It shouldn’t have been a complete surprise, with a general election expected in a few weeks, that Gordon Brown’s March 16 Budget was apparently one of the shortest and quietest in living memory. It was a budget of ‘fine-tuning’ rather than any major headlines, at least as far as retailing is concerned.

Let’s start with the obvious. The inflation-linked increases on fuel duty have been deferred to September 1, 2005 (assuming, of course, that there isn’t actually a change of government before then). With pump prices already rising almost weekly due to the global supply-demand equation, any further increase would have been politically unthinkable. Despite some industry speculation concerning bio-fuels, there are no changes to the duty

differentials on these fuels..

As usual, tobacco was an easy touch but alcohol escaped relatively lightly with ‘inflation-only’ increases in duty on beer and still wine, with no changes to spirits, cider or sparkling wines.

The VAT registration threshold was raised to £60,000 per year, while the main tax and NI rates were unchanged, with the usual indexation of personal allowances and thresholds. Similarly, there were no obvious changes to corporation tax rates or bands.

Vehicle excise duty (road tax to most of us) increases of £5 on the top two CO2 emission bands, and £5 on cars over 1549cc registered before March 2001; otherwise unchanged.

Capital gains tax thresholds rose in line with inflation to £8,500 for the 2005-06 tax year. Inheritance tax thresholds rose slightly above inflation: to £275,000 for 2005-06, £285,000 for 2006-07 and £300,000 for 2007-08. If you’re wondering why we mention this here, think about how much your site might be worth when you shuffle off this mortal coil – and which of your children might be paying the 40% tax on it.

But of course, those are only the headlines. There were a few buried items that we’d like to bring to your attention, At the same time as raising tobacco duty, the government makes the startling admission that tobacco smuggling costs £2.5bn per year and that despite five years of its ‘Tackling Tobacco Smuggling Strategy’ illicit cigarettes still account for 15% of the market. The Treasury reaffirms that it is committed to targeting this activity even further; tobacco retailers – and that includes virtually all of the petrol retail industry – please take note.

Among the fuel duty increases that have been put off until after the election is another larger-than-inflation increase on rebated fuels such as Red diesel. The Treasury says that oil fraud (principally involving the resale of these fuels to the public for use in road vehicles) cost the Exchequer around £850m during 2003, and remains a continuing target for “enhanced law enforcement activity”. Any guesses to where that activity is likely to be focused? Incidentally, the treasury states that the increase in duty should “reduce incentives for fraud by reducing fraudsters’ profits”. Quite how that will work when duty on ordinary diesel is set to be 48.32 pence/litre from September while that on Red diesel will only rise to 6.04 pence/litre, is something that only they can explain.

And finally, there was the publication/acceptance of the Hampton Review, released as part of the Budget. In brief this was a report covering the regulatory inspection and enforcement regime of 63 national regulators, 203 trading standards offices and 408 environmental health offices in local authorities across the UK. This concluded that there were far too many inspections, forms and information requests that overlapped from these bodies and this red tape needed to be cut.

The prime recommendation (to which the government has agreed in principle) is that in future the inspection and enforcement should be directed by “...risk assessment... so that the burden of enforcement falls most on highest-risk businesses and least on those with the best records of compliance...”.

In other words, deciding which commercial activities/premises are most likely to involve the opportunity for malpractice, and targeting those for additional surveillance and inspections. At the risk of labouring a point, read that in conjunction with the two items immediately above it, and remember that we warned you first!