Value-added tax in the United Kingdom

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In the United Kingdom, the value added tax (VAT)[1] was introduced in 1973, replacing Purchase Tax, 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 UK.[2] 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).[3] Others are exempt from VAT or outside the system altogether.

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).[4] 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.[5] Those in favour of VAT claim it is progressive as consumers who spend more pay more VAT.[4]


Between October 1940 and March 1973 the UK had a consumption tax called Purchase Tax, which was levied at different rates depending on an assessment of goods' luxuriousness.[4] Purchase Tax was applied to the wholesale price, introduced during World War II, initially at a rate of 33.3%. This was doubled in April 1942 to 66.6%, and further increased in April 1943 to a rate of 100%, before reverting in April 1946 to 33.3%. Unlike VAT, Purchase Tax was applied at the point of manufacture and distribution, not at the point of sale. The rates of Purchase Tax for various classes of goods at the start of 1973, when it gave way to VAT, were 13%, 22%, 36% and 55%.{[6]

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.[4][7][8] The Conservative Chancellor Lord Barber set a single VAT rate (10%) on most goods and services.[4][7][8]

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.[4][7][9] In November 1974, Healey doubled the higher rate of VAT to 25%.[7] Healey reduced the higher rate to 12.5% in April 1976.[7][9][10]

Under Margaret Thatcher's leadership, Conservative Chancellor Geoffrey Howe increased the standard rate of VAT from 8% to 15% and abolished the higher rate in June 1979.[4][7][11] The rate remained unchanged until 1991, when Conservative Chancellor Norman Lamont increased it from 15% to 17.5%.[4][7][11] The additional revenue was used to pay for a reduction in the hugely unpopular community charge (the "poll tax").[11] 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.[8][12] 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.[7][12]

In its 1997 general election manifesto, the Labour Party pledged to reduce VAT on domestic fuel and power to 5%.[13] After gaining power, the new Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown announced in July 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.[14][15] 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.[16][17] However, in December 2009, Darling announced that the standard rate of VAT would return to 17.5% with effect from 1 January 2010.[18][19]

In the run up to the 2010 general election there were reports that the Conservatives would raise VAT if they gained power.[20][21] The party denied plans for such an increase, but refused to rule one out for the 2010 budget.[22][23] 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.[24][25]

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.[26] On 25 March 2015 Cameron pledged in the House of Commons that VAT would not be increased.[27][28]

In response to the coronavirus pandemic the UK government introduced zero VAT rating for personal protective equipment (PPE), which was in effect from 1 May to 31 October 2020.[29]

In the March 2020 budget the government announced that it would move women's sanitary products into the zero-rated group, as pledged in the 2016 budget, from 1 January 2021, the first date possible after EU VAT law ceased to apply to the UK.[30][31]

From 1 March 2021, a domestic VAT reverse charge must be used for most supplies of building, construction and demolition services, meaning that it is the responsibility of the customer, rather than the supplier, to account to HMRC for VAT on the supply of construction services.[32] The reverse charge will not apply where the customer is the end user of the building. The Value Added Tax Regulations 1995 states that invoices for services subject to the reverse charge must include the reference "reverse charge".[33]


All businesses that provide "taxable" goods and services and whose taxable turnover exceeds the threshold must register for VAT.[2] The threshold as of 2022 is £85,000,[34] by far the highest VAT registration threshold in the world.[4] 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%.[2] 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 that relates to their own onward 'taxable' supplies (known as input tax).[35] VAT incurred by businesses that does not relate to their onward making of taxable supplies (whether exempt or from 'non-business' activities) may not be offset from the amount of VAT that is payable to HMRC.

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 (excluding VAT) per annum to pay a fixed percentage of its turnover to HMRC every 3 months.[36] 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.[37]

Businesses selling exempt goods, supplies or services, such as banks, may not register for VAT or reclaim VAT that they have incurred on purchases.[2] Businesses that sell a mixture of taxable and exempt goods or services can only recover the proportion of the VAT they incur on their purchases that relates to their onward taxable supplies. The rules dealing with 'mixed use' (or 'residual') VAT on purchases are complex. However, businesses that sell zero-rated goods or supplies, such as food producers or booksellers, may reclaim all the VAT they have incurred on purchases.


