A tax on progress

Statues of two iguanadons on rocks in a public park.
Outdated statues of the extinct iguanadon at Crystal Palace Park, London

Today it was announced that the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, was considering introducing an online sales tax, citing such reasons as a need to “protect the high street” from fears about coronavirus at a time when a number of department stores have been closing stores or going out of business, as well as the pollution caused by delivery vans. According to Steven Swinford of the Times (on Twitter), the government is looking at two models: a 2% levy on the sale of goods online, which would raise around £2bn annually, or a charge for deliveries of goods bought online, “which would form part of campaign to cut congestion and toxic emissions”. This ignores the reasons for why people prefer to shop online, especially at a time when there is a well-founded fear of the coronavirus but even before. It is clearly discriminatory towards disabled people for a number of reasons.

First, department stores and high-street clothing retailers were having difficulties long before coronavirus hit. People preferred to shop online simply becuase it is easier to find many types of garments in a website or app than in a physical store, because stores are often arranged according to the product range or concession rather than by the category of item. So, say you want to buy a long skirt in a particular colour: on an app, you can just search for it. In the store, you have to know where the item is, as it will not be with other long skirts but with other clothing items from the same range or manufacturer which has a concession in the store (as found in John Lewis, House of Fraser and most others). The department store model relies on shopping being a leisure activity and that you might not be looking just for that item but whatever might take your fancy while browsing. If you just want the skirt, however, it’s easier to just buy it online. Menswear is often a bit more rationally arranged with T-shirts, jeans, chinos and so on grouped together.

At times like these, retail therapy is starting to seem a lot less therapeutic for many people. Especially at weekends, town centres have become crowded and there is no pretence of social distancing. Clearly there are some who are sick of lockdown and just want to get out and enjoy themselves but for others that represents an obvious health risk. Many people are still shielding or have a close relative who is fragile and has to be protected from exposure to the virus. Some people are under mandatory quarantine because of having the virus or having been exposed to it. They cannot just get out and help “save the High Street” which is dying anyway; they are still reliant on online deliveries. Many disabled people cannot easily get out to shop at the High Street, perhaps because of chronic illness, perhaps because of the inaccessiblity of the shopping area itself, lack of reliable public transport, the lack of suitable toilets (my local town centre, Kingston, does not have a Changing Place, meaning anyone who cannot transfer manually has nowhere to relieve themselves), the lack or unreliability of disabled parking; there could be any number of reasons. To people dependent on disability benefits (because their health or lack of accessible employment keeps them out of work), this new tax will mean they have less to live on when they have no alternative, short of sending a friend into town.

As for the tax being targeted at pollution, surely online ordering reduces emissions because it reduces journeys made by individuals to town centres. Many people travelling to town centres to meet up with friends or relatives and browse the shops do so by car (possibly more so at the moment, as public transport is restricted), and cause pollution while queuing for car parking or getting stuck in traffic on the way; newer retail parks are often designed to be driven to, often located off motorway junctions (e.g. Bluewater in Kent). If goods are delivered directly to consumers, this also saves on a truck journey from the distribution centre to the store. There are already taxes on vehicles which are aimed at keeping older vans and trucks which produce more emissions either off the road or out of heavily-populated areas. So, the pollution angle seems like an excuse.

This new tax seems calculated also to support incumbent large businesses such as department stores, while many smaller manufacturers depend on online distribution chains as well as Amazon. These companies offer choice to consumers that the High Street often does not; if you want an item of clothing which simply is not available in the shops because some committee somewhere has decided it’s going to be out of fashion this season, an online seller is likely to offer it. There are also specialist, niche clothing manufacturers which have never had access to high street shops, such as Lucy & Yak and Wash Clothing, which specialise in lightweight dungarees and denim clothing respectively, as well as the various modest clothing vendors here and overseas (such as Shukr and Modanisa) which a lot of Muslims rely on. Just because our clothing choices aren’t mainstream, why should we pay an extra tax to support a few large, outdated companies?

Of course, Rishi Sunak needs to raise tax revenues urgently. People are losing jobs, spending is down, many people do not want to go out for long, companies that were already struggling are facing a final straw, and he has cut VAT to 5% for hospitality services such as restaurants and take-away food, though only for the rest of this year. Much as people always said he was pursuing policies more socialist than Jeremy Corbyn could have dreamed of, we always knew he would have to pay for it somehow, and would insist on doing so sooner rather than later. This tax is a latter-day “red flag” law; it is a tax that seeks to hold back the march of progress. In the past, businesses based on outdated practices and models which were losing out to competition were called “lame ducks” and were refused public support; the same must be true of Debenhams, House of Fraser and other retail dinosaurs which cannot compete with well-designed websites and apps. This tax is regressive (in every sense of the term) and discriminatory and should not be allowed to proceed.

Image source: Jes, via Wikipedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) licence, version 2.0.

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