First the Banks – are EU Regs, MOSS VAT & HMRC also trying to kill off UK SMEs?

This is an unscheduled blog because this afternoon I read an article in the Telegraph about a proposed VAT reform which will literally kill off tens of thousands of SMEs. Here’s a link to the article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet/11295953/How-the-EU-is-throttling-online-business-with-idiotic-VAT-reform.html In short, what it says is every SME will have to pay VAT on every digital transaction to EU Countries as of January next year and this will expand to physical transactions in 2016. Therefore, even an aspiring author or musician or photographer selling their ebooks, digital images or mp3s – and maybe with a turnover of £5-£10,000 per annum will have to register for VAT, charge it to their EU customers and submit a mountain of paperwork to HMRC. They will also have to register for UK VAT even although they are exempt and under the threshold.

This begs the question of why we are part of the EU when the adverse consequences seem to outweigh the benefits? And what benefits? Surely one of the biggest benefits was we are free to trade with all our EU partners? Here’s a blog from Andrus Ansip at the EU Commission: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/2014-2019/ansip/blog/euvat_en

The first thing I noticed in the blog was this comment “The change in VAT rules was decided democratically, and after years of discussion, by EU Member States in 2008.” Democratically by who? Given it will affect SMEs so dramatically, I wonder how many SMEs were asked how they felt about it? And assuming it was a democratic process in EU terms, i.e the MEPs sat down over a nice lunch and agreed on this, how democratic were individual Governments and specifically ours, in asking if SMEs agreed? Personally I had no idea this was due to happen – maybe I just missed it? Admittedly I was very tied up exposing bank fraud in 2008 (another crippling tool to destroy SMEs) so I may have over looked it because I couldn’t trade my SME back then (or now). And, trailing through Goggle today, I have found plenty of news about this – although no front page news, so I have been asleep at the wheel but that doesn’t excuse the lunacy of it.

Why have the EU done this? Well according to Andrus, “ As I understand it, one of the aims was to establish a level-playing field for smaller companies. No more picking of low VAT countries by larger companies to gain a competitive advantage over SMEs.” Riggghht! This is to stop companies like Amazon exploiting tax loop holes by basing their digital content sales in Luxembourg. Fair enough, Amazon et.al will now have to pay millions in extra VAT payments. But does anyone really think they will absorb this cost? No. They will simply pass the cost on to the consumer. Not just the cost of the VAT but also the huge accountancy costs involved.

Andrus goes on to say “Now, some small and micro companies are worried about what the VAT changes coming on January 1 mean for them.” You bet they are. “Given that this change was adopted six years ago, Member States should have helped businesses to prepare.” Even if they had – what would that change?

Consider this: Joe Bloggs writes a book, turns it into an e-book and promotes and sells it via his own website. The e-book costs the buyer £2.00 + VAT for EU buyers. He sells 50 books in the UK – that’s OK he doesn’t have to charge VAT although he still has to be registered for VAT if he wants to sell in the EU. He sells 10 books in France, 15 in Germany, 5 in Italy and and 20 in Spain because his Aunty Mavis who lives in Benidorm persuades her friends to buy it. So that’s 100 books and 4 different VAT rates. There is apparently a “one stop shop” which will help with these varying VAT rates but I’m not sure how this works or, if I was Joe (and to an extent I am) whether I would want to take that route or just not sell to EU Countries.

Joe will have to do quarterly UK VAT returns even if he doesn’t charge VAT in the UK (he can just fill in 0 in all the boxes – so that’s not a waste of any one’s time!) and do separate VAT returns for his EU sales (no idea what happens with the rest of the world – is that still zero rated?). But because he does charge VAT for the EU he can deduct any expense relating to his EU sales from his overall VAT. And all this will be broken down and documented in the records of sales Joe must keep for years.

Now Joe, who is an excellent writer but not much of an accountant, could possibly struggle with the various rules and regulations he has to comply with – starting with, does he have to register at all or is what he does exempt? For example, these new rules don’t apply to: “supplies of goods, where the ordering and processing are electronic.”

But they do apply to: “images or text, such as photos, screensavers, e-books and other digitised documents e.g. pdf files, music, films and games…..”

