VAT was introduced in the UK in 1973 as a condition of joining the then European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU. Changes to the VAT rules require the unanimous agreement of all 28 EU countries. Originally introduced in the UK at 10%, these rules now require a minimum standard rate of 15% with one or two reduced rates, no lower than 5%, for certain specified goods on a pre-approved list. Further reduction in the VAT rate, including the use of a zero rate, is only allowed under EU rules for goods that have been taxed at that lower rate continuously since 1991. It is, therefore, under continued EU membership, a highly inflexible tax, but one not without merits. By requiring firms to deduct VAT paid on purchases from suppliers, it avoids the double taxation problem that arose with its UK predecessor, Purchase Tax. It is, nevertheless, highly ‘regressive’, i.e. it falls disproportionately on those on low incomes and leaves capital essentially untaxed. It is therefore unsurprising that, following the financial crash in 2008, the government relied on VAT to bail out the banks under its austerity strategy. VAT now contributes 21% of all the tax raised, up from 18% in 2009, and the amount raised has increased by 60% since then[i]. VAT has also made no contribution to reducing carbon emissions to help halt global warming.
In its 2017 General Election manifesto, the Labour Party called for VAT to be restricted to its current range of goods and services. However, according to the Communist Party pamphlet on The EU and Brexit – questions and answers [ii] , even this very modest proposal would breach EU rules. The potential for a progressive tax policy after we leave the EU would, however, be considerable and VAT could play a useful part in this. As was argued in From Each According to Their Means[iii], free from the EU we could vary VAT rates to meet policy objectives and give workers rebates paid through National Insurance. VAT could thus be adapted to incorporate a carbon tax along the lines of the fee and dividend model proposed by James Hansen and endorsed by the Communist University on South London in its discussion paper on Global Warming.[iv].
The people have spoken in the EU Referendum. The only vote we need now is a General Election so that the opportunities it opens up, including the reform of VAT, can be seized.
[i] according to UHY Hacker Young, quoted in Economia, February 2019
[iii] Available from the Communist Party for £2 plus postage https://www.communist-party.org.uk/shop/pamphlets/2025-from-each-according-to-their-means.