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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Tue 03-Nov-15 12:02:57

Guest post: Tampon tax - "We don't want tea and sympathy - we want action"

The levy on sanitary products is a 'Vagina Added Tax' argues Labour MP Paula Sherriff - and it needs to end

Paula Sherriff

Labour MP for Dewsbury

Posted on: Tue 03-Nov-15 12:02:57


Lead photo

"The reality is that mums will have to decide between buying dinner for their kids, or tampons."

According to government guidelines, crocodile steaks are not a 'luxury'. Neither are edible cake decorations, pistachios or Jaffa Cakes: all are VAT free. Tampons and sanitary towels, on the other hand, are considered 'non-essential', which is why we currently pay five percent tax on them. Frankly, it's absurd.

It's time to end the tax on female sanitary products, once and for all. Periods aren't only uncomfortable, painful and inconvenient, they're also expensive. The levy on sanitary products is a tax on women: a Vagina Added Tax. Tampons, towels, Mooncups, panty liners - whatever you use, it's an inescapable outlay.

The tampon tax is also a very real barrier to accessing sanitary products for many women. Homelessness is on the rise - and for women without ready access to a toilet or bathroom, periods are already an awful experience. I've spoken to many women unable to afford sanitary products, and they told me of the indignity and humiliation of begging for and borrowing supplies, or of taking the pill continuously to delay their period indefinitely. For women like this, the VAT on tampons and towels adds insult to injury and with impending tax credit cuts, the situation is likely to get worse. The grim reality is that many mums will have to decide between buying dinner for their kids, or tampons. Of course, this is something that affects children too. Girls as young as nine are starting their periods and sanitary products designed to cater for the younger market are often more expensive.

I've spoken to many women unable to afford sanitary products. They told me of the indignity and humiliation of begging for and borrowing supplies. For women like this, VAT adds insult to injury.

The government have said they are 'sympathetic' about this issue, but British women don't want tea, sympathy and platitudes - we want action. This is why I tabled an amendment calling on the government to renegotiate the VAT levy on feminine hygiene products as part of their EU reform negotiations. The amendment would have required George Osborne to publish a strategy for negotiating an exemption for sanitary products within three months. The government should be using chances to obtain genuine reform that would benefit women and girls across Britain and indeed, the rest of Europe.

We had an opportunity to take a significant step forward for women last Monday when MPs voted on the move. To me, this is an issue which should have transcended party politics, and the government should have grabbed that opportunity with both hands.

It was gut-wrenching to see the vast majority of Tory MPs vote against the amendment, especially the women. However, at the same time it was refreshing to hear such debate being carried out in the Commons. The electorate want to see a more representative parliament that isn't afraid to tackle issues head on, and 99% of the feedback I have received has been positive. I've personally suffered with problem periods for years, so much so that I have had to have surgery. Any move to destigmatise issues such as this is positive and welcome.

This is not the end of the fight. I am applying for a Backbench Business Debate to debate this issue further and also hope to meet some of my European counterparts campaigning for a fairer deal for women. I'm determined to see this through, make a difference and ultimately get this unfair and unjust tax scrapped - period.

By Paula Sherriff

Twitter: @paulasherriff

scaevola Tue 03-Nov-15 14:36:15

VAT isn't a luxury tax. It's a consumption tax. Set but the EU, it's not meant to be up for renegotiation at all, ever. But if all member states agreed, it could be. But then any/all changes require unanimity, which will be an extremely lengthy process.

And once re-opened, other changes could be tabled. As some EU member states want to scrap exemptions completely, the risk of unintended consequences is high.

I think it is utterly wrong to tie this in to EU reform.

Of course, if you want to see the end of VAT as a general consumption tax, and replace it with a Westminster-decided luxury tax, there is a party which had it as a manifesto pledge. UKIP.

captainproton Tue 03-Nov-15 16:01:13

Well there is a referendum coming up next year or so. I hope you vote to leave The EU because in all honesty, if you care that much (and I do), you will bring power back from Brussels.

If you vote to stay in then you are a Turkey voting for Christmas. Because I bet I will have gone through the menopause before this changes, and I'm 33.

And voting to leave is not a vote for UKIP (shudder), it's about having a democraticly elected government deciding our laws/taxes and not some pen pusher that no one ever voted for.

