Value-added tax (United Kingdom)

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Value-added tax[1] or value added tax[2] (VAT) is a consumption tax levied in the United Kingdom by the national government. It was introduced in 1973 and is the third largest source of government revenue after income tax and National Insurance. It is administered and collected by HM Revenue and Customs, primarily through the Value Added Tax Act 1994.

VAT is levied on most goods and services provided by registered businesses in the UK and some goods and services imported from outside the European Union.[3] There are complex regulations for goods and services imported from within the EU. The default VAT rate is the standard rate, 20% since 4 January 2011. Some goods and services are subject to VAT at a reduced rate of 5% (such as domestic fuel) or 0% (such as most food and children's clothing).[4] Others are exempt from VAT or outside the system altogether.

Under EU law, the standard rate of VAT in any EU state cannot be lower than 15%.[5][6] Each state may have up to two reduced rates of at least 5% for a restricted list of goods and services.[6] The European Council must approve any temporary reduction of VAT in the public interest.[5]

VAT is an indirect tax because the tax is paid to the government by the seller (the business) rather than the person who ultimately bears the economic burden of the tax (the consumer).[5] Opponents of VAT claim it is a regressive tax because the poorest people spend a higher proportion of their disposable income on VAT than the richest people.[7] Those in favour of VAT claim it is progressive as consumers who spend more pay more VAT.[5]


Between October 1940 and 1973 the UK had a consumption tax called Purchase Tax, which was levied at different rates depending on goods' luxuriousness.[5] Purchase Tax was applied to the wholesale price, initially at a rate of 33​13%. This was doubled in April 1942 to 66​23%, and further increased in April 1943 to a rate of 100%, before reverting in April 1946 to 33​13% again. Unlike VAT, Purchase Tax was applied at the point of manufacture and distribution, not at the point of sale. The rate of Purchase Tax at the start of 1973, when it gave way to VAT, was 25%.

On 1 January 1973 the UK joined the European Economic Community and as a consequence Purchase Tax was replaced by Value Added Tax on 1 April 1973.[5][8][9] The Conservative Chancellor Lord Barber set a single VAT rate (10%) on most goods and services.[5][8][9]

In July 1974, Labour Chancellor Denis Healey reduced the standard rate of VAT from 10% to 8% but introduced a new higher rate of 12.5% for petrol and some luxury goods.[5][8][10] In November 1974, Healey doubled the higher rate of VAT to 25%.[8] Healey reduced the higher rate back to 12.5% in April 1976.[8][10][11]

Conservative Chancellor Geoffrey Howe increased the standard rate of VAT from 8% to 15% and abolished the higher rate in June 1979.[5][8][12] The rate remained unchanged until 1991, when Conservative Chancellor Norman Lamont increased it from 15% to 17.5%.[5][8][12] The additional revenue was used to pay for a reduction in the hugely unpopular community charge.[12] During the 1992 general election the Conservatives promised not to extend the scope of VAT but in March 1993, Lamont announced that domestic fuel and power, which had previously been zero-rated, would have VAT levied at 8% from April 1994 and the full 17.5% from April 1995.[9][13] The planned introduction of VAT on domestic fuel and power went ahead in April 1994, but the increase from 8% to 17.5% in April 1995 was scuppered in December 1994, after the government lost the vote in parliament.[8][13]

In its 1997 general election manifesto, the Labour Party pledged to reduce VAT on domestic fuel and power to 5%.[14] After gaining power, the new Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown announced in June 1997 that the lower rate of VAT on domestic fuel and power would be reduced from 8% to 5% with effect from 1 September 1997.[15][16] In November 1997, Brown announced that the VAT on installation of energy saving materials would be reduced from 17.5% to 5% from 1 July 1998. Brown subsequently reduced VAT from 17.5% to 5% on sanitary protection products (from 1 January 2001); children's car seats (from 1 April 2001); conversion and renovation of certain residential properties (from 12 May 2001); contraceptives (from 1 July 2006); and smoking cessation products (from 1 July 2007).

