So long, and thanks for all the cake (or biscuits)by
The latest VAT and food decision has reignited the zero-rated debate but could also lead to the unexpected end of humankind, says Richard Hattersley.
Call me a pessimist, but I genuinely believe VAT will cause the downfall of humankind.
The end will not come with any fanfare. It will be the result of an innocuous cake (or will it be a biscuit?). Then that will be it. Of course, then follows a big ball of flames, blood-curdling screams and explosions, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.
I hear you: VAT decisions can be divisive but the end of the world? Really? But ask me again once the gentle drip of VAT decisions overflow into mind-bogglingly truncated debates, intergalactic ray guns and… well, I’ve already said too much.
An example of these drips was the latest VAT dispute over a flapjack. You’d be forgiven for assuming a flapjack is a cake. But you’d be wrong. This particular brand of flapjacks was too chewy to be zero-rated.
At the first tier tribunal (FTT), the flapjacks produced by Glanbia Milk Limited were described as having a “dense, chewy consistency similar to a fruit bar or an energy bar” and would be “wholly out of place as a dessert at the end of a meal, or as the food to be consumed at an afternoon tea, or even at a casual social function”. Got it? Right.
After wiping the crumbs from his mouth, and being satisfied that the protein-packed products “help build lean muscle” rather than additional fat, the judge deemed the product standard rated. It was a decision that will reverberate around the universe. And likely follow with a great big ball of flames.
That 70s tax
Tax tribunals have long presided over complex VAT conundrums on banana milkshakes, Subway sandwiches and brownies. The FTT judges must feel like game show hosts, except without a spangly jacket and a Bruce Forsyth-style catchphrase – although “this is not a cake” is kind of catchy.
But the result of the tribunals have serious commercial implications. As one AccountingWEB reader reflected, “Competition was so tight that the manufacturer or the retailer would not be able to supply some lines if there was a 20% hike in the retail cost, so arguments about the amount of chocolate used became quite important, however absurd it appears.” So we get these VAT spats.
Part of the problem is the VAT rules are inflexibly stuck in the distant past. Take the recent flapjack tribunal, the HMRC’s internal guidance says “all flapjacks in general should be classified as cereal bars, but that for historical reasons an exception will be made for a category of flapjacks that are of a kind that was made and known in the 1970s” at the inception of VAT.
So while crocheted swimwear, mullets and bouffants were left in the 70s, the VAT rules seemingly can’t ditch their sequin flares and consider any products as zero-rated outside this period. Spare a thought for poor VAT experts who must constantly feel like they're in a scene from Life on Mars.
However, it’s fun to imagine the FTT judges wearing a Starsky and Hutch-style leather jacket and cardigan combo while driving into a pyramid of cardboard boxes after each verdict.
The great Jaffa Cake wars
So, we are doomed to basically replay this story until the end of time. The legend of the flapjack will be passed down from generation to generation. And even after hundreds of years, after the planet has been scorched, the sacred VAT text will be discovered and a whole new generation will ardently follow its rules.
Before you know it, the year is 2567 and civilisation has broken off into the zero-rated zealots and the standard-rated rebels. The two tribes battle in what will surely be called the great Jaffa Cake wars. Naturally, the zero-rated tribe would build a community based on VAT’s 70s inception, where protein flapjacks are considered heresy but disco is the only music in town and exposed hairy chests are mandatory.
Those in the zero-rated tribe will happily eat gingerbread men with chocolate eyes, but if a tribe-member dares to decorate their anthropomorphic biscuit with chocolate trousers, they’ll be banished to live with the out-of-pocket and impoverished standard-raters.
I’m sure you didn’t picture Jaffa Cakes being responsible for the obliteration of humankind – but there you go. Maybe it won’t come until after accountants have been uploaded to the cloud and zip around accounting software like The Lawnmower Man.
Just when you think VAT can't possibly get any worse it suddenly does
But the flapjack decision solidifies the fact that planet Earth spends far too long engaged in contradictory and complex VAT conversations and the rest of the universe will eventually have enough.
Expect an alien race to bypass Nasa’s requests for an intergalactic Zoom call and conclude after listening to years of VAT squabbles that there is no intelligent life on planet Earth and that there is little point invading. After all, not even a Babel fish device can make any sense of VAT rules.
Instead, they’ll act as the most aggressive arm of the Office of Tax Simplification and mercilessly blast the planet into a heap of floating space dust.
It will be a shame the Martians chose that exact moment to demolish Earth in pursuit of simplification, because after 567 delays, the MTD ITSA project would probably be just about ready to leave the pilot stage.