MinesAPintOfTea Tue 03-Nov-15 17:35:59

Why now? Are you quietly for the leave EU campaign?

Abbaforever Tue 03-Nov-15 21:53:54

It was a democratically elected government that decided what level of VAT to apply to sanitary products in 1973 when VAT was introduced. As pp has said, VAT is not a tax on luxuries it is a basic sales tax. Prior to our entry to the EEC, as it was then, the UK govt of the day made the choice to tax some items at zero % rather than the standard rate of 10%. That sanitary products were not included in the zero rate was undoubtedly because the administrators (Customs & Excise at the time) and the govt were overwhelmingly male. But that doesn't alter the fact that the UK made its own choice in the matter.
That the likes of Jaffa cakes are always cited as examples to illustrate the "luxury" argument is specious, these are items categorised by manufacturers as foodstuffs purely as a tax avoidance measure. They ought by rights to be taxable and are used to manipulate the definition

noddingoff Tue 03-Nov-15 22:48:16

OK so the UK government way back when decided not to charge VAT on sanitary products at 0%. Why can't they change their minds? Because it's not allowed. Well why don't they just do it and double dare Brussels to sue them?
Seriously, what group of people is going to bring a court case (or however the EU rules are enforced) demanding tax on tampons?
What unintended consequences would there be? Smuggling of slightly cheaper products across the border into the Republic of Ireland, for example? I doubt whether it would be a big problem and if it was, the Irish government would just have to get its shit together and reduce....oh hang on a minute. I just looked it up. Apparently the Irish government have set their rate of VAT on sanitary products at 0%. If they can do it, why can't we?

MoriartyIsMyAngel Tue 03-Nov-15 22:51:59

But the tax has dropped hasn't it, so it's possible somehow? I believe it was 17.5% at one point, and now it's 5%? (Just from memory, sorry if I'm wrong, can't google right now.)

I wonder what would happen if some brave volunteers chose not to use their non-essential sanitary protection for one period? A couple of hundred women leaving blood stains everywhere they sat for 3-4 days. I assume it wouldn't be against the law, not if sanpro is non-essential...

noddingoff Tue 03-Nov-15 22:59:31

OK, apparently it's because the Irish sensibly zero-rated tampons before the minimum 5% rule was brought in. I still think the UK should be bold and go ahead and tell the EU to shove its rule up its arse as far as tampon VAT is concerned. If any of the member states object we can offer to go outside and fight them in the carpark.

VestalVirgin Tue 03-Nov-15 23:06:17

@Abbaforever: One of the problems of democracy is that it is not really fair. It allows men to vote on what women should do with our bodies, and heterosexuals to vote on what homosexuals should do with their lives.
Therefore, I do not consider the fact that it was a democratic decision an argument in favour.

@Moriarty: Great idea. The world has not seen feminist protest on that scale since the suffragettes, I'd wager.
There'd have to be some couple hundred thousand supporters in case the brave volunteers are sued for ruining the seats in public buses, though.

TheLynchpin Wed 04-Nov-15 00:15:22

Out of curiosity, can anyone tell me how much the 5% VAT equates to every year for the average adult female?

Please do correct me if I'm wrong but I'd have thought there'd be ore pertinent things to be concerned about.

It's obviously a ridiculous and outdated law, but unfortunately as we've found it's very very difficult to get rid of - we'd have done so long before now if it were an easy process.

AuntieStella Wed 04-Nov-15 07:26:26

"I wonder what would happen if some brave volunteers chose not to use their non-essential sanitary protection for one period?"

Tha same as if they went naked? Clothes are subject to VAT. It's not connected with whether an item is essential. For example, all food is VAT-able, and UK is relying on legacy arrangements to zero basic foodstuffs.

Penfold007 Wed 04-Nov-15 08:45:31

VAT is a purchase tax. The 5% rate applies to several things including sanitary protection, condoms and the morning after pill. Contraception can be provided free of charge from several locations, why not also provide free sanitary protection at these locations?

dansmum Wed 04-Nov-15 13:13:16

20% off sanitary products over the 45 years of menstruation most women have is a significant sum. Would you have your wife or daughter 'ration' their sanitary products ( ie wear them for longer than recommended between changing them to make the products last longer between changes) this is both unsafe medically and degrading. It is also a reality for very many women struggling to balance the family budget.mums who will put their family food bill ahead of their own needs.this IS a reality for many working mums, like me.

SilverdaleGlen Wed 04-Nov-15 14:55:19

Oh please! Tampons can be purchased for about 88p a box 5% of that is 4.4p.

Even at 2 boxes a month that's PS47.52 over 45 years saving.

Even if you buy super expensive branded tampax pearl 2 boxes a month it makes a 45 year cost of a whopping PS124 in VAT.

This is NOT the issue we should be focusing on in EU negotiations. It's designed to fill the news with hyperbole and hotair headlines to detract from real issues. If THIS is something we claim as a "win" in negotiating power back from Brussels we women should shake our heads in shame for being hoodwinked.

And yes you could claim it's a "womens rights" issue. But is it honestly the most pressing one we need to be expending energy on?

Put your time behind the closure of womens refuges, the growth of FGM, the lack of testing for GBS killing babies unnecessarily every year, the unequal pay!

Abbaforever Wed 04-Nov-15 20:16:14

Nodding off - the unintended consequences are not about petty smuggling. Newer joiners to the EU weren't allowed to zero rate anything. We have food, children's clothes, books, newspapers etc at zero rate. Opening up the argument over sanpro risks all those far more expensive and equally "essential" items to being challenged and having the zero rate taken away. By all means open up the debate, but do so in the full knowledge of what might happen and don't complain when it goes wrong.

My point about democratically elected was not that it makes it right, merely that we put accountability where it belongs in in the UK and not with the EU. They may be responsible for many things but not this one.

scaevola Thu 05-Nov-15 06:42:31

Yes, the risk of unintended consequences is that if VAT is opened for renegotiation, we risk losing the zero rating completely, as it is unpopular with many, and most members do not have it.

Currently zero rated in UK (not exempt, most other EU members have VAT on them) are basic foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, water supply, products for people with disabilities, many forms of transport, books/newspapers/magazines, children's clothes and footwear, takeaway food, some items relating to buildings.

JoolsM72 Thu 05-Nov-15 17:36:35

This is such nonsense. The few pence of tax on a box of tampons is not the difference between women on low incomes choosing to buy them or feed their children. This campaign is a total waste of energy. These efforts should be funnelled towards addressing issues that will make a real and significant difference to women. This kind of thing makes feminism look like a ridiculous cause.

noddingoff Thu 05-Nov-15 22:20:21

OK fair enough Abba and scaevola, I can see how countries who aren't allowed any zero rated goods and services would be pissed off, fair's fair. I am quite ignorant of the EU rules and thought it was just for simple things like reduced/abolished import taxes between the trading partners and other stuff anyone can see the point of, like rules to protect the welfare of workers, animals and the environment so nobody can gain a competitive trading advantage by having shitty working practices, with a bit of trivia thrown in (like the "Brussels wants to take away our bendy bananas" stories beloved of the Daily Mail). I didn't realise that some of the VAT gathered up goes to fund the EU system itself, which makes sense as it seems to be a good "each according to his means" way of paying for the EU.

So you said according to the rules every member state would have to agree if they wanted to zero rate tampons or bog roll or HobNobs or whatever. Easy. But I suppose the next question is, right kids, you want zero rated tampons - that means the EU's VAT share of all the Tampax flogged in all the member states per year is gone, so you can only have a zero rate for this if you can all agree what to charge extra on to make up the shortfall, then it descends into a fight and they all get paid to argue and nothing gets decided. Is this the gist of it or I am getting it wrong?

scaevola Fri 06-Nov-15 08:04:12

It's a bit more than that, noddingoff

VAT is a closed issue. As things stand, it cannot be reopened, and member states cannot make changes outside the rules. So no, it's not as simple as getting everyone to agree to re-rate a specific category of item.

So you have to start by reopening an EU closed issue and that in itself would be a major negotiation. It's up there on the same level as treaty change in difficulty, and I think it's totally unprecedented.

Only if that succeeded, could talks on the future of VAT start. And every member could then put things on the table. So it wouldn't really be about UK request to zero rate sanpro. It'll be about the whole future of the zero rate.

Personally, I think that attempting to do this would tie up far too much political and eurocratic time, and eat up a great deal of goodwill, and complicate negotiations over reform of the EU. Though it does seem that many MQPs think differently and it is in the UK interest to reform VAT.

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