The Tampon Tax and how to effect positive change

Jenny McEneaney writes for Slugger about how people should effectively respond to the Chancellor’s announcement in the Autumn Statement about the Tampon Tax.

Now, I am the last person to be jumping to the defence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. But I have found myself in the most uncomfortable position following Wednesday’s Spending Review.

To begin with, I in no way advocate the taxing of sanitary products for women. And I in no way believe them to be a luxury item. I do however support the ring fencing of £15million the HMRC collects from the 5% VAT on sanitary products to be spent on organisations that work specifically with women.

Before we go pelting the Chancellor with used tampons (as many of the battle cries on Twitter urged), we need to consider what is within the Chancellor’s power. The EU governs the law on VAT rates and sets the minimum rate at 5%. Countries, such as Ireland which have 0% VAT on sanitary products, did so before the minimum rate was introduced in 1972. The minimum rate was seen as an essential part of the common market providing uniformity in the exporting and importing of goods and services.

Items that have a 0% VAT rate in the UK were also set before 1972 and it was based on what the UK government at the time considered a luxury. For example, cakes were considered wholesome and an essential as they were mostly made in the home. Biscuits were considered a luxury item. Jaffa Cakes and their lobbying machine made sure they were included in the cake category and therefore have had a 0% VAT rate ever since. Another example of this is the contradiction in VAT rates for books and e-books. Ebooks are subject to VAT whilst books are not.

In 2000, the VAT on tampons and sanitary towels fell from 17.5% to 5% following a campaign by Labour MP Dawn Primarolo. In October 2015, an amendment to the Finance Bill tabled by Labour MP Paula Sherriff and backed by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, would have required Chancellor George Osborne to publish, within three months, a strategy for negotiating an exemption with EU institutions. The amendment was defeated by a majority of just 18 votes. In spite of the defeat, the Finance Secretary to the Treasury David Gauke has committed to taking the matter to the EU Commission.

For those angry at the announcement of the reallocation of ‘tampon tax’ revenue to women’s organisations; you need to clarify your anger, reconsider your ask and redirect your efforts.

You are angry because women pay tampon tax at all. MPs have been lobbied. The change.org petition was sent to Westminster. The power to change this lies at a European level. Write to your MEP (Diane Dodds, Martina Anderson and/or Jim Nicholson) to make sure they prioritise it in their lobbying.

You are angry that the vote was lost in the Houses of Parliament. That vote would have ensured a strategy was published to ensure the government could be held to account on its commitment to lobbying the EU Commission. Keep it on Parliament’s agenda. Write to your MP to raise it at Prime Minister’s questions. Lobby the two UUP MPs that voted against the amendment. Write to Jeremy Corbyn to ensure that he retains it as a priority in opposition. Politicians are hugely reactive to public pressure: make them react.

Finally, and most importantly, you are angry that there is not more money spent on the issues that the Chancellor has deemed worthy enough causes for an illegitimate £15 million but not worthy enough to provide substantial and long term funding for (the 58% cuts to local authorities in England and Wales will directly affect many domestic violence services). Of course you are! In institutional politics women’s voices and needs are hugely under represented. Lobby your MLAs and MPs with issues affecting you as a woman. Support the 50:50 parliament campaign. Support organisations such as Women’s Aid who are providing vital services to women whilst also lobbying government to make the hidden harm of domestic violence a political priority. Get involved in the UN Women’s #16days campaign. Join the Belfast Feminist Network at the Reclaim the Night march against sexual violence on Saturday 28th at 7pm at Buoy Park.

However, do not be angry at the reallocation of ‘tampon tax’ funds. As a woman and purchaser of sanitary products, I would much rather that money was spent on organisations working with women on issues that predominantly affect women than subsumed into the overall tax revenue which had been the case.

Holding the government to account on its commitment to lobbying the European Commission must be all of our priority. However, once the tax has been removed as is just, we must ensure the government prioritises issues such as domestic abuse and sexual violence that women continue to face in the UK and provides sustainable long term funding for organisations.

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  • Pete

    I don’t really get the fuss over the tampon tax.

    For example, toilet roll is taxed at a higher rate than tampons, and it isn’t a luxury product either.

  • Pete

    I don’t really get the fuss over the tampon tax.

    For example, toilet roll is taxed at a higher rate than tampons, and it isn’t a luxury product either.

  • chrisjones2

    Blame the EU …they define the rates

  • chrisjones2

    Blame the EU …they define the rates

  • murdockp

    depends what you buy, the triple quilted one with a perfume smell, do have a degree of luxury.

