Why The Proposed Online Sales Tax Is a Bad Idea

(Source: getstencil)

In many ways, it was inevitable.

Since the start of the pandemic, the government has announced financial support in excess of £300 billion to shore up individuals and business of all sizes.

The state had to intervene in unprecedented ways, from paying 80% of workers’ salaries through the furlough scheme to giving lifelines and loans to entire sectors.

But those significant levels of intervention have come at a cost.

The £300 billion wasn’t exactly sitting in a savings account; the Chancellor had to fund his announcements through borrowing. Fortunately interest rates on borrowing are at a historic low of 0.1%, but it means there is still a £300 billion-shaped hole in the public purse which must be repaid.

There have been hints and rumours about how the colossal expenditure of 2020 will be paid for. Will the Chancellor raise income tax? Is a return to austerity on the cards? Or, will corporation tax be increased?

Call me cynical, but my view is that many of these rumours emanate from the very heart of government itself, so they can get a read of how popular a policy might be if or when it’s announced.

But I digress. So far it’s clear that after a decade of George Osborne’s austerity, the electorate will not tolerate further cuts in public spending. Nor will income tax rises win this Conservative government votes at the next election. It might be four whole years away, but it’s always on the radar for politicians!

An increase in business rates might be the nail in the coffin for many businesses. Especially for a retail sector already on its knees before the pandemic which is now haemorrhaging money and employees with each passing day. So there is very little leeway to raise funds there.

What Has The Government Decided To Do?

(Source: abstractrecruitment.co.uk)

The government is proposing an online sales tax.

For more background information on what it is check out my last blog post; essentially it will be a levy of 2% on all purchases made online, and also a tax on deliveries of items bought online.

What Was The Rationale Behind It?

(Source: Business Live)

The government clearly needs to find alternative sources of revenue. Fast!

Since retail is in dire straits and will take a long time to recover – if at all – there are high hopes that this new tax will raise something in the region of £2 billion each year. According to the government, this could potentially fund a cut in business rates to give the sector a much-needed reprieve.

However, I doubt such a cut will actually be implemented. And that lack of transparency is my first issue with this tax…

…why position it as support for retail, when there is a black hole in public finances to fill?

That aside, it seems like a good idea at first glance: online sales were booming even before the pandemic and have gone stratospheric since March. It makes sense to raise funds from one of the few areas of the economy that is performing well and forecast to grow even more for the foreseeable future.

Or, does it?

Why I’m Against the Online Sales Tax

I’ll lay my cards on the table: I’m not in favour of the proposed online sales tax.

I think it’s a bad idea, and here’s why:

1. Impact on SMEs:

According to the government’s own figures, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) account for three-fifths of the employment and around half of the turnover in the private sector. So, total employment in SMEs was 16.6 million (or 60% of the total) and turnover was £2.2 trillion (or 52% of the total).

However, these figures are due to be updated and do not take into account the effect of the pandemic. When that update is published, I suspect both figures will see a significant reduction.

These businesses have already borne (and in many cases, are still suffering from) the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown, and introducing a new tax as they seek to emerge from the doldrums could have a damaging and lasting effect, which is the opposite of what’s needed.

2. Who Really Picks Up The Bill?:

You’ve guessed it: these taxes will be passed on to consumers.

So, you and me.

That’s already happened with the digital services tax which came into effect in April: there are reports that companies such as Amazon have passed that tax onto its sellers, most of whom are small business owners who cannot afford to absorb it. Which raises the chances that the new digital services tax will be passed on to customers.

What’s to stop companies – especially multinationals who the government seems unable to hold accountable – from passing this new tax on to customers too?

Customers have already been battered and bruised by the pandemic. Official figures are yet to catch up and reflect current events, but estimates are that more than 600,000 people have lost their jobs. The last thing they need is a heavier tax burden!

And those who are lucky enough to still have an income and can afford to spend should be incentivised to do so, not penalised.

3. Timing:

To all intents and purposes, we are still in the middle of a pandemic.

Not many individuals and businesses have escaped unscathed. Its effects are still unravelling, and my sense is that this is not a good time to announce new taxes or tax rises. Especially as so many businesses are falling into administration, and job losses mounting by the day.

I accept that the government needs to plan ahead. But I would suggest that a new tax on the few successful areas now will inhibit and penalise, rather than encourage, economic recovery.