There are currently three rates of VAT:[38] standard (20%),[39] reduced (5%) and zero (0%).[2] In addition some goods and services are exempt from VAT or outside the VAT system.[2]

The following are the rates applicable to some common goods and services:[40]

Standard rated

  • Alcoholic drinks
  • Biscuits (chocolate covered only)
  • Bottled water (inc. mineral water)
  • Calendars & diaries
  • Carbonated (fizzy) drinks
  • CDs, DVDs, video games, & tapes
  • Cereal bars
  • Chocolate
  • Clothes & footwear (not for children under 14)
  • Confectionery/sweets
  • Delivery charges (postage & packaging)
  • Electrical goods
  • Electricity, gas, heating oil & solid fuel (business)
  • Food & drinks supplied for consumption on the premises (at restaurants, cafes etc) (reduced rate during COVID-19 pandemic of 5% from 15 July 2020 to 30 September 2021 and then of 12.5% from 1 October 2021 to 30 March 2022)
  • Hot take-away food & drinks (inc. burgers, hot dogs, toasted sandwiches) (reduced rate during COVID-19 pandemic of 5% from 15 July 2020 to 30 September 2021 and then of 12.5% from 1 October 2021 to 30 March 2022)
  • Ice cream
  • Fruit juice & other cold drinks (not milk)
  • Nuts (shelled, roasted/salted)
  • Postal services (Royal Mail/other licensed operators)
  • Potato crisps
  • Prams & pushchairs
  • Road fuel (petrol/diesel)
  • Salt (non-culinary)
  • Stationery
  • Taxi fares
  • Tolls for bridges, tunnels & roads (privately operated)
  • Water (industrial)

Reduced rated

  • Children's car seats
  • Electricity, gas, heating oil & solid fuel (domestic/residential/charity non-business)
  • Maternity pads
  • Mobility aids for the elderly
  • Smoking cessation products

Zero rated

  • Aircraft (sale/charter)
  • Bicycle & motorcycle helmets
  • Biscuits (not chocolate covered)
  • Books, maps & charts (including ebooks)
  • Bread, rolls, baps & pitta bread
  • Brochures, leaflets & pamphlets
  • Building services for disabled people
  • Cakes (including Chocolate teacake, Jaffa Cakes)
  • Canned & frozen food (not ice cream)
  • Cereals
  • Chilled/frozen ready meals, convenience foods
  • Clothes & footwear (for children under 14 only)
  • Construction & sale of new domestic buildings
  • Cooking oil
  • Donated goods sold at charity shops
  • Eggs
  • Energy saving materials (permanently installed in residential/charity premises)
  • Equipment for disabled people (including the blind or partially sighted)
  • Fish (including live fish)
  • Fruit & vegetables
  • Live animals for human consumption
  • Meat & poultry
  • Milk, butter, cheese
  • Newspapers, magazines & journals
  • Nuts & pulses (raw for human consumption)
  • Prescription medicine
  • Protective boots & helmets (industrial)
  • Public transport fares (bus, train & tube)
  • Salt (culinary)
  • Sandwiches (cold)
  • Sanitary protection products
  • Sewerage (domestic & industrial)
  • Shipbuilding (15 tonnes or over)
  • Tea, coffee & cocoa
  • Transport in a vehicle, boat or aircraft (not fewer than ten passengers)
  • Water (household)


  • Antiques, works of art or similar, when sold to public institutions
  • Burial or cremation (human)
  • Commercial land & buildings (selling/leasing/letting)
  • Cultural events operated by public bodies (museums, art exhibitions, zoos & performances)
  • Education, vocational training
  • Financial services (money transactions, loans/credits, savings/deposits, shares/bonds)
  • Funeral plan insurance
  • Gambling (betting, gaming, bingo, lottery)
  • Health services (doctors, dentists, opticians, pharmacists & other health professionals)
  • Insurance
  • Medical treatment & care
  • Membership subscriptions
  • Postage stamps
  • Sports activities & physical education
  • Television licence


  • Goods & services sold outside the EU
  • Goods & services supplied by unregistered supplier
  • Statutory fees & services (MOT testing, congestion charge etc)
  • Tolls for bridges, tunnels and roads (operated by public authorities)
  • Voluntary donations to charity