    Personally I prefer the thrift sandpaper variety.

  • murdockp

    depends what you buy, the triple quilted one with a perfume smell, do have a degree of luxury.

    Personally I prefer the thrift sandpaper variety.

  • Reader

    Both at 20% VAT, which isn’t a tax on luxuries.

  • Reader

    Both at 20% VAT, which isn’t a tax on luxuries.

  • Kevin Breslin

    You didn’t read the article why the UK rate is 5% and the ROI rate is 0%. There needs to be some responsibility taken by the British as to why they would ever think that a tampon was a luxury item in the 1970’s.

  • Kevin Breslin

    You didn’t read the article why the UK rate is 5% and the ROI rate is 0%. There needs to be some responsibility taken by the British as to why they would ever think that a tampon was a luxury item in the 1970’s.

  • Greenflag 2

    Whats wrong with the Daily Mail ?

  • Greenflag 2

    Whats wrong with the Daily Mail ?

  • Greenflag 2

    Whats wrong with the Daily Mail ?

  • Greenflag 2

    Whats wrong with the Daily Mail ?

  • Greenflag 2

    Whats wrong with the Daily Mail ?

  • chrisjones2

    Yeah …what happened 45 years ago is so today.The position is that the British then had it set at 5% and cant drop it. Ireland hadn’t and can keep it at zero. Blame Edward Heath, Gatskill, Ramsay McDonald – or whoever you like so long as they are British

  • Kevin Breslin

    It was as wrong 45 years ago as it is today, I’m blaming the British for a British caused problem. I’d blame the Irish for their banking guarantee. How much of those 45 years were justified by the British for taxing a woman for a tampon or a sanitary towel? Should the taxes be paid by the manufacturer in terms of corporation tax and have the costs passed onto the consumer?

    How much British impact do you you think the UK had lobbying for fixed VAT rates in the other 27 countries?

  • Pete

    Is it really much different to taxing us (at a higher rate) for toilet roll?

  • Croiteir

    There is a so much to be angry about in this piece even the FuryLetter would be impressed.
    After reading it I get the impression an accurate précis would be that issues that are claimed to affect women only, (whatever they may be), should get the benefit of taxes raised on goods that are for women only, (whatever they may be). are you then going to departmentalise “male products” for “male issues”, childrens et cetera. (Is this not all rather uncool and regressive as it is not recognising tranny rights anyway?).
    It is mad. As simple as that.

  • chrisjones2

    Isnt that just sexist or paternalistic? Mens shaving supplies are taxed for example (as are women’s). Why SHOULD a sanitary device be so different. What is the logic in NOT taxing it?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well again, this embarrassing situation was started by the British government when they decided that feminine hygiene products were a luxury, and they signed up to rules in a treaty that said that any thing that had 0% VAT they could raise a tax upon to the 5% level would not be able to be reduced to 0% ever again. This is to ensure that British goods aren’t taxed out of the market in other countries and to maintain an open competitive market, and to limit governments skewing the market on imported goods (which may include tampons and sanitary towels) in their own favour.

    Now the UK could unilaterally raise the V.A.T on things like men’s razors to 5%, give the money to testicular cancer sufferers or something, but it fears that it may lose commercial advantages if it does.

    Of course there’s an argument necessity is the mother of invention, and some clever British engineering might be getting round the problem with a brand new reusable product … lead by women.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11648523/Period-nappies-The-only-new-sanitary-product-in-45-years.-Seriously.html

  • Kevin Breslin

    Toilet Roll is equally essential to a man or a woman, many essentials are.
    I guess the rationale is that it is taxed as a “luxury” item, not on the basis of it producing landfill or sewage waste. Food produces sewage waste, greenhouse gasses etc. and that isn’t taxed. Men’s disposable razors probably aren’t taxed but are wasteful.

  • Reader

    Kevin, you keep on using the word luxury. VAT isn’t a tax on luxuries. I pay VAT on shoes.
    And VAT isn’t a landfill or waste tax. I pay VAT on recyclable items.
    You pay VAT on most products and services, with the exception of a few that were zero rated long ago as being deemed sufficiently worthy in the 1970’s.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I think I was trying to make the point, that it wasn’t a landfill tax or something as such you could see a direct argument for.

    I’m not sure what the UK taxation code/culture over what a “non-luxury” item is or specifically a 0% VAT taxed item, items like shoes for example are a good example. The term “luxury” item seems to be an ad hoc one given that certain “essentials” like specifically “bread” are exempt from value added taxation. Yes I realize a lot of British people may not see bread as essential either.