The other concern is the impact of VAT increases on poverty and inequality. Compared to raising direct taxes like income tax, increases in indirect taxes like VAT have a much bigger impact on people with low incomes. As the Office for National Statistics has pointed out, direct taxes are progressive; they “contribute to a reduction in inequality”. Indirect taxes, on the other hand:
“Have the opposite effect to direct taxes taking a higher proportion of income from those with lower incomes, that is, they are regressive.”
If we divide the country by income into quintiles (fifths), income tax accounts for 3.2 per cent of the income of the poorest quintile, but 18.4 per cent of the income of the richest. VAT, on the other hand, accounts for 10.8 per cent of the income of the poorest quintile but just 4.5 per cent of the income of the richest.
If there are no measures to balance this impact, an increase in VAT will make inequality worse. It will also deepen poverty – VAT accounts for over 7 per cent of the spending of people in the bottom quintile, with no other source of income than benefits they will have few alternatives to cutting already low levels of spending when prices rise.
The most worrying thing of all is that there has been no mention in any news story of an increase in benefits and tax credits to protect the poorest. The last Conservative government actually froze benefits when it was trying to cut public spending and Robert Chote has warned that the coalition agreement:
“Leaves open the option of tougher action to cut social security spending.”
Both parties in the coalition government claimed to be pro-poor in the election. The Liberal Democrats have made this claim longer and more convincingly than the Conservatives, so I suppose the onus of responding to this criticism lies most heavily on them. Will they promise not to cut or freeze benefit rates? And will they commit to increasing benefits and tax credits to compensate for any increase in VAT?