An HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) investigation into Eat Out to Help Out claims made by restaurant group Tampopo has been dropped after it was discovered that the business owed 85p.
Tampopo founder David Fox told The Caterer he was unsure why the group's claims, which totalled over £160,000, had been questioned.
The Eat Out to Help Out discount scheme ran throughout August 2020 and offered diners 50% off food and soft drinks up to £10 on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with hospitality owners able to claim back the deductions from the government.
More than 84,000 businesses made use of the scheme, including Tampopo's six restaurants in Manchester and London.
Fox said he received a phone call from HMRC a month ago requesting images of the restaurants, information on numbers of covers and supplier invoices and till receipts for August identifying where claims were made. This was despite Tampopo submitting all the required information last year.
"What was slightly unsettling was that [HMRC] made no indication of why it had approached us. It said if we had over-claimed we should pay it back or we could be subject to fines and penalties," he said.
"I was racking my brain to think what we could have done wrong. We have detailed transaction receipts by day."
Tampopo provided all the required evidence to HMRC with the help of its Epos provider Zonal. The business has since paid the 85p.
Fox said he was told that HMRC will take no further action, but he is concerned for small hospitality operators who may face similar investigations.
"A lot of small businesses will have used an accountant to collate information and submit returns. If they are contacted by HMRC over this they will have to pay accountants again at a time they can ill afford it."
He added that the initial claims process for Eat Out to Help Out had required little supporting information.
"It was light touch, because I think the government didn't want to make it too onerous. At the time I was grateful," he said.
"We had a good Eat Out to Help Out but we weren't one of the businesses in the news saying sales were up 400%.
"I spent a long time going over the claims process each week last year. We were very careful so it's odd. I can't think what we would have done wrong."
An HMRC spokesperson declined to comment.
Hospitality businesses made around 130,000 claims throughout August worth £522m, according to the Treasury.
Future of the scheme
The founder of Deliveroo and representatives from 300 restaurant brands, including Itsu and Pizza Hut UK, have written to the prime minister calling for a second Eat Out to Help Out scheme when restaurants are able to reopen.
But Fox said he was unsure that a renewal of the programme was what the hospitality industry needed.
"I would prefer a longer-term support strategy with a reduction in rates and VAT to give us the oxygen to keep going," he said.
HMRC has launched a disclosure facility where businesses who have been overpaid or were not eligible for the scheme can make a repayment.
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