No, not the new get fit/thin scheme for the new year, but a recognition of one of the single biggest killers of small business. For large corporates, VAT is an unwelcome, but accepted tax on services. For small businesses, it is a killer that creeps up in the night, wipes 20% margin off the bottom line and leaves owners with a tough, if not impossible decision; absorb the additional cost or passed it onto the consumer. When train companies are merrily increasing fares by 3%, what other business can justify passing the additional 20% cost onto the consumer when the product or service being delivered is identical to the one that was charged at the reduced rate the day before?
How did we end up in this mess? It’s one of the few taxes that applies when you reach a threshold and it then hits all future revenue generated up to and beyond that threshold. Businesses must register for VAT when their revenue reaches £85k; they are then taxed on VAT rated items on the full £85k and anything beyond. No other major tax regime works in a similar way – stamp duty was changed a few years ago to avoid the cliff face that homeowners were facing when the value of their property reached a certain threshold and no other tax regime hurts small business as much as VAT.
In the way it is currently designed, it is not only punitive, but fundamentally anti-commerce and discourages entrepreneurial spirit. It drives business owners towards concealing revenue or reducing revenues to avoid reaching the threshold. It encourages activity on the black market (cash becomes king) and it creates an uneven playing field in which VAT registered businesses struggle to compete with their non-VAT registered counterparts. It is not uncommon to find that some small businesses close temporarily when they approach the threshold to avoid having to register for VAT.
Where is Government policy on this? Currently, in limbo. VAT is an EU diktat that applies to all EU member states. In the UK, the registration threshold is actually one of the highest across the EU, but that threshold has now been fixed by the Government for the next two years while the EU exit progresses and while a consultation process begins. As a consequence of the decision to freeze the threshold (thereby penalising those businesses whose revenue increases in real terms as a consequence of inflation), 6,000 additional small businesses will be caught up in having to register for VAT (and provide VAT returns digitally from April 2019), suddenly making those businesses 20% more expensive (or business owners 20% worse off) than their non-VAT registered competitors.
As taxes go, it is punishing and anti competitive, yet little is being done to support small businesses who through growth and at some risk strive to increase revenues to be successful. If income tax is applied in the same way (all those earning £46k or more getting taxed on all of their income at the 40% higher rate), there would be uproar. As it is, the unfairness of VAT is a story that goes untold and that very few non-business owners are aware of.
The time to consult has passed. This VAT regime has been in place for a number of years and is quite evidently punitive. If you supported your small businesses on the high street in December in the run-up to Christmas, you may have simply caused an unintended consequence of them having to increase their prices to cover their VAT bill.
Taxes should be fair to everyone. VAT patently is not.