Sanitary towels and tampons are taxed in the UK at 5% due to European regulations on Value Added Tax. People are angry and kind of amused about it. There are campaigns to end this tax on women all over the world.
People are angry because it is a tax that only women have to pay, and they’re paying it for something they can’t exactly opt out of.
A survey of over 2,000 women estimated that the average woman will spend £18,450 on her period in her lifetime. The change.org campaign to #EndTamponTax calculates that £922 of that £18K will go directly to the taxman. We should point out, the figure of £922 quoted by the campaign covers the tax we pay on all sorts of products other than sanitary products that ladies typically buy during the time of the month – like new underwear, painkillers and comfort foods. If you look only at the tax paid on sanitary products, the figure comes to £292.50 paid in tax on periods over a lifetime. Whatever the amount, it is a fee charged solely to women for something that occurs naturally and unstoppably. The UK Treasury raises £15 million a year from this tax.
It is being reported that sanitary products (including these new-fangled menstrual cups they have now) are taxed in this way because they are classed as “luxury, non-essential goods” while the list of things not classed as “luxury” goods includes helicopters and exotic meats. This is not quite accurate, as there is no such thing as a “luxury, non-essential” classification when it comes to Value Added Tax (VAT). Nevertheless, this is how the debate is being talked about in Parliament. It is broadly along the lines of essential and non-essential that these VAT regulations work, for example with medicines and most foods getting the 0% VAT rate. Tax is complicated, however, and how a particular good is rated can sometimes seem arbitrary.
MPs recently voted against an amendment that simply asked the government to consider what it would be like to get rid of the tax. A promise was made by a UK Treasury minister, though, to raise the issue with the European Commission. His assistant also promised to raise the issue with his cat… we’re not holding our breath.
People have been fighting against this tax on women for ages, since Jeremy Paxman was a young whippersnapper.
This is because the cost of having a mature and not pregnant uterus used to be a lot higher in the UK.
The tampon (or sanitary) tax was introduced at 17.5% in 1973 when the UK joined the Common Market, which was on the way to becoming the European Union that we know today. The EU likes to harmonise taxes across its member countries. This is an important part of how free trade works within the common market. The idea is that it puts everyone on an equal playing field.
This tax rate was lowered by UK parliament to 5% in 2000. The same reduced rate was applied to condoms and other contraceptives in 2006, just bee-tee-dubs.
EU regulation means it will be tough going to get a 0% tax rate on sanitary products. It would take an initiative from the EU Commission itself (my my) and unanimous agreement from all 28 member states.
Recent goings on in France make this look unlikely, where there is still a 20% tax rate on their pads and ‘pons. French MPs recently voted against reducing it to 5.5%, with the government saying it would lose them 55 million euros (£40m) in tax receipts. Put that in your er, pipe, and, well don’t smoke it, but…
One campaign has been successful though – Canada seems to have a lot going for it right now.
Eurosceptics – who generally feel like the EU has too much say over how Britain is governed – and feminists have probably never had such a clear goal in common. The two are now teaming up against these EU regulations.
Chancellor George Osborne (the guy in charge of all the cash) announced in his November spending review that:
“300,000 people have signed a petition arguing that no VAT should be charged on sanitary products. We already charge the lowest 5% rate allowable under European law and we’re committed to getting the EU rules changed.
“Until that happens, I’m going to use the £15m a year raised from the Tampon Tax to fund women’s health and support charities. The first £5m will be distributed between the Eve Appeal, SafeLives and Women’s Aid, and The Haven – and I invite bids from other such good causes.”
So he says the government are serious about changing the EU rules of taxing tampons, but for now the £15 million raised by the tax will pay for women’s cancer charities and domestic abuse charities.
On the one hand, it’s a nice gesture to be going on with until the EU rules are changed. You could see this as a mandatory donation to a worthy cause, rather than a tax.
On the other hand, people including Holly Baxter of the Independent are bitter that “women are going to pay for their own domestic violence and rape crisis through the tampon tax.”
Baxter goes on to point out that women’s charities have already been the target of government cuts: “All those cuts have been pretty hard on vulnerable women – domestic violence shelters have closed, Britain has fallen to 26th place on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, the pay gap remains stubbornly in place and charities such as Rape Crisis have continually warned that women are bearing the brunt of austerity measures.”
The argument is that it’s more unfair that this tax that women should not have to pay in the first place will now be used to fund important charities at no extra cost to the state or to men. We should point out that men are also users of domestic violence and rape charities.
As Sophie Wilkinson from The Debrief points out, women are now caught up in the dilemma of demanding an end to the Tampon Tax, all the while knowing that they are cutting off funding for women’s charities.
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