VAT was introduced on the 1st of April 1973, as part of the conditions for the UK entering the Common Market. Designed by a French tax expert, Maurice Lauré, it was initially envisaged as a straightforward replacement for purchase tax, which would be applied to most goods and services.
Forty years on, VAT is increasingly complex, with numerous exemptions, many anomalies in its scope, and increasingly expensive challenges to its imposition. How did we get to this point? And is it time for VAT to undergo a mid-life makeover?
All governments have to raise taxes – to redistribute income and to fund public spending. They have a number of mechanisms they can use, but essentially they have to tax incomes (direct taxes), spending (indirect taxes) or a mix of both. The main indirect tax in the UK is VAT, which now raises over £100bn a year, compared with £1.5bn in its first year (see above chart: click here for a PowerPoint version). Initially envisaged as a simple, cross-Europe purchase tax, the current system is complex and at times appears to have been formulated ‘on the hoof’, never a good way to build a tax system.
In the 2012 Budget, the Chancellor decided to apply the standard rate of income tax to hot takeaway pasties; previously they had been zero-rated. However, he had sharply underestimated the ability of the industry to lobby against the tax, working closely with the tabloid press. Perhaps more importantly, he also missed the complex nature of the good; when is a hot pasty just cooling down? And what is hot? The government backtracked and now 20% VAT is only charged on pasties that are deliberately kept hot. You might think that this change of heart avoided introducing an anomaly, but consider how you might feel if you sell takeaway baked potatoes, which are subject to VAT.
Apart from the complexity of the system, VAT is unpopular with some commentators who feel that it falls too heavily on low-income households. Although many foodstuffs are zero-rated and housing is exempt, VAT is charged at 20% on clothing and many necessities such as cleaning materials. Gas and electricity are subject to a reduced rate of 5% and both alcohol and cigarettes have additonal excise duties imposed and yet are disproportionally consumed by the poor. When the standard rate of VAT was temporarily dropped to 15% in 2010, but then permanently raised to 20% in 2011, many felt that this was a shift in the tax burden to the poor.
So complex, irrational and prone to changes following political lobbying or expensive legal cases, VAT does seem to be stumbling into its forties under something of a cloud. However, it remains the case that it raises a large proportion of UK tax revenues at relatively low direct cost and provides the Chancellor with a reasonably effective fiscal policy tool. Even if a government wanted to put in place an alternative, it is likely that the associated political risks would be too high for it to do so. We might hope for some rationalisation of the current system, but there is little doubt that we will be raising a glass to VAT’s 50th birthday in 2023.
The links below include some articles on VAT’s 40th birthday and some more general articles on VAT.
VAT is 40 years old- and now has middle-age spread The Guardian, Juliette Garside (31/1/13)
Is VAT suffering a mid-life crisis at 40? BBC News, Colin Corder (31/3/13)
VAT at 40, not simple, not popular, but central to government revenue-raising The Chartered Institute of Taxation (28/3/13)
Happy birthday VAT, here’s how not to pay you The Telegraph, Rosie Murray-West (31/3/13)
Poorest spend higher proportion of VAT than richest BBC News (31/10/11)
A Value- Added Tax offers much to love- and hate New York Times, Gregory Mankiw (1/5/10)
EC Standard VAT Declaration European Commission Roadmap (2012)
Data and information
VAT pages HMRC
Public sector finance statistics HM Treasury (follow link to latest Public finances databank (Excel file) and go to Worksheet C2)
Latest European Union EU VAT rates VATLive
- Explain why VAT might be deemed regressive. Can you formulate an argument that it falls more heavily on the rich than the poor?
- Why is VAT administratively cheap? Other than generating tax revenues, can you think of any advantages of the tax?
- Newspapers and books are zero-rated in the UK, while e-books and news apps are standard rated at 20%. Can you identify some other anomalies in the UK VAT system? Is there an argument that a better approach would be to charge a lower rate on all goods and services?
- Who pays VAT, consumers or producers? Illustrate your answer with a diagram, or two.
- A business has to register for VAT once it has a turnover of £77,000 pa. Does this system give rise to any perverse incentives?
- Countries across the European Union have varying VAT rates, applied to very different ranges of products. Explain why this might hinder the workings of a single European market.
- Imagine you were running a brand new economy; would you use a value-added tax to raise revenues? What are the alternatives open to governments?