I find that a bit confusing because ordering or processing an e-book is all done electronically isn’t it? So I looked at the section of the HMRC document entitled, “What is meant by electronically supplied?” and it explains: “This covers e-services which are automatically delivered over the internet, or an electronic network, where there is minimal or no human intervention. In practice, this means: Where the sale of the digital content is entirely automatic – for eg a customer clicks the ‘buy now’ button on a website and the: content downloads onto their device – customer receives an automated e-mail containing the content.”

So what part of a customer clicking “Buy Now” on your website and then receiving your e-book to download, isn’t covered in the above? Equally confusing is the section entitled “Examples of Electronic Supplies and Whether They Are Digital Services.” According to the chart, if Joe e-mails a pdf (his book) to someone, that is an E Service but it’s not covered by the new rules. However, if his pdf document is automatically e-mailed by the sellers (his) system or automatically downloaded from his site, then it is an E-Service and he does have to pay EU VAT to sell it in Europe. Hang on – didn’t it also say the new rules don’t apply to “supplies of goods, where the ordering and processing are electronic” or where the customer clicks the “buy now” and automatically downloads?

I won’t go through the rest of the document because I’m confused enough but here it is: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/revenue-and-customs-brief-46-2014-vat-rule-change-and-the-vat-mini-one-stop-shop-additional-guidance/revenue-and-customs-brief-46-2014-vat-rule-change-and-the-vat-mini-one-stop-shop-additional-guidance

I have a horrible feeling this EU VAT reform will be an absolute disaster for SMEs and it will either cause a lot to just stop trading or, it will cause them to stop bothering to be independent. What will be the point of Joe doing all this hard work (over and above writing his books) when the easiest option will be to sell it on Amazon in the first place and let them do the accountancy exercise? Yes Joe will get less money so Amazon can have a cut and his book will cost more because Amazon will pass on the EU VAT costs to the customers – but at least Joe won’t have a nervous breakdown doing a mountain of paperwork (which will no doubt result in massive fines if he gets it wrong) in order to sell 50 e-books to Europe. And there are 1000’s of Joe Bloggs in this Country who will do the same. I would even advise them to do so. So Amazon et.al could come out of this quite nicely.

Don’t get me wrong, I have two books on Amazon Kindle and it’s a very convenient site for writers. And ironically, I’ve had an e-mail this evening explaining the new charges anyone in Europe will have to pay for my books. But I am very aware small publishers will really struggle with this new system – the same as I would as a music publisher – which I was and would be but for HBOS.

End result? Whereas the internet gave millions of people and SMEs the opportunity to promote and sell their individual downloads all over the world – MOSS VAT + HMRC will now take that ability away. We will end up with half a dozen global platforms to sell digital or physical products across the Europe – and no doubt the world will follow. Sure they will have lots of subsidiaries but ultimately there will be a few Corporates running sales across the internet or to Europe.

The obvious solution was (and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work this out) – those digital traders or physical traders in the UK who sell in excess of the UK VAT exemption figure, should charge and, if applicable, pay VAT to the EU in the same way they do in the UK but at a flat rate agreed by the EU community to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy.

I would say to Mr Ansip, Mr Osborne and Mr Darling (who must have agreed this in the first place) that while MOSS VAT may bring in some cash from the big players avoiding tax, it will do them little harm and they’ll simply put prices up. But your new rules will be a disaster for SMEs, for the economy and for the morale of the Country.

For example, I know a young photographer who sells her images digitally and who has already considered the sad fact she will have to put a sign on her site saying – “Apologies, no sales to EU Countries.”

One might almost think our Government’s (present and past) are quite keen to see SMEs throw in the towel. First the banks and now this. What next?

And one last thought, why does Andrus Ansip say “As I understand it….” Surely this is an EU directive drafted in Brussels or Strasbourg wasn’t it? So he should know. Unless it was drafted elsewhere.

p.s If any accountant reading this can clarify what MOSS VAT really means to SMEs, please do post a reply or e-mail smealliance2014@gmail.com . I sincerely hope I have got this all wrong.

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