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HMRC internal manual

VAT Trade Unions and Professional Bodies

Trade unions and professional bodies: Item 1(c) branch of knowledge / professional expertise: Advancement of a particular branch of knowledge

The meaning of what constitutes the advancement of a particular branch of knowledge has been considered in a large number of tribunal and Court appeals. In addition to those referred to in this paragraph, most of the cases cited in VTUPB4000 of this Chapter contain some discussion of the point.


“Advancement” should not be regarded as being confined only to extending the boundaries of knowledge, for example by performing original research. An association may be treated as “advancing knowledge” where existing knowledge is being disseminated to persons who have little or no familiarity with it.

We have accepted such an interpretation of “advancement” since comments made by a tribunal in the case of “British Organic Farmers (LON/87/164)”. British Organic Farmers was an unincorporated association that had been formed in 1983. The Association’s objectives were to advance the education of the public in organic farming, to promote/assist in research into organic farming methods and disseminate the results and to preserve the health of the community via a better awareness of food quality. Membership was open to persons over eighteen who were actively engaged in farming and others interested in furthering its work. Customs had argued that the Association was not advancing knowledge about organic farming but merely teaching persons how to farm organically.

The tribunal favoured a broader interpretation of advancement stating: “It seems to me that an association whose primary purpose was to advance the education of the public in a particular branch of science such as organic farming would be seeking the advancement of a particular branch of knowledge just as much as an association whose primary purpose was e.g. to do original research and so obtain new knowledge which previously nobody had possessed. In other words it does not seem to me that the words necessarily import a primary purpose that involves extending the boundaries of knowledge of a particular kind. The words in my opinion are wide enough to cover also an association whose primary purpose is to further the knowledge of that science amongst members of the public who are at the present little versed in it.”

Advancing a branch of knowledge amongst the public would not qualify an association for exemption under “Item 1(c)” on its own. The membership must still also be restricted to persons whose professions / employments are connected with such knowledge.

Branch of knowledge

Practical knowledge and academic knowledge

Tribunals and courts have given “branch of knowledge” a narrow interpretation. The knowledge in question should normally be a recognised branch of science or the arts. As the Chairman put it in the “British Institute of Cleaning Science Ltd (LON/85/184):” …“I would not regard cleaning, even referred to as the science of cleaning, as a particular branch of knowledge. To my mind those words refer to a branch of science or the arts in a sense in which an academic would employ it. The words are not ‘the advancement of knowledge about a particular subject’, but ‘the advancement of a particular branch of knowledge’”.

Whether or not the particular subject is taught by Universities or Colleges to degree level or an equivalent can be an important factor in helping to decide whether or not a “branch of knowledge” is being “advanced”, but is not a conclusive test. Examining the cases in which the issue has been considered shows that it is one where no fixed rule can be applied to every situation.

“The Association of Reflexologists (LON/94/403A)”, was formed in 1984 and its members perform reflexology, which is a practice of treating various ailments and general stress via foot massage. It is not necessary to be a member of the Association to practice reflexology. The Association awarded qualifications in reflexology which were conducted in 45 accredited schools and which had been approved by the Secretary of State for Education under section “3(1)” of and “Schedule 2(a)” to the “Further and Higher Education Act 1992”.

In considering whether reflexology constituted a branch of knowledge, the tribunal followed the approach adopted by earlier tribunals in

  • “British Institute of Cleaning Science Ltd (LON/85/184)”,
  • “British Organic Farmers (LON/87/164)” and
  • “British Association for Counselling (LON/93/1494)”,

namely whether the subject was one that an academic would regard as a branch of science or the arts.

Although the tribunal concluded that reflexology was not a branch of knowledge because there was no evidence before it that academics would so regard it, its decision was influenced by two specific factors.

  • Firstly. that other qualifications approved under the “Further and Higher Education Act 1992” included those awarded by the Association of British Riding Schools - suggesting that merely being approved did not signify that the qualifications were thereby accepted automatically as relating to a branch of knowledge.
  • Secondly, the Association’s own description of reflexology from its booklet giving details of accredited courses read as follows. “Reflexology is a practical skill, rather than an academic subject and therefore great scholastic ability is not necessary. However, courses do include integral biology, anatomy and physiology, so some competence in this area is essential. Of more importance is that students wishing to become therapists should have a genuine sensitivity and caring for others, and good listening skills.”

In the “Reflexologists’” case, the tribunal took the commoner view that knowledge that is primarily practical rather than academic in nature does not constitute a recognised branch of knowledge. That this is not always the case was demonstrated by another tribunal in the appeal of the “British Association for Counselling (LON/93/1494)”.

“Taking into account the evidence we heard on the academic courses on counselling and the level of the articles in the Journal of the Association for Counselling we have no difficulty in concluding that counselling is a branch of knowledge for this purpose. Mr McKay submitted that it was simply an advanced form of communication skill. This may be one way of describing it, but neither that description, nor the fact that it may be a form of knowledge or skill that can be acquired to a high level by intelligent people through practice and the normal experiences of a full life, precludes it from being an area, form or branch of knowledge that can clearly be more deeply, and probably much more quickly, learnt with proper teaching and instruction.”

In the “British Organic Farmers” case, the tribunal had accepted evidence that colleges conducted courses in farming or agriculture. It therefore found organic farming to be a part of a branch of knowledge that could be classified as agriculture. The “Counselling” case does not therefore strictly accord with that decision and the “Reflexologists’” case, where reflexology was not considered to relate to an established “branch of knowledge”. The tribunal effectively decided that counselling constituted a branch of knowledge for the purposes of Item 1(c) simply because it was capable of forming the subject of courses of academic study. When considering claims for exemption under Item 1(c), you should give more weight to the “Organic Farmers’” and “Reflexologists’” cases and treat the “Counselling” case as peculiar to its own facts.; our general policy being that the fact that a subject can be studied does not invariably make it a branch of knowledge.

One area in which all the decisions are in agreement, however, is that knowledge relating to the confined area of a specific job does not constitute a branch of knowledge. Cases in support of this include:

  • “Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management (HC/CO/71/87),”
  • “The Bookmakers Protection Association (Southern Area) Ltd (LON/79/129),”
  • “National Association of Funeral Directors (LON/84/467),”
  • “The Institute of Employment Consultants Ltd (LON/86/410)” and
  • “The Institute of Legal Cashiers and Administrators (LON/93/2444A)”.

The “Legal Cashiers and Administrators’” case contains a useful comment from the Chairman that helps to distinguish between a case where a “branch of knowledge” would be involved and one where there would be purely job-related knowledge and skills:-

“Much the same is true of the position with regard to the expression ‘branch of knowledge’ in Item 1(c). If it included any factual knowledge, that expression would be apt to refer to the skills of persons employed in leisure management, payroll administration or cleaning - all of which it has been held, or been accepted, it does not describe. The phrase must have an academic connotation to some degree at least, and that in turn presupposes some element of research or reflection being characteristic of the way in which the subject in question is addressed. We do not see either authority or the meaning of these words in their context as entitling us to conclude that the severely practical matters with which the Institute is concerned make up a branch of knowledge.”