ICAEW chart of the week: UK registered businesses

My chart this week looks at the 1.5% drop in the number of VAT- and PAYE-registered businesses in the year to 31 March 2023.

Column chart with two columns for March 2022 (left) and March 2023 (right).

Total registered businesses - 2,767,700 (March 2022) and 2,726,830 (March 2023).

Companies - 2,058,886 and 2,039,920

Sole proprietors - 427,710 and 413,160

Partnerships - 181,010 and 172,890

Non-profits & public sector - 100,095 and 100,860.

On 27 September 2023, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published data on the 2,726,830 businesses that were registered for VAT and/or PAYE in the UK as of March 2023, a 1.5% fall from the 2,767,700 businesses that were registered a year previously. 

As illustrated by our chart this week, the number of VAT- and PAYE-registered companies fell by 0.9% from 2,058,885 to 2,039,920, sole proprietorships fell by 3.4% from 427,710 to 413,160, and partnerships fell by 4.5% from 181,010 to 172,890. 

Bucking the trend were non-profit bodies, mutual associations and public sector organisations, which rose by 0.8% from 100,095 to 100,860. The latter comprised 88,375 non-profit bodies and mutuals, 9,030 local authority entities, 3,280 central government entities and 175 public corporations and other publicly owned businesses, as of March 2023.

Not shown in the chart are in the order of 2.8m ‘unregistered’ businesses that are not registered for VAT or PAYE. Most of these are self-employed individuals, sole traders, or one-person companies that generate revenue below the VAT threshold of £85,000 and do not have any payrolled employees.

The number of registered businesses in March 2023 by industry group are comprised as follows: 

  • 415,250 professional, scientific and technical (down 3.7% on March 2022); 
  • 402,165 motor trades (-2.8%); 
  • 377,585 construction (+0.7%);
  • 226,285 business administration and support services (-1.1%); 
  • 187,360 information and communication (-4.5%); 
  • 184,420 arts, entertainment, recreation and other services (+2.0%);
  • 174,830 accommodation and food services (-0.2%); 
  • 151,710 production (-1.8%);
  • 141,390 agriculture, forestry and fishing (-0.8%)
  • 128,600 transport and storage including postal (-6.9%);
  • 113,785 (+2.8%) property, 109,095 health (+2.8%);
  • 59,210 finance and insurance (-2.0%);
  • 47,340 education (+1.3%); and
  • 7,805 public administration and defence (+0.4%).

There were 2,115,105 businesses with between zero and four employees as of March 2023, followed by 313,780 (five to nine employees), 157,955 (10-19), 86,285 (20-49), 27,660 (50-99). 15,135 (100-249) and 10,910 (250+).

By turnover band, the numbers as of March 2023 were: 445,020 (£0-£49,999); 563,610 (£50,000-£99,999); 846,615 (£100,000-£249,999); 367,315 (£250,000-£499,999); 222,155 (£500,000-£999,999); 123,995 (£1m-£2m); 85,655 (£2m-£5m); 32,100 (£5m-£10m); 29,080 (£10m-£50m); and 9,285 (£50m+).

The fall in the number of businesses in 2022/23 is perhaps not surprising given the significant amount of support provided to many businesses during the pandemic, which will have delayed the normal process of business closure during the previous two years. Meanwhile, the cost-of-living and energy crises will have also made it difficult for some businesses to survive in the year to March 2023. Even though energy prices have come down, the cost-of-living crisis and consequent reductions in consumer demand could see further businesses fail during 2023/24.

Find out more: ONS: UK business – activity, size and location 2023.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: VAT threshold

The mystery of just why so many businesses sit just below the VAT registration threshold will be a big topic of debate at ICAEW’s VAT at 50 conference on Monday 22 May.

Line chart showing number of businesses plotted against £1,000 turnover intervals.

An orange line shows how the number of traders curves down as turnover increases, before increasing sharply before the VAT threshold (a vertical line in the chart at £85,000) and dropping almost vertically. 

A purple line shows a relatively straight decline to the right of the VAT threshold, with some bumps along the way.

A teal-coloured dotted trendline curves through the chart, with  businesses all above the trendline to the left of the VAT threshold, and below the trendline to the right up until £130,000.

Our chart this week celebrates the 50th anniversary of the introduction in the UK of Value Added Tax (VAT), the indirect tax on commercial transactions that now generates around 20% of tax receipts. 

One of the big mysteries in the tax system is why so many small businesses and sole traders cluster just below the VAT threshold of £85,000.

As illustrated by our chart, the number of businesses below the threshold gradually falls from almost 31,000 in the turnover band between £50,000 and £50,999 to just under 17,000 in the turnover band between £77,000 and £77,999, before diverging above the trendline to increase up to just over 20,000 in the £84,000 to £84,999 turnover band – immediately below the threshold for registering for VAT. This is almost twice as many as the just over 10,000 traders in the £85,000 to £85,999 turnover band, the first band legally required to register for VAT. 

