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?
Petrol prices have been a bone of contention for some time. With household incomes remaining low and the cost of living rising, the fact that average petrol prices have reached their highest level of more than 1.37p per litre on average will undoubtedly put growing pressure on the approaching budget.
There have already been calls for the Chancellor to reduce fuel duty and with this latest data, the pressure will only mount. The problem is, if fuel duty does fall, so will tax revenues and as one of the Coalition’s key objectives has been to cut the budget deficit, this could pose further problems. Even the calls to cut VAT on fuel will also put a dent in the budget deficit.
Although everyone is undoubtedly feeling the effects of these higher prices, the key thing with petrol is its elasticity of demand. Whether the price of petrol was 0.90p or 1.37p per litre, I continue to buy the same amount. Therefore, for me, the price elasticity of demand for petrol is highly inelastic – at least between those prices. After all, if the price increase above say £3 per litre, I might think twice about driving to work!
So what has been driving this increase in prices? Petrol prices are hugely dependent on the cost of oil and on the demand for any product that uses fuel. With growing demand from countries like India and China, as they continue to develop and grow very quickly; the continuing concerns with Iran’s nuclear programme and the political problems in the Middle East, oil prices have been forced up. The future trend in prices will depend on many factors, not least whether or not there is any change in fuel duty in the 2012 budget and whether something like a regulator is introduced to monitor increases in fuel prices. This is definitely an area to pay close attention to in the coming months.
Petrol prices reach record high Independent, Peter Woodman (3/3/12)
Petrol prices hit record high with further rises expected Guardian, Hilary Osborne (2/3/12)
Appeak to regulate petrol prices This is South Wales (3/3/12)
Plea to slash duty as fuel costs soar to record high Scotsman, Alastair Dalton (3/3/12)
Petrol prices hit record high The Telegraph, David Millward (2/3/12)
Diesel prices predicted to reach 150p as petrol hits new record Guardian, Terry Macalister and Hilary Osborne (2/3/12)
- Which are the factors on the demand side that have pushed up the price of oil and hence petrol and diesel?
- What are the supply-side factors that are causing the rising price of fuel?
- Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate the effects you have explained in the first two questions.
- In the blog, I mention that my price elasticity of demand is relatively inelastic between 2 given prices. What does this suggest about the shape of my demand curve for petrol? How does this shape affect prices following any change in demand or supply?
- Why is petrol a relatively price inelastic product?
- There have been calls for the government to cut VAT or reduce fuel duty. What are the arguments for and against these policies?
- How effective do you think a petrol price regulator would be?
Growth in the UK for the final quarter of 2010 was originally at -0.5%. However, the latest data has revised that figure to -0.6% and not all of this was down to the snow. Analysts say that the snow effect is still believed to explain the 0.5% contraction, but the economy therefore declined by 0.1% because of other reasons and retailers have seen the effects. Primark has reported a ‘noticeable’ slowdown in demand since the beginning of 2011. With increasing VAT and rising cotton prices, clothing retailers are feeling the squeeze. The same is true of UK consumers. With an increase in VAT and high inflation, consumers’ purchasing power has simply fallen and so they are spending less. Despite this slowdown, Primark’s revenues are still significantly ahead of the same time last year.
The parent company, Associated British Foods (ABF) commented on the disappointing trading of 2011 so far, saying:
“Since the New Year, the performance in all our operations in Continental Europe has been very encouraging but there has been a noticeable slowing down of UK consumer demand.”
However, despite disappointing figures for Primark, UK retail sales did pick up in January, although analysts are warning against taking this information as a sign of recovery. As Hetal Mehta from Daiwa said:
“While we expected there to be some clawback from December’s dismal, snow-hit retail sales, today’s jump is a welcome surprise. But is still far too early to conclude that consumers are weathering the storm … and with the past week’s unemployment figures highlighting the fragility of the labour market, the housing market continuing to weaken and real earnings being hit hard by high inflation, it seems inconceivable that consumer spending will act as the driving force of the economy over the near term.”
There are many opinions about what to expect from the economy in 2011, but for any concrete information, we really have to wait for at least another month. Perhaps by Easter, we’ll have a better idea about the state of the UK. For now, there are a few articles considering the retail sector.
Primark owner warns of slowing sales in UK Guardian, Graeme Wearden (28/2/11)
Primark warns of ‘noticeable’ slowdown in UK demand BBC News (28/2/11)
Growth in UK retail sales slows sharply Wall Street Journal, Alex Brittain and Art Patnaude (24/2/11)
UK retail sales rebound: reaction Telegraph (28/2/11)
UK GDP figure revised down further BBC News (25/2/11)
- Why has higher VAT and cotton prices impacted retailers such as Primark?
- Why was Primark less affected by declining sales in the run up to Christmas?
- What do we mean by purchasing power?
- Why is it hard to draw any conclusions about the performance of the UK at the moment?
- What does a slowing down of retail sales mean for the UK’s recovery? Will it influence the Chancellor’s Budget?
For most people, buying a new car is a luxury and in times of hardship it is a luxury that many cannot afford. Sales of new cars did grow during 2010 by 1.8% compared to the previous year, although the end of the car scrappage scheme in March 2010 did see a fall in sales. Sales went from being 19.9 per cent up on 2009 in the first half of the year, to being 13.8 per cent down for the remainder of 2010. On top of this, they are predicted to fall by some 5% over the coming 12 months.
Part of the explanation of this trend is the VAT rise. While an extra 2.5% is hardly noticeable on many every day items (as we saw when VAT was reduced to 15%), it will have a much larger effect on more expensive items, such as cars.