UK VAT Rates and Examples[edit]

VAT Rate Description Products and Services (Examples)[41]
0% Zero-rated * Most food (excluding restaurant meals) * Children's clothes and shoes * Books and newspapers * Public transport fares * Domestic fuel and power * Certain medical equipment
5% Reduced-rate * Energy-saving materials for homes * Home insulation installation * Car seats for children * Residential caravans with no engine
20% Standard-rate * Most goods and services not listed above * Restaurant meals * Clothing (except children's) * Electronics * Furniture * Hairdressing services * Hotel accommodation * Pay TV subscriptions * Mobile phone contracts

Historical rates[edit]

Standard VAT rates since 1973:[42]

From To Standard rate
1 April 1973 July 1974 10.0%
July 1974 17 June 1979 8.0%*
18 June 1979 18 March 1991 15.0%
19 March 1991 30 November 2008 17.5%
1 December 2008 31 December 2009 15.0%
1 January 2010 3 January 2011 17.5%
4 January 2011 Present 20.0%

*During this period an alternate VAT rate of 25% and then 12.5% was introduced for petrol and some luxury goods.[43] This was abolished in 1979.


VAT revenue since 1978/79, in cash terms and as a percentage of total government revenue:[44]

Year VAT (£bn) % Year VAT (£bn) % Year VAT (£bn) % Year VAT (£bn) %
1978-79 4.9 6.91% 1993-94 39.2 16.01% 2008-09 78.4 13.78% 2023-241 161.5 15.27%
1979-80 8.0 9.21% 1994-95 41.7 15.76% 2009-10 70.2 12.44% 2024-251 167.2 15.14%
1980-81 11.1 10.78% 1995-96 43.1 14.98% 2010-11 83.5 13.84% 2025-261 171.6 15.09%
1981-82 11.9 9.75% 1996-97 46.6 15.57% 2011-12 98.3 15.73% 2026-271 175.4 14.82%
1982-83 13.8 10.37% 1997-98 50.6 15.14% 2012-13 100.6 15.79% 2027-281 180.9 14.70%
1983-84 15.3 10.81% 1998-99 52.3 14.71% 2013-14 104.7 15.77%
1984-85 18.6 12.26% 1999-00 56.8 14.95% 2014-15 111.4 16.12%
1985-86 19.4 11.93% 2000-01 58.6 14.42% 2015-16 115.4 16.16%
1986-87 21.3 12.53% 2001-02 61.0 14.80% 2016-17 119.8 15.81%
1987-88 24.2 13.09% 2002-03 63.5 15.19% 2017-18 125.4 16.06%
1988-89 27.2 13.42% 2003-04 69.1 15.28% 2018-19 132.2 16.25%
1989-90 29.6 13.51% 2004-05 73.0 15.08% 2019-20 129.9 15.72%
1990-91 30.9 13.42% 2005-06 72.9 13.97% 2020-21 101.7 12.81%
1991-92 35.3 14.70% 2006-07 77.4 14.01% 2021-22 157.5 17.17%
1992-93 37.2 15.70% 2007-08 80.6 13.80% 2022-231 160.1 15.70%

1. Estimated

Avoidance, evasion and fraud[edit]

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.[45] The bulk of the lost revenue, about £1 in every £8 of VAT due, is due to evasion.[46] 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 tradespeople may indicate VAT evasion.[47]

In recent years carousel fraud (also known as missing trader fraud) has increased. Criminal gangs trade goods, such as mobile phones, across EU countries.[48] They do not have to pay VAT, as imports from the EU are not subject to VAT in the UK. The fraud occurs when the criminals sell the goods with VAT in the UK but fail to pass the VAT to HMRC.[48] The goods are often repeatedly shipped around EU countries by criminal gang networks, hence the "carousel" name.[49] According to the HMRC, between £1.1bn and £1.9bn tax revenue was lost in 2004/05 due to carousel fraud.[49] The European Union Emission Trading Scheme has been plagued by carousel fraud.[50][51]

