The VAT registration limit – up or down?

Since the publication of the Office of Tax Simplification’s report earlier this month there has been a lot of speculation as to what the Chancellor might do about the VAT registration threshold in this week’s budget.

The suggestion has been that the threshold could be dropped to around the higher tax rate limit of c£43,000, or even to the national average wage, i.e. £26,000 a year, but at the moment we don’t know for certain if the government will implement this, or when it could happen. The average threshold in Europe is around £20k. The idea of lowering the threshold, especially to the lower of those two options, has been met with a lot of anger in the small business community.

What are the issues?

Well, there is a lot of evidence that the current £85k limit is a barrier to growth. This is because the limit causes a ‘cliff edge’ effect where a small business approaching the limit needs a lot more turnover to compensate for suddenly having to add 20% to all its income. So many businesses decide to ensure they stay just short of the threshold by various means, for example by closing for a month each year. That causes ‘bunching’ of business around the threshold and prevents business expansion that might lead to job creation.  Plus, some businesses split themselves artificially into separate operations simply to avoid the limit (“disaggregation”) – with a lower limit there will be much less incentive to do this.

Who might be affected?

On the other hand, lowering the limit substantially would affect hundreds of thousands of self-employed small business owners such as plumbers, gardeners, decorators and similar, who are not planning any whizzy entrepreneurial growth but who are just making a living outside of traditional employment. These businesses already have limited income and will be affected by having to add 20% to their charges – and will have very few costs to offset as input tax. Their customers will be members of the public with no ability to deduct the VAT.

There will be a number of hurdles: –

  • The UK has had a high threshold for a long time and HMRC has not to date had to deal with thousands of small businesses;
  • HMRC guidance has been criticised in the OTS report – it will need to be helpful to a lot of businesses new to VAT;
  • If the lower threshold also brings businesses into Making Tax Digital that will be a big change on top of the requirement to register;
  • The biggest impact will be on businesses which deal direct with the public;
  • For small charities the effect could be very difficult unless the Government also raises the de minimis limit for exempt  activities;
  • Prices will go up, with a possible effect on sales – some businesses may fold.

The OTS suggested some ways in which these effects could be lessened. There could be for example a lower rate for labour intensive service businesses or a change to the VAT Flat Rates, or a tapering requirement to register (though that might make things more complex, not simpler).

We can only guess what is coming. But the in the context of recent press reports on how far richer people seem to be engaged in various off-shore tax planning schemes to avoid paying VAT, the political backlash might not be “Paradise” for the Chancellor.