What Alternatives Would I Suggest?

I’m neither naïve nor an anarchist; and we do need to raise money for crucial public services to ensure education, universal healthcare and social welfare are always available for people as and when required.

But there are better, more efficient ways to fund them. I’m not an economist, and none of my suggestions have been costed. But here are some of the initiatives and actions I would suggest instead of a new online sales tax:

1. Focus On The Online Digital Services Tax:

This was introduced in April 2020. It applies to search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces with global revenue of more than £500 million and UK revenue of more than £25 million.

It is specifically targeted at companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google which have historically paid very little tax due to accounting practices which mean sales are processed through countries with low corporation tax policies such as Ireland and Luxembourg.

The aim was to achieve global consensus on a digital tax but with little progress made, former Chancellor Philip Hammond announced the UK’s plan for a digital services tax in his October 2018 budget.

The amount it is forecast to raise each year varies depending on which publication you read; it could be anything between £275 million and £500 million.

And while there are obvious teething problems with it – see the paragraph above about who actually foots the bill for this – I would suggest that it makes sense to ask businesses with millions of users in the UK who generate huge profits for them to do more by paying this tax.

The government could focus on refining it to curb practices such Amazon’s, and create more of a level playing field.

2. Revise The Debt Repayment Schedule:

I don’t know what the Chancellor’s plan is for plugging the hole in our public finances, or how soon he hopes to get it done.

But if it’s in the next year or two? I would suggest extending that out, with a repayment plan that is less aggressive.

We all know we need the medicine, and that all the support provided was not free.

Nothing ever is!

But the medicine risks killing the patient, if prescribed in large doses.

Plugging the hole quickly may look good on paper. But is it the right move, considering the severe blows dealt by the pandemic and lockdown?

And will it do more harm than good?

3. Wholesale Review of Retail Sector and Business Rates System:

The government claims this new tax will potentially mean business rates can be cut.

As I’ve said, I’m doubtful that will happen.

But putting my cynicism aside, the truth is that retail has been on its knees for a long time.

A comprehensive review of the sector is urgently needed, and there have long been calls for an overhaul of the business rates system. A temporary rate reduction will not address the underlying issues and general view that it is no longer fit for purpose.

The system needs to be revisited and replaced with something that works for businesses and communities in the twenty-first century.

4. Fix The Leaks!:

It may surprise you to hear this, but many large companies get away with paying a fraction of the tax they should.

I’ve explained how internet giants have eluded paying the correct amount of corporation tax for so long, which brought about the digital services tax.

They are not the only ones; stories like this give the impression that once a company can afford expensive tax lawyers to handle their negotiations with HMRC, they can pay what they like instead of what they are actually liable for.

Unfortunately it sometimes appears to be one rule for one group, and another for the rest. As a small business owner, I certainly wouldn’t get away with trying to knock down how much corporation tax I pay…

…and I’m sure this is not an isolated example. It would be interesting to know how much has been “saved” by large companies in this way, and how that compares to the £2 billion the Chancellor hopes to raise with this new tax.

My suggestion? The government should ensure the rules are applied equally across the board. I know the government makes concessions and offers incentives to encourage businesses to invest, but after the initial one-offs there shouldn’t be further room to manoeuvre.

5. Stop The Waste:

Stories of wasted public funds abound, and I wonder if such practices would fly in a private organisation…

…there are too many to count, but I’ll give you a recent example. £15 billion was spent just in the last few months on the beleaguered test and trace system and personal protective equipment (PPE).

That sum alone covers this proposed tax for seven and a half years, and there are calls for a public inquiry to investigate how this was allowed to happen.

But that’s not all.

As I write, the test and trace system is still not fully operational. Experts say it is crucial when planning for the start of the academic year in September, and is also required if the rest of us are to return to some semblance of normality.

Yet, all that money has been spent and the world’s fifth largest economy does not have an effective tracking system to help combat the virus.

And the PPE? The whole batch was faulty and has now been condemned, as it did not meet basic standards set out by Public Health England.

It’s hard not to think that taxpayers are seen as an endless source of funds which can be frittered away at will.

The country is straining under the weight of the pandemic and besides, the business case has not been made for a new tax.

The Chancellor should put the brakes on.