Matters of moment, April 1985

Taxing information

For months before the Chancellor’s budget speech, speculation was rife that he might propose putting VAT onto books, magazines and newspapers which would have been, in effect, a tax on learning and information.

When the Chancellor decided to impose VAT “only” on magazine and newspaper advertising, there was general relief; things were not as bad as everyone had feared they might be. The imposition of the tax caused hardly a murmur — yet VAT on advertising is still a tax on information. Advertisements do not necessarily generate business but they do inform us that products and services are available.

If we road test the Jehu 123 GT and find it wanting, the manufacturer has the right to buy advertising space to state a different view and, perhaps, quote opinions opposed to ours. This is fair and healthy. There should be norm on opinions.

In this issue is an advertisement placed by Reliant which includes a list of dealers where one may see the new Scimitar SS1. That is information which many motoring enthusiasts will appreciate whether or not they are in the market for the car. When you buy a new car you pay car tax and VAT on it, but should tax be levied on an advertiser for simply passing on information?

By every post we receive news of new products and services and had we space, would use the majority of the information in our editorial columns, for most of it is of interest. Unfortunately, we do not have enough space in our editorial columns, but businesses can still pass on information through advertisements. How can it be right to levy a tax on someone who is merely trying to let potential customers know that he can offer such and such a product or service?

When Dr Johnson defined “excise” he wrote that it is “a hateful tax levied upon commodities”. It’s not one of his more vigorous definitions, but taxation tends to deaden the imagination. If Dr Johnson were editing the “Rambler” today, however, he would certainly accept advertising, for no magazine can survive without it. If Johnson were suddenly told that not only was there to be a tax on information but that he was to act as an unpaid tax-gatherer, then might the epigrams fly!

There’s nothing to be done, of course. There never is when it comes to taxation. It is worrying, though, when the exchange of information attracts duty. It seems like the thin end of a large wedge.

Rough justice

Despite the creditable fall in inflation which the Government delights in proclaiming, motoring does not come any less expensive, with petrol at over £2 per gallon, much of this absorbed in tax. Fines for the enormous variety of driving offences which the Law has evolved are also up, for justice has to be paid for like any other commodity.

Justice, however, should be seen to be done, and in view of rising costs it is unfortunate that, where drivers of motor vehicles are concerned, it appears to still be largely invisible! What we mean is that fines and penalties bear little relationship to offences committed and vary widely up and down the land, as consultation of any local newspaper will confirm — and how these papers love to publish items about motorists’ misfortunes. To be specific, we have read recently of a driver being fined £20 for using a car without an excise licence and of another driver, who claimed a 44-year clean driving record, being fined £45 and awarded two penalty points for nudging another car that had been parked too close to his Land Rover as he left a parking space. It seems likely that, in the first case we are quoting, the car-owner knew he was evading the Law by not having a licence on display, whereas to mildly’ scrape another car in a parking lot would, in better times, usually have ended merely in an exchange of addresses and payment for the mild damage done. That apart, it is the more than doubling of the fine that smacks of rank injustice.

This kind of thing is happening every day, all over the country, and it seems high time that some sort of standardisation of punishment and penalty was arrived at. One remembers the days when a car might be driven a trifle exuberantly and go off a slippery road. No harm done to anything but the driver’s pride, you would walk home and retrieve the vehicle next day. Now, if the Police find it, Swansea is contacted, the owner traced, and a “careless driving” charge is likely to result. Whether this makes for the best of relationships between vehicle owners and the Police, who need all the help from law-abiding citizens they can obtain in this unhappy age of increasing crime, is debatable, except that the answer is abundantly clear. Note that in the two cases we have referred to no question of an accident in the proper sense of the term, no injuries, even, were involved. Yet a car tan evader is fined £20, an obviously careful driver who made one minor error of judgement was fined £45 and his driving licence penalised. Think about it!