Guest post by Chris Stokel-Walker
I don’t mean to alarm you, but I’m going to show you how to overthrow the government. Forget the fact that the Greeks can’t afford to do, well, anything anymore and that the Spaniards are hoping that closing their eyes, putting their fingers in their ears and shouting “lalalalala” very loudly is going to make the recession go away. We don’t need an austerity Budget, and we don’t need a higher rate of VAT. That’s for wussies. So here’s my simple plan on how to make back at least some of the VAT rise by shopping smarter.
There are different brackets of tax for VAT. HM Revenue & Customs oversee what food items go in which tax bracket; there are three, but in practice only two are usually used: zero-rated, which means that you pay 0% VAT, and standard rated, which means you pay the full rate of VAT (until this morning, 17.5%).
There are some strange anomalies in the food VAT system. Were I to buy a live horse (as my girlfriend would want me to – though presumably not to kill and eat later) I would have to pay the standard rate of VAT. If, though, a friendly farmer has already saved me the bother of killing it (I’m really really sorry – you know I would only buy live horses to give to you), then I can have a whole dead horse – or horse cutlets – vacpacked and sold to me as exotic meat, VAT-free. Why? Live horses aren’t considered a recognised food species. Dead horses, presumably, are.
All the normal kinds of meat and fish that you find on supermarket shelves and butchers’ counters are zero-rated, as are fruit and vegetables: they’re a staple of the Great British Diet. Fruit juice, though, is taxed. Which means that my penchant for a glass of orange juice many many times a day is costing me more money than it would if I were to squeeze the juice from the orange with my bare hands in the style of a Neolithic man.
Monkey nuts (peanuts in their shells) fall under the zero rate; the second you remove the horrible outer shell, they become KP nuts (or some other equally popular brand) and you have to pay VAT. It’s not even the roasting or salting that makes the difference – it’s the shell. Honest.
MSG=VAT. Bad news for those of you wanting to start up a Chinese restaurant. Though you can try and make some money back from the Treasury by selling prawn crackers made from tapioca, rather than prawn crackers made from cereal. Here was me thinking that prawn crackers were made from prawns.
The dead horse thing really takes the biscuit. Biscuit? Don’t mind if I do. Oh wait, some of them are zero-rated and some are standard-rated? Well, I’ll have to be more discerning in my biscuit choices (we’re British – how can we be more discerning about biscuits?!). If you have a particular fancy for chocolate digestives, stop. However – and I really like this – ‘chocolate chip biscuits where the chips are either included in the dough or pressed into the surface before baking’ are zero-rated and therefore you can eat them to surfeit. HM Revenue & Customs also obviously missed biscuitgate of a few years back when a judge ruled that Jaffa cakes aren’t a biscuit (you wally) because here they are, zero-rated under section 3.4.2 of the guidelines.
If you pop into your local bakery from today, eye up those gingerbread men with caution. If their little toes have been dipped in chocolate (because gingerbread men’s feet would get blisters if they had to walk without shoes), then the government has ruled them to be too extravagant. They’re parading around in their chocolate boots, while your average Tom, Dick or Harry Gingerbread has to make do with a pittance. ‘Gingerbread men decorated with chocolate’ come under the standard rate of VAT, ‘unless this amounts to no more than a couple of dots for eyes’. Bakers of Britain: let your gingerbread men and women run naked, free like pre-Lapsarian Adam and Eve! We’ll have no fancy winklepickers, thank you: this is austerity Britain.
If you’re thinking of buying your child an ice-cream when you’re out at the park this weekend, don’t. You’ll be taxed. Instead forgo the ice-cream and ask instead for the cone. That’s zero-rated, and presumably delicious and dry.
Millionaire’s Shortbread is zero-rated while plebian chocolate-covered shortbread is taxed at the full rate. I don’t think I need to explain why that one is funny. The 70s were grim (apparently – I wouldn’t know). So what better way to relive the 3-day working week than to feast on rum babas, delightfully, deliciously zero-rated for your pleasure? Kitsch is in this summer, I’ve heard: and God knows that with all the rest of the squeezes, cuts and rises we’re not going to be able to afford the latest fashionable clothes to keep up with the Joneses that way.