tactics we use to maximise your tax credit return involves ‘moving around’ your losses. Using a mechanism called “surrendering your losses”, even unprofitable companies can claim R&D Tax Credits and get some cash out of HMRC. You can read more about the process here. But should you use this mechanism? It depends.

Generally, it would be better to carry the loss forward and offset it against future profits, at a rate of 20% (the lowest rate corporation tax is charged at), than to surrender it immediately at a rate of 14.5%. However, in order to be offset successfully in future years, there needs to be actual profit.

Here’s the key: If you are expecting continued tax losses in future years then you should surrender the present loss. Carrying losses around is a complicated procedure, but it could earn your business an even greater return. Rather than attempting it yourself, we recommend speaking to a tax credits expert who could take you through the process.

5. Know if your company is ‘linked’

Not all small businesses qualify for the SME R&D Tax Credit scheme. If a small business is part of a larger organisation, it could be considered ‘linked’. If a company is linked to another, the finances and employee manifest of the entire umbrella businesses must be taken into account when working out the company’s size (via the calculation referenced in the first tip). This contingency often makes smaller businesses ineligible for the SME scheme, meaning they must apply for the RDEC scheme instead.

Companies often miss this point and file under the wrong scheme. So, here’s a simple test to determine whether your company is linked to another. Your company is considered linked if any of the following is true:

  • 25% or more of the capital or voting rights of your company are owned by another company. If another company owns between 25-50% of your company, they are considered a ‘partner enterprise’.
  • If another company can appoint or remove any of your management team
  • If another company can exert a “dominant influence” over yours
  • If another company can indirectly achieve the above via agreements with other shareholders

There are exceptions to the 25% ownership rule. If another company owns more than 25% of your business, you could still be considered autonomous if the other company does not exercise its control. This is true if the capital is owned by any of the following organisations:

  1. Public investment corporation and VCs
  2. Individuals or groups of individuals with a regular venture capital investment activity who invest equity capital in unquoted businesses (‘business angels’), provided the total investment of those business angels is less than €1.25 million
  3. Universities or non-profit research centres
  4. Institutional investors, including regional development funds
  5. Autonomous local authorities with an annual budget of less than €10 million and fewer than 5,000 inhabitants

Click here for more information on linked and partner enterprises here.

6. Choose the right project(s)

When submitting your technical narrative, you must ensure you’re selecting the right project(s) to claim for. The difficulty is that the definition of ‘project’ changes depending on the context. Let’s use Microsoft Word as an example.

In one case, we could classify the entire development of Word – from concept to market delivery – as one project. In another, we could say that specific changes to the back end of Microsoft word, for example smoother integration with Gmail, as projects in their own right.

What you define as a ‘project’ basically depends on the a granularity of detail. In other words, how many pieces you divide an activity into. Generally, you want to set the detail level so that you end up with 3-5 projects, and cover 1-3 of them at most in a claim. It’s fine to cover a single project in your claim, so long as that’s a good presentation of what actually happened.

7. Write a cracking technical narrative

Your technical narrative is really what brings home the bacon. It’s your chance to prove that you conducted some R&D – solving a technical uncertainty or moving the state of the art forward. We have a number of articles covering what you need to know to write a stellar technical narrative, including:

Here’s a top level list of what you need to remember when writing your technical narrative:

  • Write it from a technical perspective, not a managerial one. Companies often mistakenly write about non-technical challenges like changing user expectations or behind-schedule deliveries. These issues aren’t relevant to your claim. HMRC is only looking for proof that you solved a technical uncertainty or made a technological advance. Also remember that generally the more difficult it was to solve your problem, the more likely it was that you conducted R&D.

  • Remember ‘KISS’ or ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’. Having a longer narrative won’t increase your chances of successfully filing a claim. Instead, we would advise you put your energy into writing a short and sharp narrative, comprising 1-3 projects, and covering 2-5 sides of A4.
  • Don’t use jargon. HMRC needs to be able to understand the problem you solved and how you solved it. Buzzwords and technicalese stop them from doing that. You might consider getting a complete outsider to read your narrative, to see if they can understand it. If they can, there’s a good chance HMRC will too.

  • Don’t be scared to include details about projects that failed for technical reasons. This demonstrates to HMRC that the project is tricky and hard to solve, even by competent professionals.

8. Balance the technical narrative to the size of the claim

Simple, but important. Tie the length of your technical narrative to the monetary size of the claim. There’s no need to write pages and pages. But you also must make sure to include necessary detail if a project was particularly expensive, complex or lengthy.

9. Use the CT600 Shortcut

The CT600 is the blue document you submit each year (you can find a sample here) along with your financial calculations that gives HMRC an outline of your tax position. We’ve discovered a way to use the CT600 form to accelerate the processing of your claim and lower the likelihood that it’ll face an HMRC enquiry.

Here’s how it works. You file your tax return as normal, including the CT600, but omit the R&D Tax Credit claim amount. We then submit an amended CT600 which does include the R&D Tax Credit claim amount. This ensures your application goes directly to an HMRC R&D Tax Credit specialist. They are more likely to understand your application and less likely to launch an enquiry.

That’s the jist. The actual process isn’t so simple. Be sure to check out our full ‘Preparing the CT600’ article for full details on how correctly amend your CT600.

10. Reconcile, reconcile, reconcile

Finally, before you file, go through your claim with a fine tooth comb and double (triple, quadruple!) check that all your calculations can be matched back to your P&L, the tax computations and the CT600.

There’s no bigger red flag for HMRC than numbers not adding up. For instance, if you are claiming £200,000 for subcontractors and there is only £45,000 against ‘Subcontractors’ in the P&L. All costs must be matched and consistent with each other so it is easy for HMRC to identify which costs are located where.

Phew. That’s it. You’ve made it through our tips! You should now be better equipped to tackle your application. However, if you’d like to speak to an expert about any of these tips, or your application in general, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

If you are curious about R&D Tax Credits, Innovation Grants and Open Culture


Pippa Clark
Pippa Clark

After first joining GrantTree as a client manager, Pippa wanted to draw on her previous new business and marketing experience in a global media agency and stepped into the marketing role of the business. She is formidable with her grammar and can spot a mis-placed apostrophe at 100 paces.