Until 2012, the Low Value Consignment Relief (LVCR) meant that goods imported from outside the EU through Jersey and costing less than a set amount were not subject to VAT.[52] When the LVCR was introduced in 1983 it was set at about £5 but gradually rose to £18.[53] From 1 November 2011 the LVCR was reduced from £18 to £15.[53] The LVCR 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 included Amazon, Asda, HMV,, Tesco, W H Smith and Woolworths.[54] 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.[52][53] From 1 April 2012 the relief was withdrawn in respect of goods imported to the UK from the Channel Islands.[55]


Opponents of VAT claim that it is regressive and is paid by all consumers whether they are rich or poor, young or old.[8] The poorest also spend a higher proportion of their disposable income on VAT than richest.[5] The 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.[56] 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.[56] Supporters of VAT claim VAT is progressive as consumers who spend more pay more VAT.[4] However, according to the definition, VAT is neither progressive nor regressive, since the rate neither increases or decreases with the taxable amount.[57][58][59]

The zero rating of food, and the permission for businesses to reclaim input VAT, have been said to mean that the government in effect subsidises the food industry.[4] Critics also argue that VAT is double taxation as consumers pay for goods and services using income that has already been taxed,[4] or that it helps to subsidise automation by not removing worker's wages from the equation. It is also argued that VAT is an inefficient tax owing to the numerous exemptions and concessions.[8]

