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stealth tax

noun [countable/uncountable]

a new tax or tax increase that is introduced in a way that people do not easily notice, or a new payment which is the same as a tax but is not officially classed as one

stealth-tax

verb [transitive]

stealth taxation

noun [uncountable]

'A rise in petrol tax of over 5p a gallon could be the start of a series of tax rises, say the Conservatives … Shadow Chancellor Michael Howard said it was "another stealth tax" aimed at cutting government debt.'

BBC News 20th September 2003

'The Liberal Democrat conference yesterday condemned charges levied throughout the NHS for 50 years as a "stealth tax on the sick and frail" which increases the very health inequities which Labour says it wants to end.'

The Guardian 25th September 2003

The concept of stealth tax, a means that governments use of increasing revenue raised from the public in a partially clandestine way, has been a hot topic in political and journalistic contexts for several years now. The idea is that people pay out extra money not overtly classified as 'tax', for example by making payments which are somehow concealed in price rises or the complicated web of National Insurance procedures.

the term has been used to refer to any seemingly 'unjust' profit or payment, from parking charges to Microsoft™ licensing fees

The UK Conservative government of the 1980s is largely seen as the 'pioneer' of stealth tax, allegedly using it as a means to disguise their equivalent of the rather larger tax increases they claimed a Labour government would potentially impose on the British public. The term has subsequently been used to refer to any seemingly 'unjust' profit or payment, from parking charges to Microsoft™ licensing fees. Though widely accepted on both sides of the Atlantic, the term frequently carries inverted commas when it appears in newspaper reports, or is qualified by adjectives like so-called, presumably as a means of tempering the alleged deception the term implies.

The Macmillan English Dictionary was among the first to formally acknowledge the phrase stealth tax and earlier in 2003 the term entered the latest edition of the Collins English Dictionary.

Background – stealth tax

The compound stealth tax has an essentially compositional meaning, the noun stealth defined in the Macmillan English Dictionary as 'a quiet and secret way of behaving so that no one sees or hears you.' The term stealth wealth is another recent coining, referring to wealth which is concealed from public recognition. Another related term in recent use is stupidity tax (or tax on stupidity), money that people pay out in an arguably foolish way through things like lottery tickets, parking fines etc, as illustrated in the following citation:

'The government is currently making frightfully stern-sounding demands on the new lottery bidders, demanding new terminals, threatening massive fines in case of breakdown. The collection of the stupidity tax must not falter …'

The Guardian 10th February 2000

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 14th November 2003.

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