Tax the word and impoverish the child: Imposing VAT on books would cause immense social and educational damage, says David Lodge

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The Independent Online
NOBODY likes paying taxes. Any group of citizens that feels threatened by a tax targeted on itself is likely to complain vociferously. On the day that the Automobile Association welcomes an increase in the road licence fee, or cigarette manufacturers applaud a rise in tobacco duty, pigs will fly. As a professional writer, I can hardly pretend to be an impartial witness on the subject of taxing books, newspapers and periodicals. But this is an issue that affects everybody, in ways that are not always immediately visible.

If VAT is imposed on books, I shall no doubt feel some pain in my royalty statements, but it won't be life-threatening. Some other writers' books, however, won't get published at all; and many potential readers may be terminally discouraged or deprived. Make no mistake: VAT on the printed word would be a tax on knowledge, education and literacy.

It would hardly be worth the Chancellor's while to impose VAT on books at less than 17.5 per cent. Even at that rate, the Treasury's own estimate of the likely yield is only pounds 270m, and taking into account the loss of business entailed and the unemployment it would cause, the gain to the public purse would be much less. On any assessment, it is going to make a very small dent in the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, now running at pounds 50bn.

But a price rise of 17.5 per cent would be a huge shock to the book buyer. It would mean another pounds 2.62 on the price of the average hardback novel and nearly pounds 1 on the price of the average mass market paperback. It would mean an extra pounds 3.50 on a pounds 20 textbook and pounds 1.40 on an pounds 8 children's book. These increases would be enough to deter many potential purchasers. As sales fall, unit costs rise dramatically in publishing, so retail prices would be likely to rise even higher, and fewer titles would be published.

Books of specialised or minority interest would be the first to go. Young writers would find it harder than ever to get started. Established writers of modest commercial appeal would be silenced. Small publishers and bookshops would go to the wall.

If the Chancellor can harden his heart against the plight of authors and those in the book trade, let him consider the effect of VAT on readers and potential buyers. Books are a fundamental tool of human learning. In spite of the development of electronic media of communication and data storage, the book still remains the most convenient, accessible and cost-effective means of encoding and sharing human knowledge. And to use a computer, you first have to be able to read.

This government has, to its credit, set itself the aim of improving standards of literacy in schools and the adult population, and increasing the numbers of young people going into higher and further education - both areas in which we have fallen behind other developed countries. But these aims cannot be properly achieved without ready access to books for the individuals concerned.

Schools and libraries in colleges and universities cannot possibly meet the demand themselves, as their own budgets have been severely cut in recent years.

Unless students can afford to buy the essential textbooks they need, teaching and learning will suffer. Schoolchildren are increasingly dependent on the willingness of their parents to provide books for study purposes. And arguably the most important books in the lives of any of us were those we read at home, as infants, in our first encounters with the written word. By discouraging the purchase of books, the Chancellor would be throwing the entire educational project into reverse.

One argument often heard against zero-rating books and periodicals is that it privileges the literary equivalent of junk food, as well as works of recognised value and utility. There are two counter-arguments. First, if cheaper and more accessible trash is inseparable from cheaper and more accessible classics, textbooks and new imaginative writing, so be it. The parable of the wheat and the darnel is relevant: 'When you weed out the darnel you might pull up

the wheat with it. Let them both grow till harvest.' (Matthew xiii,18).

Second, light reading may lead to more substantial fare, and even if it doesn't, it keeps vital intellectual muscles exercised. My mentally handicapped son, Christopher, for example, now a young adult, dedicates a considerable proportion of his personal spending money to the purchase of television and pop music magazines, and illustrated books about the James Bond movies to which he is passionately devoted. He can also use public transport, read maps and written instructions, and understand public notices. These things are connected.

We are told that imposing VAT on the printed word will bring us into line with other countries in the European Union, where the tax has not proved culturally catastrophic. But the rate of VAT on books is considerably lower in nearly all these countries, and in none of them has the book trade been asked to absorb a sudden increase of 17.5 per cent in retail prices.

If zero-rating in Britain makes us exceptional, that is surely something in which we should take pride. It belongs to a noble tradition, along with free public libraries: a tradition of nurturing the English language - our greatest national asset - in its written form, and making it widely available. Books have been immune from taxation in this country since they were exempted from the Paper Duty in 1860, and government spokesmen have reaffirmed the principle as recently as last year.

Does Kenneth Clarke want to go down in history as the man who brought this great tradition to an end, as the Chancellor who put a tax on knowledge?

The writer is a novelist, critic and Honorary Professor of Modern English Literature at the University of Birmingham.

Mark Lawson is away.