Archive for the ‘VAT’ Category


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?


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…


VAT on ebooks

November 25, 2014

As it says on my twitter bio, I’m

By day, PhD Law student researching tax simplification and better regulation; by night, writer of science fiction and fantasy.

so today my Facebook and twitter feeds are suddenly full of people from the science fiction side of my life talking about tax.  Why?  Well, take a look at the hashtags #VATMOSS and #VATMESS.

Essentially from January the loophole that lets Amazon avoid charging VAT on e-books has been closed.  VAT will now apply at the rate applicable where the customer is located, and not at the place where the business selling them an ebook has been registered.


Except what about all of those authors who make a few quid selling their back catalogue as ebooks?  Do they have to register for VAT in France just because someone in their holiday home in Normandy logs on and downloads a single copy of their ebook for some poolside entertainment?

Ah, says HMRC, we’ve thought of that.  There’s a thing called the “mini one stop shop” – MOSS – which means you can register for VAT in just one country, the UK, and pay your French and German and Italian and Spanish VAT direct to the UK every quarter.

Wait a minute, though.  Doesn’t the UK have the highest VAT registration rate in Europe (£81,000) so they won’t have to worry about it till they are in the Big Seller Who Can Afford An Accountant category, right?

Wrong.  The MOSS threshold is zero.  Yup.  Any european sales and you have to register, make returns, keep records…

Now there are two issues here (yes, I know, there are dozens, but there are two that I want to highlight)

First of all, does the MOSS zero threshold apply to ALL sales, or just to MOSS-eligible sales (i.e. to business-to-consumer sales in European countries other than the UK)?  In other words, does selling the odd ebook to someone in the EU mean you have to start charging and accounting for VAT on all your sales, to everyone, for ever?

Secondly…. well, I’m a retired tax inspector.  I Speak Tax (up to a point).  I have spent some time this morning trying to find out the answer to the first question.  Yeah.  The HMRC VAT instructions are copious, but incredibly badly written.  (You don’t believe me?  Try this page and then tell me whether MOSS sales and non-MOSS sales go on the same return?)  The blogosphere and commentariat suggest the sky will fall on the heads of small business and HMRC sounds utterly clueless and complacent.  The Guardian’s small business network has a piece which includes a quote from HMRC which seems to answer my question:

A spokesperson for HMRC says the changes should only have a “small effect on administrative burdens.”

“Although a business needs to have a UK VAT registration number before it can register for the Mini One Stop Shop (MOSS) online service, provided it separates the cross-border part of its digital services business from the domestic part, it can voluntarily register for VAT on the cross-border business only.”

Which seems clear enough, although HOW someone who sells the odd e-book off a web site is supposed to know how to do that is a bit harder to fathom.  But the press office are quoted in the same article as saying:

The HMRC spokesperson says that it has provided a “significant amount of information” about the VAT rule changes and MOSS on the GOV.UK website. “We have worked closely with stakeholders and representative bodies to publicise the changes, been involved in various webinars, held a conference that was streamed on the web, and regularly issue Twitter alerts. We have issued regular updates over the last 12 months in the quarterly VAT Notes and we are organising a Twitter clinic that anyone can join to ask questions.”

Really?  This is a change which affects micro businesses, the muggles who don’t speak tax and don’t belong to any of your “stakeholder” organisations.  It seems to have been badly thought out, badly explained, and badly handled.  And now to have come up against an organised set of articulate and well connected tax muggles who aren’t going to stand for any nonsense.

*sits back and fetches popcorn*