It’s a funny sort of ‘simplification’ that puts VAT on hot pasties but not cold pasties and depends on the weather outside the shop that’s it bought in. It suggests we may see a new army of HMRC pasty police with government-issued thermometers standing over the customer’s shoulder and checking whether a pasty is above or at ‘ambient’ temperature? What is ambient temperature anyway? That will, literally, change with the weather. The same pasty could be VATable and not VATable in different parts of the country at the same time. Lawyers will have a field day discussing what an ambient temperature is – far from reducing complexity the government’s plans add to it.
Let’s be clear: tax simplification is a very worthy idea – there’s no doubt that the tax system is far too complex in almost all aspects – but replacing one set of anomalies with another seems a particularly futile exercise.
Yesterday’s Commons vote, which saw the government majority slashed and concern from all sides of the House, shows the strength of opinion. It’s not just about the Cornish pasty, but the meat and potato pie much-loved in northern England and the Scottish bridie too. And let’s not forget sausage rolls. It’s an unworkable tax on millions of people’s lunch. It will damage the baking industry in Cornwall and in plenty of other places too. It will cost jobs. It plays to a perception of a front-bench that’s out of touch with the day-to-day lives of millions of people in the country. It raises little money for the government.
A pasty isn’t like getting Chinese takeaway, cooked on demand, and, contrary to what the PM seems to think, not many supermarkets sell fish and chips. The government’s proposals are a messy and unenforceable solution to the real problem of supermarkets ducking VAT on their rotisserie chickens.
Far from taking a new role as a rebel leader, I actually hoped my amendment would be helpful to the government – I don’t want my colleagues to end up with pasty on their face. So, let’s exempt hot-food from VAT when no effort it made to keep the food hot. It’s simple and enforceable. Few people will rush out to buy cold fish and chips and the supermarket chickens would be clobbered.
The solution I’ve put forward is workable and will achieve the end the government wants to see. I hope, as the debate continues, this gives the government food for thought on a debate that they need to get on the right side of.
Stephen Gilbert is Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay