How to prepare for the new VAT reverse charge system

With the global COVID-19 pandemic affecting so many aspects of our lives during 2020, many planned changes to government regulations have either flown under the radar or been quietly delayed. One of these is the VAT reverse charge, which had already been pushed back to October 2020 before being delayed again by a further six months.

Despite the delay, many in the construction industry are still playing catch-up when it comes to understanding and preparing for the changes. Now that March 1st 2021 is fast approaching, it’s time to consider whether your business is ready.

What is the VAT reverse charge?

The government is changing the way that HMRC collects VAT payments.

Until now, businesses in the construction industry would usually charge VAT when selling their materials or services, regardless of whether they’re dealing with clients, contractors, subcontractors, etc.

As of March 1st 2021, suppliers will not be allowed to charge VAT unless they are supplying services to an “end-user”. For those transactions, they must only invoice for and collect the amount excluding VAT. Instead of paying the VAT to the supplier, the customer will pay the VAT directly to HMRC.

Who is classed as an “end-user”?

Final customers are referred to as “end users” in the guidelines. Anyone who will either use, rent or sell the structure in question is an end-user, so for example:

  • Landlords
  • Developers
  • Domestic householders
  • Local authorities
  • Utility companies

Of course, this is made a little more complicated by the fact that “intermediary suppliers” are also treated as end-users, so if you deal with those, you can continue to charge them VAT too.

Your customer should confirm in writing that they are an end-user – we’ll come back to that point later. HMRC’s technical guide offers some further clarification on this distinction and what you should do to determine how your customers should be classified.


VAT reverse charge flowchart

Use our quick and simple flowchart to work out which VAT method you should use for your customer.

Download flowchart »

Which businesses are affected?

Broadly speaking, if you operate in the construction industry then you’re likely to be impacted one way or the other.

The government website also provides a detailed list of services that would qualify for the new rules. It covers almost everything that would usually fall under the construction umbrella.

There are some exceptions, though. There is also a list of services for which reverse charge VAT does NOT apply, so check this before making any changes.


What’s the reason for the change?

The reason for this change is to crack down on tax fraud in the industry. The government wants to prevent businesses from charging their customers VAT and then keeping it themselves rather than paying it to HMRC.

In theory, the new change makes this impossible. Instead, the government collects the revenue from fewer businesses – the ones that interface directly with end users.


Is this a problem for my business?

Potentially, if you aren’t prepared.

Almost every contractor will be affected, especially if you pay other people for work which you bill on, or get paid by other contractors. If this is news to you, it’s time to take action, as you must be ready to comply immediately from 1st March 2021 onwards.

The most important thing to consider is the negative effect on your cash flow. The VAT reverse charge will most likely reduce your incoming cash flow while your outgoings remain the same.

Why? Well, you’ll still be paying VAT when you buy from many of your suppliers. The VAT goes directly to HMRC, but you’re still paying it.

However, when other traders buy from you (if they aren’t end users), you won’t be able to charge that additional 20%. Overall you’ll have less gross payments coming in than you did before.


What can I do to prepare?

The best way to prepare for these changes is to communicate with your customers and figure out what exactly needs to be done in your specific case.

So how should you go about doing that? Here’s our advice:


1. Read the government’s official advice

We highly recommend scanning through the guidance published by HM Revenue & Customs for a better understanding. There are a lot of pointers there which are specific to different situations.


2. Talk to your accountant

You’ll also be able to get more personalised advice from whoever deals with your accounts. They should understand what the biggest impact will be on your business, given the way you work.


3. Consider how you handle your VAT returns

It’s common for contractors to do their VAT returns on a quarterly basis. If that’s what you do, consider changing to monthly. Although it might require more admin in the short term, this may help balance out the effect on your cash flow.


4. Update your invoicing system

You will need to review your invoices and potentially remove VAT from a lot of them moving forward. Make sure this is as systemised and automated as possible!


VAT reverse charge invoice

Use our ready-made example to help you quickly and easily amend your invoice templates.

Download Word document (.docx) »

5. Write to your subcontractors

When your subcontractors invoice you for their services, they can no longer charge you VAT under the new rules, because you will owe it to HMRC directly instead. We suggest writing to them to confirm this, advise them on where to go for more information, and maybe offer to discuss further if needed.


Subcontractor letter template

Use our free template to help you write a letter to your subcontractors addressing the VAT changes.

Download Word document (.docx) »


In summary, there’s a lot to consider! But that doesn’t need to be a problem, as long as you’ve done your research and prepared for the incoming changes. For more tips and advice, keep following our posts on our website and social channels.

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