Small, micro, nano…

December 12, 2014

Dear Vince Cable

Actually, no –

Dear Department of Business, Innovation and Skills; please brief your Minister rather better.

Because Vince Cable has responded to the petition about the VATMOSS VATMESS with a response which just rehearses how we got into this mess in the first place.  The reply (which can be read in full here) says, in effect:

  • you already knew, but anyway
  • you won’t be affected, or else
  • you can just use Amazon, and if not
  • you can split your business

Let’s take these in reverse order.  Splitting your business may just prove to be the answer, or anyway the least worst cobbled together solution that can be put in place.  But the devil is in the detail, and HMRC’s new “additional guidance” is a bit thin on the “how to”.  I suspect there’s a number of people in the VAT policy divisions running around in small circles swearing as they try and find a way of doing this that doesn’t open the floodgates to the kind of income splitting that has always been considered avoidance.

The idea that most micro businesses can just use Amazon is… well, this whole change to the place of supply rules is designed to stop people like Amazon from gaming the different VAT rates on ebooks across Europe by making the rate of VAT dependent on the customer’s location rather than the supposed location of the platform.  But, as Cheryl Morgan wisely points out,

In practice what HMRC is doing is the equivalent of saying to a small farmer that she can’t sell her crops at a market stall, she has to sell them through Tesco or a similar supermarket.

Or, to put it another way, there’s no point stopping Amazon being rapacious with tax if at the same time you facilitate their rapacity towards small businesses instead.  The one-woman trader ought to be able to sell her own digital wares independently, and a complacent statement from a Minister that, oh well, you can always use a platform, isn’t helpful or equitable.

There is a relatively simple step which the government could take, which is to enforce the rule that platforms are responsible for the VAT on products sold via them: no ifs or buts.  Some people have asked for a list of platforms which conform to the responsibility.  I think this is a mistake.  What they should ask for is a declaration that:

  • selling via a platform is sufficient to absolve the individual seller from responsibility for compliance with the VAT place of supply rules
  • all platforms are assumed to be compliant unless listed on an easily available HMRC or BIS website, and
  • any trader with concerns about a platform should email their concerns to an easily available HMRC compliance address and this will be sufficient to absolve them from responsibility unless and until otherwise notified by HMRC after they have investigated – and investigated the platform, not the seller.

The onus should be on HMRC to deal with the platforms, in other words, and not the one-woman kitchen-table nano-business.  Dealing via a platform ought to be a sufficient answer to any challenge, and any issue should be taken up by HMRC with the platform not the seller or customer.

My real issue, though, is with the complacent belief in government that nano-businesses somehow ought to have known about this in advance.  As Vince Cable says:

The changes to VAT on digital products is not new or sudden – the change was agreed in 2008 and we’ve done a lot to communicate it to businesses.

Many people’s answer to that will be “oh yeah?”

HMRC’s stakeholder engagement model doesn’t work at this level.  Until the #VATMOSS twitter storm, the small businesses whose business models are most at risk weren’t members of any of the “stakeholder” organisations who might have told them about it.  It is no use telling someone about the changes via a VAT notice if they aren’t registered for VAT and so barely know what a VAT notice is in the first place.  Do you read VAT notices?  I don’t.  All I needed to know about VAT till now was “don’t worry about it till your turnover hits £80k”, and I wasn’t holding my breath.

The previous government did a lot to “think small” and there was a particularly clever move (in internal civil service terms) when the need to report on the impact on small businesses was introduced into the Explanatory Memorandum that goes with Statutory Instruments – you couldn’t get around it, you had to say something about it before you could get your legislation through onto the statute books.

But this was when the Small Firms Impact Test was an actual thing.  You’ll see if you follow that link that, now, the instructions are archived.  Now, all the government tells its minions to do is to “Consult enforcement bodies and business representative groups, to identify how to mitigate disproportionate burdens on smaller businesses.” (1.6.17).  In this case they couldn’t follow the default option of exempting micro businesses (because other European states have a low or zero VAT threshold and don’t want their businesses to have a competitive disadvantage) but they could, of course, have followed the third option in 1.6.9 and given them a longer period to get organized:

Extended transition period: where all businesses of a defined size are given a fixed extension to when they are required to comply compared to larger business, reducing the costs associated with implementation of new regulatory requirements. For example, the tobacco display ban gave shops below the Sunday Trading threshold an additional 3 years to comply

Give nano businesses three years to get their act together and I’m pretty sure they’ll develop an open source platform of their own that’ll take the sting out of the issue.  Give them a few grand in seedcorn money and I’m pretty sure they could get it done faster.  But telling someone they ought to have known, when you talked to organisations they aren’t members of, issued notices that aren’t relevant to them, and you didn’t know they existed in the first place… well, it’s a consultation fail.  So how about it, Minister?  Extend the transition period for the micros, the nanos, the businesses you didn’t know existed?

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