Why VAT really does hit the poorest hardest

The data that proves Osborne was wrong to describe VAT as a "progressive" tax.

If you look at the population and how much they spend, then VAT is progressive

George Osborne, Today programme, 4 January 2011

When George Osborne rose VAT to 20 per cent in his emergency Budget, I, like others, warned not only that the tax rise would prove economically defective - it is expected to reduce annual growth by 0.3 per cent - but also that it would hit the poorest hardest. As a regressive tax that takes no account of income, VAT inevitably squeezes low earners.

But despite all evidence to the contrary, Osborne insisted that VAT was a "progressive" tax. On 4 January 2011, the day that VAT rose to a record high of 20 per cent, he told the Today programme:

If you look at the population and how much they spend, then VAT is progressive...Income tax and National Insurance would have a more damaging impact on poorer people in our society

The data, however, tells a different story. The number crunchers at the Office for National Statistics have published a new report showing that the poorest fifth of UK households pay significantly more in VAT as a percentage of their disposable income than the richest fifth. As the graph below shows, the poorest fifth spend nearly 10 per cent of their disposable income in VAT compared with 5 per cent for the richest households.

Average household VAT as a proportion of household disposable income


The effect of the 2.5 per cent rise in VAT was not included in the analysis but the data (from 2009-10) is recent enough to disprove Osborne's assertion that the tax is "progressive".

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that VAT is "progressive" since the poorest spend a higher proportion of their disposable income on VAT-exempt goods such as food, children's clothes and domestic fuel and power. But this analysis fails to take account of changing spending patterns. As the ONS report notes, the poorest fifth now spend 250 per cent more on "new cars, holidays abroad, meals out, audio/visual goods (including TVs) and photographic equipment" than they did in 1986. As a result, VAT has become more, not less, regressive in the last 25 years.

It's possible that VAT will become less regressive as the poorest, facing the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s, reduce spending on non-essentials such as holidays and electronic goods. Indeed, since the height of the consumer boom in 2001-02 (when the poorest fifth were spending 13 per cent of their income in VAT), VAT has become slightly more progressive. But for now, it continues to hit the poorest hardest.

As one Conservative politician commented in April 2009 when asked what taxes he would raise:

You could try, as you say, to put it on VAT, sales tax, but again if you look at the effect of sales tax, it's very regressive, it hits the poorest the hardest. It does, I absolutely promise you. Any sales tax, anything that goes on purchases that you make in shops tends to . . . if you look at it, where VAT goes now it doesn't go on food obviously but it goes very, very widely and VAT is a more regressive tax than income tax or council tax.

His name? David Cameron.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.