Smaller businesses to be drawn into the VAT net

The Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) published a report setting out a range of proposals for simplifying VAT. According to the OTS the tax is showing its age. What was meant to be a simple tax has become highly complex and it has not kept pace with changes in society.

The most significant issue identified in the report is the VAT registration threshold – the turnover level above which a business must enter the VAT system and charge VAT on its sales. At £85,000 the UK has one of the highest levels in the world.

By enabling many small businesses to stay out of the VAT system the high threshold is a form of simplification, but it’s an expensive relief, costing around £2bn per annum, and evidence strongly suggests that many growing businesses are discouraged from expanding beyond this point. The report looks at options for reducing the current ‘cliff edge’ effect resulting in a very visible bunching of businesses just before the VAT threshold, and an equally large drop off in the number of businesses with turnovers just above the threshold. Also examined are the advantages and disadvantages of lowering or increasing the threshold.

VAT has many ‘quirks’. For example, it is well known that a Jaffa cake is a cake (zero-rated) rather than a chocolate-covered biscuit (taxed at 20%). Less well known is that while children’s clothes are zero-rated, including many items made from fur skin, items made from Tibetan goat skin are standard-rated. And a ginger bread man with chocolate eyes is zero-rated but if it has chocolate trousers it would be standard rated. VAT zero rates cost over £45bn per annum to maintain. EU law limits options to make changes in this area but there is a longer-term opportunity to significantly improve the efficiency, simplicity and fairness of the UK VAT system.

The OTS report, will need to be examined in some detail. It will be interesting to see if we could achieve a real simplification of this complex tax or if, yet again, smaller businesses are required to absorb more red tape and tax burden while larger concerns with stronger lobbies and resources continue to avoid liability.

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