Inconsistent VAT Treatment Costs Further Education Colleges Billions Each Year
Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum have voiced their concerns over the inconsistent Value Added Tax (VAT) treatment of further education (FE) colleges during a recent debate in the House of Commons. The debate, titled “Public Bodies and VAT,” highlighted the unfair treatment of FE colleges, which are currently unable to reclaim VAT on their purchases despite being classified as public bodies.
The debate was initiated by George Eustice, Member of Parliament for Camborne and Redruth, who argued that tax policy should not be the sole responsibility of the Treasury. Eustice emphasized that tax affects every industry, public body, and government department, making it a matter for the government as a whole. He specifically focused on the VAT treatment of public bodies, drawing attention to the disparity faced by FE colleges.
The VAT Rules
Under the VAT rules, tax can be levied on goods at different rates, including the standard rate of 20%, a reduced rate of 5% for certain items, and zero-rated goods. While many public bodies, such as schools and academies, can reclaim VAT on their purchases, FE colleges are not included in the list of exempt organizations. This has created an unfair situation where schools with sixth forms can reclaim VAT, but FE colleges with sixth forms cannot.
The Impact on FE Colleges
Eustice argued that this discrepancy undermines the importance of FE colleges and the vital skills they provide. He highlighted the higher costs associated with running practical skills courses in fields such as electrical engineering or construction, making recruiting and retaining staff challenging for FE colleges. The inability to reclaim VAT exacerbates the financial strain faced by these institutions, hindering their ability to provide quality education and training.
Other MPs Join the Debate
Several other MPs also voiced their concerns during the debate, echoing Eustice’s points and emphasizing the negative impact on FE colleges and their students. Vicky Ford, Member of Parliament for Chelmsford, highlighted the financial burden faced by Chelmsford College, which pays around half a million pounds annually in unrecoverable VAT. This hampers the college’s ability to remunerate its staff adequately and creates an unfair disadvantage compared to local schools.
The Motivations Behind the Inconsistent VAT Treatment
The debate also raised questions about the motivations behind the inconsistent VAT treatment. Daniel Zeichner, Member of Parliament for Cambridge, suggested that the VAT system may have been used as a lever to encourage institutions to move away from the maintained sector and towards academization. However, George Eustice clarified that academies are included on the exempt list, indicating that the government has recognized the need for fairness in the treatment of schools.
The Call for Change
Kevin Foster, Member of Parliament for Torbay, further highlighted the impact on South Devon College, which faces a 20% disadvantage in spending power compared to schools due to the inability to reclaim VAT. Foster called on the government to assess the financial impact on the FE sector and amend the VAT rules to include colleges, as has been done for academies, national museums, and other regulatory bodies in the past.
The Government’s Response
In response to the concerns raised during the debate, the Minister was urged to commit to bringing forward a statutory instrument under section 33 of the Value Added Tax Act 1994 to rectify the unfair treatment of FE colleges. Members of Parliament stressed the importance of fair funding for the FE sector, emphasizing the role it plays in equipping young people with essential skills for the economy and promoting social mobility.
The debate shed light on the need for consistent and fair tax policies that recognize the vital role of FE colleges in providing practical skills and education. The government now faces the task of addressing the concerns raised by MPs and taking decisive action to rectify the VAT treatment of FE colleges. The outcome of this issue will have far-reaching implications for the future of further education in the UK.
The full transcript of the debate can be found here.