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Following on from Rebecca Ryan’s IWD Blog regarding period poverty (IWD: We need to talk about periods *blush*) last week, highlighting the need for social change in terms of the taboo around discussing women’s periods, it is also important to draw attention to another long overdue change in relation to periods and sanitary products; the way in which they are taxed.
The ‘tampon tax’ is the (affectionate) name given to the sales tax applied to all sanitary protection products. In many counties (including all EU member states), sales tax is referred to as value-added tax, or VAT. In the UK, sanitary products currently attract VAT at a rate of 5%, and the UK government advises that this cannot be reduced to 0% without the consent of the remaining 27 EU member states. This is because the EU wants to ensure that it controls the level at which VAT is applied to goods and services in each EU country so that in a single market, countries cannot simply reduce VAT to zero on lots of products to attract custom from neighbouring EU citizens, who might hop across the border to take advantage of lower prices. Although in Ireland, no VAT is applied to sanitary towels, tampons or panty liners because this rate was in place before the EU imposed minimum rates.
The UK government confirmed in October 2015, that it would seek a change in EU law that would allow each member state to set its own rate of VAT for sanitary products as part of a wider review of EU tax rates which was to be undertaken by the European Commission in 2016. In March 2016, the European Council confirmed that as part of the Commission’s initiative, it would review proposals for increased flexibility for member states to reduce VAT on sanitary products. Two years later, there has been no change in the law.
I have read opinion pieces by people who think that ‘angry feminists’ who are vocal about this issue should step down from their soap box because the extra cost per year to the average UK woman of child bearing age, is negligible. However the additional cost does make a difference to lower income households, particularly when changes to benefits and tax credits for working-age families are currently squeezing household income even further. It also impacts young girls funding their own sanitary product purchases, given the lower minimum wage for younger workers, and the fact that most girls start having periods at around 12 years old.
The tampon tax has been called a ‘tax on gender’ because it so clearly puts women at an unfair financial disadvantage (even more of a kick in the teeth when you consider that in April 2017, men in the UK earned 18.4% more than women). It is also simply baffling that products such as Jaffa Cakes and toffee apples are zero-rated (so, no VAT is applied), whereas sanitary products are viewed as ‘non-essential luxury items’ and so are taxed accordingly. Personally, I don’t even like toffee apples but would certainly consider them a luxury compared to stocking up on tampons every month (I would also suggest that anyone who’s ever had a period would agree, there is nothing luxurious about it).
From a personal perspective, my main problem with this tax is simply that this issue has been raised time and time again and, whilst there has been some progress, it has been painfully slow moving. I remember first reading about taxes on sanitary products in Shout Magazine as a young teenager in the late 90s, and I was completely outraged. At that time, sanitary products attracted VAT at a rate of 17.5%, which was the same as most other products. In January 2001, then Chancellor Gordon Brown reduced the rate of VAT applied to sanitary products to the lowest it could be within the limitations of EU law, to the current rate of 5%. That was 17 years ago and since then, progress seems to have stalled.
It is good that the rate of VAT applied to sanitary products in the UK has come down significantly since I was an angry teenager rather than simply an ‘angry feminist’, but the real embarrassment around periods is that we are still having this discussion today. I can’t help but wonder whether, if women were more equally represented within our legislature (both in the UK and the EU) we would still find ourselves having to shout about it.
There have been some efforts in the UK to address this ‘tax on gender’. A number of larger supermarkets including Waitrose, Tesco and The Co-op have volunteered to shoulder the sales tax burden on sanitary products themselves, rather than pass it on to the consumer. As heart-warming as this obviously is, it’s also great PR for those supermarkets and one does have to consider the impact on smaller retailers, who simply cannot afford to do the same.
The UK government has also found an innovative way to approach the tampon tax; through the Tampon Tax Fund. The Tampon Tax Fund (announced by then Chancellor George Osborne in his 2015 Autumn Statement) seeks to allocate the £15m raised from VAT on sanitary products to projects that improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls. The 2018/19 funding round, invites “charitable, benevolent and philanthropic organisations from across the UK, to apply for funding within one of three categories; violence against women and girls, mental health and wellbeing, and a general programme” . This well intentioned move by the government is also not without its controversies. Spending money on academic research, core costs and raising awareness is not permitted, which has attracted some criticism. In 2017 it was also revealed that £250,000 of the Tampon Tax Fund was given to Life; a charity that campaigns against abortion, a move which was heavily criticised.
I have to admit, when I first decided to write my IWD blog about the rate of VAT applied to sanitary products, I was very much ready to write something heated and outraged; a scathing attack on our lawmakers who have refused to see this as an important concern. However, having researched the issue in more detail, I can understand why, from a legal perspective, it is difficult to reduce the rate of VAT in the UK. I can also appreciate the thinking behind the Tampon Tax Fund and the actions of some supermarkets.
Given that reducing sales tax on sanitary products is stalling at an EU level, leaving the EU could solve the issue within the UK. UKIP campaigned on this issue in the lead up to the 2016 EU referendum. However, whilst leaving the EU would free the UK government to immediately reduce VAT to 0%, I believe there must be a far less disruptive and more ‘common sense’ solution.
Elsewhere in the world, Kenya was the first country to abolish sales tax on menstrual products in 2004, Canada abolished tampon tax in mid-2015 and currently nine states in the US have specifically exempted feminine hygiene products from sales tax.
Progress is therefore being made, it is just moving at a snail's pace and personally, I cannot understand why reducing sales tax to 0% on an essential female product is still so difficult to achieve. Having a period every month for 40 years is not some wonderfully lavish experience that we choose to treat ourselves to with luxurious tampons and sanitary towels – these are basic, fundamental products that are absolutely essential for our hygiene and wellbeing and should not attract any sales tax, in accordance with other essential items. It really is that simple. Toffee apple, anyone?
IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.
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