REVIEW 

Persistence pays

The government’s decision last year to zero rate the VAT on digital publications was the result of a long running and hard-fought lobbying effort.

By James Evelegh

Persistence pays
HM Treasury. Photograph: Carlos Delgado, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you remember the nightmare of having to add VAT to our digital publications, but not our print ones, and the administrative summersaults we had to perform to account for it properly? To say nothing of the lost profits.

You will recall the huge sigh of relief when Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in last year’s budget that digital publications would be zero rated from December and the equally big sigh when that date was brought forward to 1 May, in response to Covid.

As a rule, chancellors don’t give up tax revenue lightly; indeed, I remember a guest speaker at the PPA Festival in 2019 saying that, in his opinion, it just would never happen. Period.

Well, it did, and hats off to the phenomenal lobbying work done by Owen Meredith and his team at the PPA.

Owen spoke in detail about the VAT campaign in our latest podcast. Listening to Owen, you get some interesting insight into what it takes to mount an effective lobbying campaign.

  • Be persistent and be prepared to play the long game. Government policy does not change overnight. Owen joined the PPA as a junior lobbyist in 2014 and VAT was at the top of his to-do list back then.
  • Know your way around Whitehall. In a previous life, he worked as a senior parliamentary advisor for four years. Just prior to Sunak becoming chancellor, Owen met with him face to face to press his case.
  • Choose the right fight and get buy-in from key stakeholders. The VAT fight was winnable. Owen presented it as the “right thing to do”, a “technical correction” needed because the “law hadn’t kept up with technology”. Getting backing from the Cairncross Review and the DCMS select committee were important milestones.
  • Clarity of message and speaking with a unified voice. The PPA worked closely with other trade associations, including the Publishers Association (books) and the NMA (newspapers) to make sure everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet and couldn’t be played off against each other.
  • Be smart. If you can couch your policy aims in the language of the government’s own agenda (“abolish the reading tax to help with levelling up”), you’re more likely to be heard.

It’s not a question of flashy pyrotechnics and shouting the loudest – it’s about doing the serious groundwork, getting your ducks all in a row and sticking at it.

This successful approach bodes well for the tough but hopefully winnable lobbying efforts ahead, over big tech’s monopolistic grip on digital advertising and use of publisher content.