OK — so I travel to the European Patent Office in Munich to do a day’s unpaid consultancy. They put me up for two nights in a nice hotel, and I get to meet some interesting people. It seems a fair deal. They have of course agreed to pay my expenses. Here is what happened when I try to get them paid.
First I get a nice note from the administrator asking me to submit them, along with my bank details.
I send in a normal claim, to her, for the stuff I had receipts for: train tickets to Heathrow, my air fare from there, and the hotel bill. All these I had paid for, off my own credit card.
Back comes a note from someone in the accounts department:
bq. In order for the European Patent Office to reimburse your expenses regarding the above mentioned seminar, a new invoice is requested with the addition of the following compulsory information (see also Directive 2001/115/EC of 20 December 2001 related to all fiscal authorities in the EU-countries):
* Invoice number;
* The Agreement No. to which the reimbursement relate;
* Reason as to why no VAT is charged;
* Bank details as IBAN (International Bank Account Number) and BIC (Bank Identifier Code) codes.
Also a polite note from the Administrator (a nice, competent woman to whom I had talked in person) saying that she is sorry for the trouble, but would I please remember to charge the hotel bill as “fixed accommodation fee” and use that phrase. OK.
So I start from the bottom: what is an IBAN? I know. I will ask my bank. Their number is in my contacts book. It’s unobtainable, of course. Everything has gone over to centralised voice mail. Looking up “HSBC Saffron Walden” on the BT directory enquiries, I get back three pages of listings for various bits of HSBC, not one of them in Saffron Walden and very few anywhere near it. But half way down the second page of the listing is a number for “HSBC Customers”, so I dial that.
Three voice mail menus later, I get through to a Glaswegian male, or possibly an artificial stupidity programmed with Glaswegian male friendliness towards the English. He needs to know my account number, my date of birth, and two digits from my security number before he can even listen to my question.
I ask my question. He goes off to speak to a supervisor. After a while, he comes back. “We only deal with mortgage enquiries on this number” he says. Try 0845-something else.
The number is unobtainable. I look it up again, dial, go through two menus, punch in my account number, my date of birth, and two digits of my security number; a robot voice asks where I want to transfer money. I realise I am dealing with a voice interface to the web form I could have reached fifteen minutes ago, if that was what I had wanted to do. I also realise that at some stage in this interaction I have started to shout “FUCK Off!” every time I hear a robot voice.
I shout this one more time, then once more for luck. I hang up. I redial. A robot asks me for my account number. I know what to do now. I shout my little slogan as soon as I hear its voice. Then I enter my account number. A robot asks — I shout — I enter my date of birth. A robot — I shout — I enter two digits of my security number. A rob — I shout — asks me to re-enter the two digits. I count out the digits of my security number on my knuckles and enter the right too. There is a silence. I fill my lungs and wait. There is a r- no, a voice, and I just manage to exhale.
The voice is human, and apparently Chinese.
The number I want, she says, is on the bank statement. Before I can react to this news she adds that she will tell me anyway, and starts to read out a long code containing the letters M-I-D-L-A which clearly mean nothing to her. But they make me feel very very old, since they are clearly the remains of the Midland Bank, which was what HSBC was called when I first opened an account with them and their branches were staffed — between ten and three i the afternoon — with human beings to whom I could go and ask for money or advice so that they could tell me to fuck off.
I thank the Chinese woman and hang up. Back to the invoice. I give it a number — 000666 — but I haven’t got the contract agreement, because they posted me a copy which I signed and sent back. After all, I wasn’t being paid for this gig, so why would I need a contract? I emailed back to the administrator asking if she had the number, since she certainly had my contract. Then I rummage around the hard disk and discover four PDF copies of the agreement, which had all been sent as attachments to the emails announcing that a copy would be posted to me.
So why aren’t I charging VAT? I don’t know. I am so puzzled that eventually I ring Munich and talk to the woman to whom I have been emailing. She has no idea, except that it is important. She will ask the finance department and call me back; twenty minutes later I get an email saying that the reason is really simple: %(loony) So, here it is, the sentence for the reason for exemption of VAT: ‘Exemption for deliveries of goods and services to international organisations according to Directive 77/388/EEC Art. 15 para 10 and Directive 92/12/EEC Art. 23 para 1’. Please write this sentence into your invoice. %
I wonder if anyone would notice if I changed a digit. I ask her if I can send her a PDF so that she can print it out and give it to the accounts department. No, no, it has to be posted. And don’t forget the fixed fee for accommodation. So I change the words “Hotel Bill 287 Euros” to “Fixed Fee Accommodation” and then it occurs to me to read the contract to see what was agreed and this turns out to be a fee of 350 Euros, even though they had booked the hotel and might have known what it would cost. The discrepancy, I decide, represents a form-filling fee. I enter the stipulated amount and study the invoice once more. What’s missing now? Ah, under the boilerplate explaining why I don’t need to pay VAT they are going to want my VAT number. So I add that, carefully, and then put on the final touch — a figure from a Mexican dingbat font representing the man who waits in a government office:
Finally I send off a PDF to the nice woman in Munich so she can see if there are any mistakes, and post a copy too for her to give to the accounts department. I wonder if I should invoice her for VAT on the stamp.