In response to the late-2000s recession, Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling announced in November 2008 that the standard rate of VAT would be reduced from 17.5% to 15% with effect from 1 December 2008.[17][18] In December 2009, Darling announced that the standard rate of VAT would return to 17.5% with effect from 1 January 2010.[19][20]

In the run up to the 2010 general election there were reports that the Conservatives would raise VAT if they gained power.[21][22][23] The party denied the reports.[24][25] Following the election in May 2010, the Conservatives formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. In the 2010 budget, described by PM David Cameron as an "emergency budget", Chancellor George Osborne announced that the standard rate of VAT would increase from 17.5% to 20% with effect from 4 January 2011.[26][27]

Before the 2015 general election Labour claimed that the Conservatives would raise VAT to 22.5% if they were re-elected and Osborne reputedly refused to deny the claim.[28][29] On 25 March 2015 Cameron pledged in the House of Commons that VAT would not be increased.[30][31]


All businesses that provide "taxable" goods and services and whose taxable turnover exceeds the threshold must register for VAT.[3] The threshold was £77,000 since April 2012,[32] and as of 2015 it is £82,000,[33] by far the highest VAT registration threshold in the world.[5] Businesses may choose to register even if their turnover is less than that amount. All registered businesses must charge VAT on the full sale price of the goods or services that they provide unless exempted or outside the VAT system. The default VAT rate is the standard rate, currently 20%.[3] Some goods and services are charged lower rates (reduced or zero).

Registered businesses must pay over to HMRC the VAT they have charged on their goods or service (known as output tax) but they may offset this with the VAT they have incurred on goods or services they have purchased (known as input tax).[34]

A separate scheme, called The Flat Rate Scheme is also run by HMRC. This scheme allows a VAT registered business with a turnover of less than £150,000 per annum to pay a fixed percentage of its turnover to HMRC every 3 months. The scheme is designed to reduce red tape for small business and allow new companies to keep some of the VAT they charge to their customers.[35]

Businesses selling exempt goods or supplies, such as banks, may not register for VAT or reclaim VAT that they have incurred on purchases.[3] Businesses that sell some exempt goods or supplies may not be able to reclaim the VAT on all of their purchases. However, businesses that sell zero-rated goods or supplies, such as food producers or bookseller, may reclaim all the VAT they have incurred on purchases.


There are currently three rates of VAT: standard (20%), reduced (5%) and zero (0%).[3] In addition some goods and services are exempt from VAT or outside the VAT system.[3]

The following are the rates applicable to some common goods and services:[36]

Historical rates

Standard VAT rates since 1979:[37]

From To Standard rate
18/06/1979 18/03/1991 15%
19/03/1991 30/11/2008 17.5%
01/12/2008 31/12/2009 15%
01/01/2010 03/01/2011 17.5%
04/01/2011 20%


VAT revenue since 1978/79 as a percentage of total government revenue:[38]

Year VAT (£bn)  % Year VAT (£bn)  % Year VAT (£bn)  % Year VAT (£bn)  %
1978/79 4.9 7.02% 1988/89 27.2 13.81% 1998/99 52.3 15.60% 2008/091 78.4 14.77%
1979/80 8.0 9.41% 1989/90 29.6 14.02% 1999/00 56.4 15.73% 2009/101 63.7 12.84%
1980/81 11.1 11.00% 1990/91 30.9 13.94% 2000/01 58.5 15.30% 2010/111 73.4 13.89%
1981/82 11.9 9.95% 1991/92 35.3 15.25% 2001/02 61.0 15.66% 2011/121 79.5 13.79%
1982/83 13.8 10.63% 1992/93 37.2 16.36% 2002/03 63.5 16.03% 2012/131 83.8 13.52%
1983/84 15.3 11.09% 1993/94 39.2 16.67% 2003/04 69.1 16.36% 2013/141 87.7 13.26%
1984/85 18.6 12.59% 1994/95 41.7 16.30% 2004/05 73.0 16.11%
1985/86 19.4 12.29% 1995/96 43.1 15.58% 2005/06 72.9 14.98%
1986/87 21.3 12.94% 1996/97 46.6 16.14% 2006/07 77.4 14.89%
1987/88 24.2 13.53% 1997/98 50.6 16.00% 2007/08 80.6 14.71%