Benefits of VAT are considered to lie on the state-side.[clarification needed] VAT is considered to be a more stable source of income than tax on profits, since the profits are geared, and thus fall at a much faster rate than turnover in economic slowdowns or may drop with an ageing population.[60] VAT, therefore is considered to stabilise treasuries in countries with weak economies.[60] At the same time, as a consumption tax, VAT is considered to be more growth-friendly than income- or profit-taxation.[60]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "value added tax | Definition of value added tax by Lexico". Lexico Dictionaries | English. Archived from the original on 6 September 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Introduction to VAT". HM Revenue and Customs.
  3. ^ "The UK's VAT Rate Explained". KashFlow. Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Victor, Adam (31 December 2010). "VAT: a brief history of tax". The Guardian.
  5. ^ a b "Poorest spend higher proportion on VAT than richest". BBC News. 31 October 2011.
  6. ^ "RATES OF PURCHASE TAX (Hansard, 20 May 1971)".
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Victor, Peter (30 July 1995). "A brief history of VAT". The Independent.
  8. ^ a b c d e Wallop, Harry (13 April 2010). "General Election 2010: a brief history of the Value Added Tax". The Daily Telegraph.
  9. ^ a b "Budgets 1945 - 1979". BBC News.
  10. ^ "Bygone budgets: April 1976". The Guardian. 3 March 1999.
  11. ^ a b c "Budgets 1979 - 1992". BBC News.
  12. ^ a b "Budgets 1993 - 1995". BBC News.
  13. ^ "Labour's 1997 pledges: Economics and employment". BBC News. 6 May 2002.
  14. ^ "Bygone budgets: June 1997". The Guardian. 17 March 2000.
  15. ^ "Cheaper Fuel Bills Announced". BBC News.
  16. ^ Wallop, Harry (24 November 2008). "Pre-Budget report: VAT cut to 15pc but alcohol and tobacco taxes increased". The Daily Telegraph.
  17. ^ Finch, Julia (24 November 2008). "Retailers welcome cut in VAT to 15%". The Guardian.
  18. ^ "Shops given time over VAT price tag changes". BBC News. 9 December 2009.
  19. ^ Finch, Julia (9 December 2009). "VAT to return to 17.5%, but no higher, says chancellor". The Guardian.
  20. ^ Beattie, Jason (29 July 2009). "Tories secretly plotting to raise VAT to 20 per cent". Daily Mirror.
  21. ^ Toby Helm; Anushka Asthana (4 April 2010). "George Osborne will have to raise rate of VAT, insists Ed Balls". The Guardian.
  22. ^ "Tories deny plan for 20% VAT rate". BBC News. 9 August 2009.
  23. ^ "Ministers on defensive as tax row intensifies". BBC News. 1 April 2010.
  24. ^ "Budget: Osborne's 'tough' package puts VAT up to 20%". BBC News. 22 June 2010.
  25. ^ Larry Elliott; Hélène Mulholland (22 June 2010). "Budget 2010: VAT to rise to 20% as Osborne seeks to balance books by 2015". The Guardian.
  26. ^ Mason, Rowena; Watt, Nicholas (24 March 2015). "George Osborne refuses five times to rule out VAT rise". The Guardian.
  27. ^ Dominiczak, Peter (25 March 2015). "David Cameron rules out VAT increase in move that trips up Ed Miliband". The Daily Telegraph.
  28. ^ Stewart, Heather (25 March 2015). "Cameron pledges no increase in VAT". The Guardian.
  29. ^ HMRC, VAT zero rating for personal protective equipment, updated 3 July 2020, accessed 31 October 2020
  30. ^ Topping, Alexandra (31 December 2020). "Tampon tax: government axes VAT on sanitary products". The Guardian. London, U.K. Retrieved 10 January 2021.
  31. ^ "Women's sanitary products (VAT Notice 701/18)". GOV.UK. 4 January 2021.
  32. ^ HMRC, Domestic reverse charge procedure (VAT Notice 735), updated 12 March 2020, accessed 31 October 2020
  33. ^ HMRC, VAT reverse charge technical guide, published 24 September 2020, accessed 31 October 2020
  34. ^ "HMRC".
  35. ^ "VAT Output Tax Toolkit" (PDF). HM Revenue & Customs. July 2013. Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  36. ^ "Flat Rate VAT Scheme". Retrieved 15 December 2022.
  37. ^ "Flat Rate Scheme for VAT". HM Revenue & Customs. Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  38. ^ "Current VAT Rate In The UK". 25 April 2023. Retrieved 19 June 2023.
  39. ^ "2016 AGN VAT Brochure - European Comparison" (PDF). Retrieved 13 October 2016.
  40. ^ "Rates of VAT on different goods and services". HM Revenue and Customs. 11 July 2022.
  41. ^ Calculator, Vat (28 March 2024). "VAT calculator". Vat Calculator.
  42. ^ Neal, Peter (10 March 2011). "Historic UK VAT Rates".
  43. ^ "Bygone budgets: April 1976". 3 March 1999.
  44. ^ "IFS revenue composition spreadsheet | IFS Taxlab". Institute for Fiscal Studies. Retrieved 19 January 2024.
  45. ^ Fraser, Douglas (31 October 2009). "Britain 'losing billions in VAT'". BBC News.
  46. ^ Murphy, Richard (10 September 2010). "Are you cheating the taxman too?". The Guardian.
  47. ^ "Don't pay cash in hand – pay your VAT". The Guardian. 16 November 2010.
  48. ^ a b "Carousel fraud checks 'shut' Sussex firm". BBC News. 10 June 2010.
  49. ^ a b "New clampdown on carousel fraud". BBC News. 21 July 2006.
  50. ^ Mason, Rowena (30 December 2009). "'Carousel' frauds plague European carbon trading markets". Daily Telegraph.
  51. ^ Inman, Phillip (11 January 2010). "Three Britons charged over €3m carbon-trading 'carousel fraud'". The Guardian.
  52. ^ a b Bowers, Simon (13 April 2010). "Tesco resurrects online VAT dodge despite Jersey's action to halt 'sham'". The Guardian.
  53. ^ a b c "VAT relief for parcels entering UK 'reduced'". BBC News. 1 November 2011.
  54. ^ Bowers, Simon (19 February 2010). "Boom in sales of tax-free CDs casts doubt on Treasury claims". The Guardian.
  55. ^ "Treasury to close loophole that allows VAT-free DVDs". BBC News. 9 November 2011.
  56. ^ a b Andrew Barnard, Steve Howell and Robert Smith (2011). Effects of taxes and benefits on household income Statistical Bulletin - 2009/2010. Office for National Statistics. p. 14.
  57. ^ Webster (4b): increasing in rate as the base increases (a progressive tax)
  58. ^ American Heritage Archived 9 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine (6). Increasing in rate as the taxable amount increases.
  59. ^ Britannica Concise Encyclopedia: Tax levied at a rate that increases as the quantity subject to taxation increases.
  60. ^ a b c "MEMO/11/874: Questions and Answers: Value Added Tax (VAT)". European Commission. 6 December 2011. Retrieved 25 May 2018.

External links[edit]