One explanation may be that there is some gaming (or possibly even misreporting) going on, with business owners approaching the threshold for VAT deciding to spread their business activities across multiple legal entities or keeping ‘cash-in-hand’ transactions off the books to avoid, or evade, adding VAT of 20% in most cases onto their prices.

However, perhaps a more worrying concern is if these businesses are not getting around the rules, but instead deliberately choosing to keep their businesses small given the competitive disadvantage that goes with adding VAT to prices charged to consumers, and the hassles and hazards involved with becoming a tax collector on behalf of the government. 

This is a big issue for a UK economy experiencing weak economic growth. Not only is government income at stake, but also the wider benefits of more prosperous small businesses to the overall economy and what that means for the national economy.

Of course, many businesses do register despite being below the threshold, with around 1.1m traders in 2018/19 with turnover less than £85,000 signed up to VAT.

Other countries take a different approach, with much lower registration thresholds across most of Europe. Domestic thresholds range from nil in Spain, Italy and Greece, NOK40,000 (approximately £3,000) in Norway, €22,000 (£19,000) in Germany and €37,500 (£33,000) in Ireland, up to €50,000 (£43,000) in Slovenia. Switzerland is an exception with a higher registration threshold than the UK at CHF100,000 (£89,000). 

In general, this means that a much greater proportion of actively trading businesses across Europe are registered for VAT compared with the UK, where there are estimated to be more than 3m or so traders with annual revenue of between £10,000 and £84,999 who have not registered for VAT – more than £100bn in total revenue.

Some believe that raising the threshold would provide a boost to the economy, given that many businesses would be more willing to grow (or declare) more of their revenue, while others believe the better option would be to reduce the threshold to capture many more businesses. The former would likely result in lower tax receipts overall, by allowing businesses just above the existing threshold to stop collecting VAT. The latter should in theory generate much more in tax receipts, perhaps as much as £20bn a year, in addition to removing one of the distortions that the tax system creates in this part of the economy.

The irony is that a relatively high VAT threshold in the UK designed to encourage and support small businesses may be one of the factors holding back economic growth. And with an unchanged threshold combined with inflation of more than 10% over the past year, this may be an even bigger drag on the economy/incentive to cheat than it has been in the past.

Click here to find out more about VAT at 50, ICAEW’s celebration (if that is the right word) of the 50th anniversary of VAT, and what the future holds for our most beloved of indirect taxes.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK business births and deaths

My chart this week illustrates the choppy economic waters facing UK businesses as more stopped trading than were created over the course of 2022.

Bar chart going down vertically from Q1 2017 to Q4 2022 showing business closures and creations on the left and the net decrease or net increase on the right.

Q1 2017 -78,950, +97,340, +18,390
Q2 2017 -96,390, +80,930, -15,460
Q3 2017 -82,555, +86,380, +3,825
Q4 2017 -67,655, -73,975, +6,320
Q1 2018 -86,775, +88,295, +1,520
Q2 2018 -80,550, +95,715, +15,165
Q3 2018 -65,660, +79,410, +13,750
Q4 2018 -72,375, +76,730, +4,355
Q1 2019 -77,990, +97,110, +19,120
Q2 2019 -91,410, +95,675, +4,265
Q3 2019 -74,440, +84,970, +10,530
Q4 2019 -67,990, +77,970, +9,980
Q1 2020 -96,660, +89,910, -6,750
Q2 2020 -72,665, +73,415, +16,170
Q3 2020 -60,415, +76,585, +16,170
Q4 2020 -78,965, +82,080, +3,115
Q1 2021 -86,600, +101,845, +15,245
Q2 2021 -88,515, +91,400, +2,885
Q3 2021 -83,235, +81,165, -2,070
Q4 2021 -87,040, +79,870, -7,170
Q1 2022 -110,515, +98,730, -11,785
Q2 2022 95,155, +89,225, -5,930
Q3 2022 -79,305, +67,390, -11,915
Q4 2022 -82,390, -69,445, -12,945

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its latest quarterly experimental statistics on business births and deaths on 2 February 2023. This reports that business closures have increased since before the pandemic at the same time as business creations have fallen, resulting in net reductions in the number of VAT- or PAYE-registered businesses operating in the UK over the past six quarters.

The statistics are taken from the government’s Inter-Departmental Business Register, a database of approximately 2.8m businesses registered for either PAYE or VAT, just over half of the estimated 5.5m businesses operating in the UK (according to the Department of Business & Trade). The difference principally relates to sole traders with turnover below the VAT threshold who have not voluntarily registered for VAT, or for PAYE if they trade through a company. There is also a time lag on reporting the closure of businesses where a business continues to be registered, with the ONS waiting for several periods of zero VAT or zero payrolls before recording a business as closed.

The statistics are labelled as experimental because they are not as rigorous as annual statistics, but the advantage is that they provide data on business births and deaths in 2022, for which we will not get a full set of annual numbers until towards the end of this year. 