It was expected that people thinking of buying a new car would try to beat the VAT rise and so car firms hoped for a surge in sales during December. However, this did not occur and with VAT at 20% during 2011, car prices will rise: a £15,000 car will cost an extra £320. Another contributing factor to the lower than expected sales in December was the snow. Retail sales in December collapsed by 37.5%, where as fleet sales, which are less likely to be affected by the adverse weather rose by 5.1%. Similar patterns were seen in Spain, Italy and France, but in Germany sales were up by 7% on the year from December 2009.
The good news for the UK car industry is that the second half of 2011 is expected to see growth, so there may be some recovery. Furthermore, UK-built cars have seen a rise in sales – up by 17%. Finally, as petrol prices continue to rise, it is hoped that this might encourage people to trade in their less efficient old cars for more fuel-efficient new cars. This will certainly be an industry to watch over the next few months.
Snow hits new car sales Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (8/1/11)
UK new car sales to fall in 2011, says industry BBC News (7/1/11)
Mixed end to the year for European car sales Independent (7/1/11)
Car sales set to stall? Daily Mirror, Clinton Manning (8/1/11)
UK new car sales rose 1.8pc in 2010 despite end of scrappage scheme Telegraph, Amy Wilson (7/1/11)
New car sales increased in 2010 Telegraph, Chris Knapman (7/1/11)
Car registrations fall 18% from year ago Financial Times, Norma Cohen (7/1/11)
- What type of tax is VAT? Illustrate the effect of such a tax on a diagram and explain why the higher the price of the good, the bigger the impact of the VAT rise. How might this impact inflation?
- Why are car sales expected to fall in the UK over the coming year? Given this expected trend, what might we expect to see in terms of car prices?
- What impact might rising petrol prices have on new car purchases? What figure would you expect to see for cross elasticity of demand?
- How might the expected decline in car sales affect the UK economy over the next 12 months?
- What type of market structure is the car industry? (Think about the characteristics of monopolistic competition and oligopoly.)
- How did the car scrappage scheme help car sales?
- What might explain the different trend seen in the German car industry?
It is the Bank of England’s responsibility to ensure that inflation remains on target. They use interest rates and the money supply to keep inflation within a 1% band of the inflation target set by the government = 2%. However, for the past 12 months, we have had an inflation rate above the 3% maximum and this looks set to continue. Official figures show that the CPI inflation rate has risen to 3.3% in November, up from 3.2% in October 2010 – above the inflation target. There was also movement on the RPI from 4.5% to 4.7% during the same months. The ONS suggests that this increase is largely down to record increases in food, clothing and furniture prices: not the best news as Christmas approaches. It is not just consumers that are facing rising prices, as factories are also experiencing increasing costs of production, especially with the rising cost of crude oil (see A crude story). Interest rates have not changed, as policymakers believe prices will be ‘reined in’ before too long.
However, the government expects inflation to remain above target over the next year, especially with the approaching increase in VAT from 17.5% to 20%. As this tax is increased, retail prices will also rise and hence inflation is likely to remain high. There is also concern that retailers will use the increase in VAT to push through further price rises. A report by KPMG suggests that 60% of retailers intend not only to increase prices to cover the rise in VAT, but to increase prices over and above the VAT rise.
Despite the planned VAT rise spelling bad news for inflation, it could be the spending cuts that offset this. As next year brings a year of austerity through a decrease in public spending, this could deflate the economy and hence bring inflation back within target. However, there are suggestions that more quantitative easing may be on the cards in order to stimulate growth, if it appears to be slowing next year. The Bank of England’s Deputy Governor, Charles Bean said:
“It is certainly possible that we may well want to undertake a second round of quantitative easing if there is a clear sign that UK output growth and with it inflation prospects are slowing,” Bean told a business audience in London.”
The following articles consider the rising costs experienced by firms, the factors behind the inflation and some of the likely effects we may see over the coming months.
UK inflation rises to a surprise six-month high The Telegraph, Emma Rowley (14/12/10)
UK inflation rate rises to 3.3% in November BBC News (14/12/10)
Inflation unexpectedly hits 6-month high in November Reuters, David Milliken and Christina Fincher (14/12/10)
Food and clothing push up inflation Associated Press (14/12/10)
Retailers ‘to increase prices by more than VAT rise’ BBC News (14/12/10)
VAT increase ‘will hide price rises’ Guardian, Phillip Inman (14/12/10)
Slower growth may warrant more QE Reuters, Peter Griffiths and David Milliken (13/12/10)
Factories feel squeeze of inflation The Telegraph, Emma Rowley (13/12/10)
Figures show rise in input prices The Press Association (13/12/10)
November producer input prices up more than expected Reuters (13/12/10)
Inflation Report Bank of England
- What is the difference between the RPI and CPI? How are each calculated?
- Why are interest rates the main tool for keeping inflation on target at 2%? How do they work?
- Is the inflation we are experiencing due to demand-pull or cost-push factors? Illustrate this on diagram. How are expectations relevant here?
- Explain why the rise in VAT next year may make inflation worse – use a diagram to help your explanation.
- Explain the process by which rising prices of crude oil affect manufacturers, retailers and hence the retail prices we see in shops.
- How are the inflation rate, the interest rate and the exchange rate linked? What could explain the pound jumping by ‘as much as 0.2pc against the dollar after the report’ was released?
- Explain why the public spending cuts next year may reduce inflation. Why might more quantitative easing be needed and how could this affect inflation in the coming months?