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Award Winner 2020: Best In-House Consultancy Collaboration – Axe the Reading Tax Campaign

Tendo Consulting and the Publishers Association

The 2020 PRCA Public Affairs Awards celebrated the best work of the year and below is the category's winning entry.


“I am so grateful to Tendo and the Publishers Association for their tireless energy and enthusiasm working on the Axe

the Reading Tax Campaign and their invaluable help building a coalition of supporters for an end to this unfair tax in the Commons.

“Tendo know how to build a coalition of support from the grassroots all the way to Westminster, using both modern digital media and state of the art networking and campaigning”

- Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP

In April 2019, the Publishers Association hired Tendo Consulting to bring a new lease of life and fresh thinking to their campaign to cut VAT on e-books, under the banner of Axe the Reading Tax. After a sustained media and public affairs campaign, the Chancellor announced that he would be ‘abolishing the Reading Tax’ in the Budget in March 2020. A few weeks later, the Government fast-tracked its plans to remove VAT on e-publications in order to support readers during the coronavirus lockdown, resulting in the total success of the campaign in 12 months.

A winning partnership, a winning message

The campaign to Axe the Reading Tax was formed by the Publishers Association in 2018, with a significant amount of detailed policy and legal work carried out before Tendo Consulting’s appointment.

From the outset, Tendo and Publishers Association worked together to agreed a set of key messages focusing on the intrinsic value of learning, the disparity between the VAT applied on physical and digital formats, the impact of the tax on those living with sight loss, and the barrier VAT created to improving childhood literacy.

The campaign’s success was built on a genuine partnership between Tendo and the Publishers Association, utilising the strengths, creativity and knowledge of both teams. This allowed the campaign to move with real pace and respond to the chaotic and challenging political environment, including the resignation of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP - our principle political target!

Building Political Support

Our approach was to build a strong cross-party base of political support, but to ensure that the campaign was led by prominent Conservative backbenchers and to use this to place the Chancellor under immense pressure to act.

We quickly secured the support of the Education Select Committee Chair Robert Halfon MP as our Parliamentary Champion. He worked closely with the campaign, hosting parliamentary events and regularly raising the issue in the Commons via oral interventions and questions, and with colleagues in Government as well as in the media. We then went on to secure the support of DCMS Select Committee Chair Julian Knight MP, Treasury Select Committee Chair Mel Stride MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for DCMS Jo Stevens MP and leading Conservative backbenchers, including Andrew Lewer MP and Jack Brereton MP.

In response to the General Election in December 2019, we quickly approached the new intake of Conservative MPs and in so doing secured Rob Roberts MP. Rob Roberts organised a cross party open letter to the Chancellor in the New Year of 2020 which bought our Parliamentarian supporter levels back up to around 150.

The parliamentary highlights included:

  • Holding Parliamentary Drop in events before and after the 2019 General Election to encourage parliamentarians to sign an open letter to the Chancellor on giant e-reader boards;
  • Launching research from campaign partner National Literacy Trust on the benefits of digital reading for children and young people;
  • Organising an open letter to the Chancellor in November 2019, signed by 90 parliamentarians, 46 of whom were Conservatives.

Stakeholder Support

Together, we built a range of campaign backers and supporters who would be able to energise their base, as well as provide information, statistics and case studies. These included the RNIB, National Literacy Trust, Society of Authors, BookTrust, Listening Books, Rakuten Kobo, the Professional Publishers Association, the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society and the Association of Authors Agents.

We introduced a campaign ‘Write to your MP’ function on the website that ensured MPs were made aware of the campaign by their constituents. We also ensured that our partners were also included in high profile activity, with the RNIB and NLT attending a hand-in of a parliamentary open letter at Number 11 Downing Street with former TV presenter and author Konnie Huq, Andrew Lewer MP and Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP.

The stakeholder highlights included:

  • Working with the RNIB to identify case studies and advocates living with sight loss who were willing to communicate their experience of paying the reading tax;
  • Working with Rakuten Kobo to run a Parliamentary competition for MPs to win 30 e-readers for a school in their constituency - described by one MP as “a bloody genius idea”;
  • Working with the Society of Authors and Publishers Association members to secure 700 authors on an open letter to the Chancellor calling for action, including Stephen Fry, children’s laureate Cressida Cowell, Konnie Huq, Dolly Alderton, and Val McDermid.

Building media pressure

We also orchestrated an aggressive media campaign around key events utilising the campaign’s supporters, including prominent authors and high-profile politicians like Robert Halfon MP.

Our media highlights included:

  • Securing media interviews for campaign ambassadors and spokespeople on BBC 5 Live and BBC 4 You and Yours;
  • Gaining support from The Sun alongside the headline ‘Over 100 MPs urge Chancellor Sajid Javid to scrap ‘unfair’ and ‘illogical’ reading tax in first Budget’;
  • Leveraging the support of leading authors to secure coverage in The Times, The Sun, Metro, Good Morning Scotland and BBC Radio 5;
  • Coverage on BBC You and Yours and BBC Online on the campaign and the cost difference between digital and print versions of the 2019 Booker Prize nominees.

Working with HM Treasury

Behind the scenes, we also worked with HM Treasury officials to understand any legislative barriers to removing VAT on e-books and shared research, commissioned by the Publishers Association and conducted by Frontier Economics, to make the case for the tax cut from a financial perspective.