As our chart illustrates, the quarterly net change in businesses in 2017 was +18,390, -15,460, +3,825 and +6,320 respectively, followed by +1,520, +15,165, +13,750, +4,365 in 2018, +19,120 and +4,265, +10,530 and +9,980 in 2019. The pandemic saw a fall in business closures as government support enabled businesses that would otherwise have stopped operating to stay alive, with a net decrease of -6,750 in Q1 2020 followed by net increases of +750, +16,170, +3,115 in the second, third and fourth quarters of 2020. 

A spurt in business creations in early 2021 saw net increases of +15,245 and +2,885 in the first two quarters, before net decreases of -2,070 and 7,170 in the last two quarters of 2021. With pandemic support measures coming to an end and the onset of the energy crisis, the trend moved further into negative territory with quarterly net closures of -11,785, -5,930, -11,915 and -12,945 in 2022.

Quarterly business deaths averaged around 81,400 in 2017, 76,300 in 2018, 78,000 in 2019, 77,200 in 2020, 86,300 in 2021 and 91,800 in 2022, while quarterly business births averaged around 84,700 in 2017, 85,000 in 2018, 88,900 in 2019, 80,500 in 2020, 88,600 in 2021 and 81,200 in 2022.

These numbers will not be pretty reading for Kemi Badenoch, the new Secretary of State for Business and Trade. With interest rates on the rise, energy costs still at very high levels and consumers cutting back on spending, the risks are that many more existing businesses will cease trading, while business creations may continue to be subdued.

One crumb of comfort is that businesses founded during downturns are believed to do better than those founded in good times. So, if you are thinking of striking out on your own with a new business idea, there may be no better time than now.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: VAT receipts by quarter

This week’s chart highlights how the VAT deferral scheme is almost entirely behind higher VAT receipts in recent quarters, providing a note of caution to recent media headlines welcoming bumper tax revenues.

Horizontal bar chart showing VAT receipts by quarter from Jan-Mar 2017 through to Jan-Mar 2022.

2017: £31.7bn, £30.3bn, £31.1bn,  £31.8bn (Oct-Dec)
2018: £33.2bn, £30.8bn, £33.5bn, £32.9bn
2019: £35.4bn, £32.2bn, £34.3bn, £34.2bn
2020: £29.2bn, -£0.4bn, £28.4bn, £34.2bn
2021: £39.4bn, £35.2bn, £40.2bn, £41.4bn
2022 Jan-Mar: £40.6bn

The ICAEW chart of the week is on the topic of VAT, illustrating the quarterly pattern of VAT receipts since 2017 according to the HMRC tax receipts and national insurance contributions monthly bulletin published on 26 April.

The chart highlights how VAT receipts have grown steadily since 2017 up until the start of the pandemic, with receipts in calendar quarters of £31.7bn (Jan-Mar), £30.3bn (Apr-Jun), £31.1bn (Jul-Sep) and £31.8bn (Oct-Dec) in 2017; £33.2bn, £30.8bn, £33.5bn and £32.9bn in 2018; and £35.4bn, £32.2bn, £34.3bn and £34.2bn in 2019. This was followed by a big dip in 2020, with £29.2bn in Jan-Mar 2020, a net negative outflow of -£0.4bn in Apr-Jun, £28.4bn in Jul-Sep and £34.2bn in Oct-Dec 2020. In 2021, VAT receipts strengthened, with £39.4bn, £35.2bn, £40.2bn and £41.4bn by quarter, followed by £40.6bn in Jan-Mar 2022, the last quarter of the 2021/22 fiscal year.

The significant drop in VAT receipts in 2020 was driven by a combination of the economic contraction caused by the pandemic, cuts in VAT rates for hospitality, and – most significantly – £33.5bn in deferrals under the VAT payments deferral scheme implemented at the time of the first lockdown in 2020. This is the primary driver of the negative VAT receipts in the Apr-Jun quarter 2020 highlighted in the chart.

The original intention was that VAT deferred from 2020 would be due by no later than 30 June 2021, however, further relief in the form of a monthly instalment plan allowed VAT-registered businesses to spread the payment of the deferred VAT over the rest of the 2021/22 fiscal year. This has boosted the last three quarters of VAT receipts shown in the chart.

HMRC reports that £31.3bn of the VAT deferred was carried forward in 2021/22, which would imply a swing between financial years in the order of £60bn. This is greater than the £56bn increase in VAT receipts seen between the £101bn recorded for the four quarters to March 2021 and the £157bn in the following four quarters constituting the 2021/22 fiscal year.

VAT receipts excluding the effect of the deferral scheme may therefore have decreased in the last four quarters, which is surprising in the context of rising prices and the end of the discounted VAT rate for hospitality.

Recent media headlines reporting a bumper tax windfall for the Chancellor should therefore be treated with some caution. While tax receipts in 2021/22 have been much stronger than expected, a significant element of the increase relates to the collection of VAT held over from the previous year and not to any genuine increase in underlying tax revenues.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.