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 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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