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British Steel Plc V. Customs And Excise Commissioners Notes

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BRITISH STEEL

PLC V.

CUSTOMS

AND

EXCISE COMMISSIONERS

FACTS The essential facts are these. (i) British Steel has been a user of hydrocarbon oil in blast furnaces for steel making in the United Kingdom. This is admitted by the commissioners. (ii) The hydrocarbon oil used by British Steel in its blast furnaces is injected into the furnaces as a chemical reducing and extraction agent and is not used as fuel. This is denied by the commissioners and, if the action is allowed to continue, will be the principal, and perhaps the only, issue of fact to be resolved at trial. It is, as is common ground, a complex technical issue. (iii) Over the period January 1988 to December 1993 the commissioners demanded payment of hydrocarbon oil duty on the oil delivered to and used at four British Steel blast furnaces. The duties demanded were paid. It is alleged, in the statement of claim, that, under s 9 of the Hydrocarbon Oil Duties Act 1979, British Steel was entitled to have deliveries of oil to its blast furnaces made free of excise duty and entitled, since deliveries were not made free of duty, to repayment of such duty. This allegation requires British Steel to succeed in establishing that the oil was not used as fuel. Relevant Statutory Provisions: The section under which relief from duty is made available is s 9. Section 9(1) provides: "The Commissioners may permit hydrocarbon oil to be delivered for home use to an approved person, without payment of excise duty on the oil, where---(a) it is to be put by him to a use qualifying for relief under this section; or (b) it is to be supplied by him in the course of a trade of supplying oil for any such use." Section 9(2) sets out 'the uses of hydrocarbon oil qualifying for relief under this section' and goes on expressly to state that those uses 'do not include the use of the oil as fuel ...' Section 9(4) provided that: "Where the Commissioners are authorised to give permission under subsection (1) above in the case of any oil, but the permission is for any reason not given, they shall, if satisfied that the oil has been put by an approved person to a use qualifying for relief under this section, repay to him the amount of the excise duty paid on the oil, less any rebate allowed in respect of the duty." Approved person: I shall have to return to this issue and it suffices for the moment to notice that whereas sub-s (1) makes provision for prospective relief to be allowed in advance of the excise duty

becoming payable on delivery of the oil, sub-s (4) provides for retrospective relief to be obtained in certain cases where the duty has already been paid. Under both subsections, the identification of an 'approved person' is required. Under sub-s (1) the delivery of the oil must be to an approved person; under sub-s (4), the oil must have been put to the qualifying use by an approved person. British Steel's application for relief to HMRC: A letter dated 11 January 1988 from the commissioners to British Steel makes clear that the dispute as to whether the use of the oil in the blast furnaces qualifies for relief from excise duty has been rumbling on since 1971 or earlier. The letter noted that 'following refusal of relief BSC revived the matter in 1973 and yet again in 1976' and said that following---
"Very exhaustive consideration ... it was decided that the claim to relief (now governed by section 9 of the Hydrocarbon Oil Duties Act 1979) had not been established and was therefore unacceptable because the oil was in effect held to be used as fuel." HOLDING RICHARD SCOTT VC First, was British Steel's use of the oil a qualifying use for s 9(1) purposes? Second, was British Steel entitled to be treated as an 'approved person' for s 9(1) purposes?
Right to Restitution - Woolwich applies It is convenient to deal first with the second of the two points. If the demands by the commissioners for excise duty to be paid on the hydrocarbon oil to be delivered to British Steel's blast furnaces were unlawful demands, it would follow, in my opinion, from the decision of the House of Lords in Woolwich Building Society v IRC (No 2) [1992] 3 All ER 737, [1993] AC 70, that whoever paid the duty would have a common law restitutionary right to repayment. Citing Lord Goff in Woolwich: "As at present advised, I incline to the opinion that this principle should extend to embrace cases in which the tax or other levy has been wrongly exacted by the public authority not because the demand was ultra vires but for other reasons, for example because the authority has misconstrued a relevant statute or regulation." In the present case, it is contended that the commissioners' demand for excise duties was unlawful because the commissioners had made an error in deciding that the use of the oil in the British

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