Sunday, 9 March 2014

Emailed VAT invoices

We (A&A) email invoices. We always have (though, once upon a time you could have them faxed). What is relevant here is that we don't post a paper invoice to people - they are always sent electronically.

Indeed, I was recently made aware that my accounts staff are routinely posting invoices to a dozen or so customers every month. This should not be happening, not without an admin fee for doing so. We issue thousands of invoices a month and printing/posting them would significantly impact our business model. It is unnecessary and obviously has an environmental impact as well.

Emailing invoices is something we have done for a very long time, and we have had the occasional complaint. We do take a lot of care, ensuring the plain text email meets the requirements, and even digitally signing them so as to meet EU requirements. We attach a PDF so that a clean print can be made if a paper copy is required internally, and as the first ever "print" of the invoice it is the "original paper copy". We can even attach XML data. We also have a secure web site to access in HTML, PDF, or XML as needed. We could not do more to help people if we tried.

Oddly, it was whilst posting about not updating SIs that I spotted a snag that may have affected this from 2 years ago.

Section 13A of The Value Added Tax Regulations 1995 as added by section 5 of The Value Added Tax (Amendment) (No. 6) Regulations 2003 and as modified by section 2(4)(b) The Value Added Tax (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2012 states "The document is not to be treated as the VAT invoice required to be provided by the supplier under regulation 13(1) unless the use of the electronic invoice is accepted by the customer" which appears to contradict scheduled 11 section 3(1) of the Value Added Tax Act 1994 which states "For the purposes of any provision contained in or having effect under this Act which relates to VAT invoices a person shall be treated as issuing, or as providing another person with, a VAT invoice if the requisite particulars are recorded in a computer and transmitted by electronic means and without the delivery of any document".

Those "regulations" are Statutory Instruments (SIs) which are secondary legislation (easier to pass than the primary legislation, i.e. Acts).

My understanding is that Acts give power to SIs in the first place. If the Act states "For the purposes of any provision contained in or having effect under this Act which relates to VAT invoices..." then it is stating that the text in those SIs is read in that context. So the Act trumps the SI.

Basically, the SIs seem to state that we can only legally meet our requirement to send a VAT invoice if "the use of the electronic invoice is accepted by the customer" which means a customer can insist on a paper copy. By the way, I see nothing saying that supplying a VAT invoice on paper has to be "free".

But the Act, in scheduled 11 section 3(1), is clear that we have met our obligations by sending the invoice electronically.

So I believe that a supplier can insist on sending invoices only by electronic means, and meet the legal requirements for issue of a VAT invoice, and that a customer cannot insist on a VAT invoice "on paper".

What we need is HMRC to make a clear statement to that effect.


  1. I’d guess the law has to allow provision of invoices for people who don't have an email address and or don't use the Internet, so I'd surmise that an electronic-only approach wouldn't be an acceptable reason for a company not to issue an invoice to somebody. Admittedly we're talking about an ISP here so that's kind of a moot point but, looking at the wider scope, it's surely also designed to cover businesses in general. Interesting conflict you spotted.

    1. And what of people who have no postbox and so cannot accept post (live on a long boat or some such). Yes, such people are expected to make arrangements. So why not expect people to make arrangements to get from a web site or by email (e.g. walk in to internet cafe to get invoice). The Act seems quite clear that we have "issued" and "provided another person" with it, if sent by electronic means.

    2. Yes because that's exactly the kind of attitude we'd want to encourage the government to take when setting policy? We complain when they behave like that it in other areas but not this..

      Don't get me wrong, I'm an Internet advocate in all respects but bullying people is not the answer. People should not be forced to go online. In any case what's the problem with just giving people an option? Pay more for paper or save with an email. Job done.

    3. You need some sort of compromise.

      You can't have a customer insisting on an invoice "carved in Welsh slate and sealed in blood", but equally you cannot have a supplier say "Only available by collection in person from our Isle of Jura office between 9:02 and 9:04 on the last Tuesday of the month".

      So, defining the basic rules for what is reasonable to insist on either side is sensible. The rules, as defined by the Act, allow for a supplier to have "provided to another person" the invoice if sent by electronic means. So that is what has been defined. In this day and age it is not unreasonable to expect someone to have email or be able to go to a web site, especially when we are talking about a business (VAT registered customer).

      After all, AFAIK, you have to be able to go online to file your VAT return now. So any VAT registered person *MUST* already be able to at least visit a web site.

    4. Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't you have to submit VAT returns electronically these days? If so, there seems to be no reason to expect someone who needs a VAT invoice wouldn't have a computer and an internet connection (since without them they couldn't submit the VAT return anyway)

    5. I think logic should apply - if they ordered something over the internet, you should presume they have internet access. If they provided you with their email address, you should be able to presume they have email - ergo you should be able to email the invoice to them.

      If, however, it was an "in store/person" purchase, you cannot make those assumptions and therefore a paper invoice must be available.

  2. I think you mean "Narrowboat" - a long boat is a Viking warship! :-)

    (I wonder how many A&A customers are Vikings?)

    1. LOL, yeh... Quite a few are on full moon billing, if that helps.