1. Estimated

Avoidance, evasion and fraud

The UK government loses billions in revenue each year due to VAT avoidance, evasion and fraud. In 2006 the loss was estimated to be between £13bn and £18bn, equivalent to £1 for every £6 of VAT due.[39] The bulk of the lost revenue, about £1 in every £8 of VAT due, is due to evasion.[40] Evasion, which is illegal, occurs when registered businesses pay over to HMRC less than they should. This can be done by understating sales or overstating purchases. Evasion also occurs when businesses do not charge VAT on goods and services they provide even though they are legally obliged to. Cash-in-hand jobs by tradesmen may indicate VAT evasion.[41]

In recent years carousel fraud (also known as missing trader fraud) has increased. Criminal gangs trade goods, such as mobile phones, across EU countries.[42] They do not have to pay VAT, as imports from the EU are exempt. The fraud occurs when the criminals sell the goods with VAT in the UK but fail to pass the VAT to HMRC.[42] The goods are often repeatedly shipped round EU countries by criminal gang networks, hence the "carousel" name.[43] According to the HMRC, between £1.1bn and £1.9bn tax revenue was lost in 2004/05 due to carousel fraud.[43] The European Union Emission Trading Scheme has been plagued by carousel fraud.[44][45]

A loophole in VAT law – the Low Value Consignment Relief (LVCR) – means that goods imported from outside the EU and costing less than a set amount are not subject to VAT.[46] When the LVCR was introduced in 1983 it was set at about £5 but gradually rose to £18.[47] In March 2011 the government announced that the LVCR would reduce from £18 to £15 from 1 November 2011.[47] The LVCR has allowed online retailers of DVDs and CDs to avoid VAT by importing the goods from the Channel Islands, which are not part of the EU. Major retailers involved in this tax avoidance include Amazon, Asda, HMV,, Tesco, W H Smith and Woolworths.[48] The tax avoided each year due to LVCR was estimated to be £85M in 2005, £110M in 2008, £130M in 2010 and £140m in 2011.[46][47] From 1 April 2012 the relief was withdrawn in respect of goods imported to the UK from the Channel Islands.[49]


Opponents of VAT claim VAT is regressive and is paid by all consumers whether they be rich or poor, young or old.[9] The poorest also spend a higher proportion of their disposable income on VAT than richest.[7] An Office for National Statistics report showed that in 2009/10 the poorest 20% spent 8.7% of their gross income on VAT whereas the richest 20% spent only 4.0% of their gross income on VAT.[50] Similarly, the poorest 20% spent 9.7% of their disposable income on VAT whereas the richest 20% spent only 5.2% of their disposable income on VAT.[50] Supporters of VAT claim VAT is progressive as consumers who spend more pay more VAT.[5] Note that VAT is not a progressive tax as commonly defined, i.e. a tax with a rate that increase as the taxable amount increases.[51][52][53][54]

The zero rating of food and allowing businesses to reclaim input VAT means that the government in effect subsidises the food industry.[5] Critics also argue that VAT is double taxation as consumers pay for goods and services using income that has already been taxed.[5] It is also argued that VAT is an inefficient tax owing to the numerous exemptions and concessions.[9]

It could also be argued that, compared to its predecessor Purchase Tax, VAT has encouraged the "throwaway society". Purchase Tax imposed high rates on new goods (especially luxury goods) but did not apply to repair services. VAT has increased the cost of repairs and encouraged consumers to replace goods rather than have them repaired. VAT also covers second-hand goods (which Purchase Tax did not) and has discouraged the re-use of goods through the second-hand market.[citation needed]

See also


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  51. Webster (4b): increasing in rate as the base increases (a progressive tax)
  52. American Heritage (6). Increasing in rate as the taxable amount increases.
  53. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia: Tax levied at a rate that increases as the quantity subject to taxation increases.
  54. Princeton University WordNet: (n) progressive tax (any tax in which the rate increases as the amount subject to taxation increases)

External links