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Twitterstorm: a Modest Proposal

November 27, 2014

Twitter has its uses.  How else could a number of angry individuals get the attention of HMRC and bring their concerns to the table?  The “stakeholder engagement” concept that HMRC uses to decide who to talk to breaks down when the affected taxpayers are micro businesses who typically don’t belong to any of the representative bodies who have a seat at the stakeholder table.  All power, then, to the knitters, musicians, authors and others who have created a twitterstorm over the VATMOSS/VATMESS changes I described in my last post.

HMRC have responded by using their new @HMRCcustomer twitter presence to offer a “twitter clinic” on the changes, today (Thursday 27th November 2014) …. between 3.30 and 5pm.  This is another enormous brick they’ve dropped, as many of the affected businesses are part-time one-woman businesses fitted in around domestic responsibilities or full time jobs, so that during the school run is the worst of all possible times to offer to talk.  Sigh.

I have been thinking a bit about the proposed changes over the last few days and I have a Modest Proposal for a solution.  First of all, HMRC need to be absolutely explicit that, where someone sells via a platform (Amazon, Etsy, Ebay…) then it is the platform’s responsibility to sort out the VAT, and saying “we aren’t responsible for VAT” in their terms and conditions (as several smaller platforms apparently do) isn’t going to cut it.  It would be helpful if HMRC were to give some kind of clear assurance that people selling via (a list of platforms) needn’t worry about/engage with MOSS at all.

However.  Clearly it’s iniquitous that changes to close a tax avoidance loophole (allowing ebook sellers to use a platform registered in Luxembourg to avoid other jurisdictions’ higher VAT on ebook sales) are being introduced in a way which drives micro businesses into the arms of the platforms that caused the problem in the first place.  People who sell below the existing VAT threshold should continue to be able to sell the odd download off their own website without having to become VAT traders for a turnover that’s often below £80, let alone the £80,000 that would require them to be VAT registered.

So.  What we need is a platform which is

  1. revenue neutral (doesn’t cost you money to use)
  2. is co-operatively owned (on the Wikipedia or AO3 models perhaps) and
  3. does the job.

Now we could probably make one, given enough time (Kickstarter, anyone?)  But HMRC have regular meetings with their software development community stakeholders.  And they have modest funds to assist charitable causes connected with tax.  So maybe they could convene a meeting, urgently (seriously, next week) between interested software developers and the micro businesses who have contacted them via twitter, and they could kick in the first hundred grand or so to get the kickstarter off the ground.

Because really the easiest solution to the #VATMESS would be for the paypals and worldpays of this world to sort out the VAT when they collect the micropayments for the affected microbusinesses.  And if there were another, independent, cooperative payments organisation available who guaranteed that they did, well… competitition is supposed to be how capitalism produces innovation, right?  Let’s just give the micros a hand up.

There isn’t time before the changes are brought in on 1st January, you say?  Well, the Judicial Review process is there for anyone who feels that the legitimate expectation has not been met that a statutory instrument would only be introduced after the government has fulfilled the commitments it has made in the past to

  • consult with affected parties
  • “think small first” by taking into account the impact on micro businesses, and
  • give due regard to equality impacts

Judicial Review is expensive (who do we know who might be affected and has “willing to bet their house” kind of sums available?  The Prince’s Trust?  J K Rowling??) but (in my opinion as a former better regulation specialist in HMRC) there is an arguable case.  One remedy the courts could provide would be to send the government back to do the consultation again properly.  Which would delay implementation.  So they could, you know, just be good guys anyway and delay implementation for anyone below the VAT registration threshold for three months while an independent platform was developed via kickstarter.

Or they could just come up with a better idea on their own…

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