Tampon Tax – Necessity Made Luxury?

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The Gryphon examines the current arguments concerning what is widely regarded as a sexist measure and explores important campaigns, both on a local and national scale, that seek to highlight the ramifications of the tax.

The topical issue resting on the tongues of both politicians and the public at the moment is the controversial debate over the so-called ‘Tampon Tax’. As it stands, there is a 5% VAT tax on all sanitary products. This extra cost that the majority of females must pay on a monthly basis suggests that tampons are a luxury item branded in the same category as other ‘non-essential’ items, leading to the argument over whether sanitary products are a necessity or indeed a luxury.

In the last week, a campaign spanning decades has yet again entered the realms of Parliament. Laura Coryton launched a powerful petition on the website Change.org called ‘Stop Taxing Periods. Period.’. It gained over 125,000 signatures, making it mandatory for Westminster to discuss the petition. Additionally, Paula Sheriff, a Labour MP, stood up in front of Parliament and addressed the taboo issue directly, calling for an amendment to the finance bill that keeps the ‘Tampon Tax’ in place. Lily Rose Nevertheless, her efforts proved fruitless when her proposal was voted down by 305 votes to 287. This rejection has ignited a widespread anger, not just among women but for campaigners who hold that sanitary products are not optional or luxury. In fact, they seek to bring attention to the injustice that the VAT carries – not everyone can afford to pay for a box of bog-standard Tampax. Although it doesn’t sound like much, the cost accumulates every month, with the website ‘Jezebel.com’ stating that the average woman will ‘use more than 11,000 tampons or pads’ in her lifetime.

With insight and compassion, a campaign run by Leeds University Union seeks to highlight the reality that if sanitary items are being treated as a luxury, not everybody has the purchasing power to afford them. In fact, for homeless people, it can be a real struggle to balance the costs of buying tampons with finding to money for food. The ‘Tampons Don’t Grow on Trees’ campaign, as part of the University’s ‘Homelessness week’, highlights the humiliation experienced by women in poverty who sometimes have to sacrifice basic hygiene requirements to avoid going hungry. This is also an irrefutable issue for the vulnerable young girls and women that have come to the U.K. as the refugee crisis persists. Leeds University has called for donations of sanitary products, which will be passed on to homeless and refugee charities in Leeds. The Hyde Park and Woodhouse Ward in which the University is situated is actually one of the most deprived areas in the city. Already, the Essentials Store on Campus stocks sanitary products without the addition of 5% VAT, a victory from campaign leader and Welfare Officer Freya Govus last year.

The Gryphon spoke to Freya about her on-going campaigning:

“In our student shop we do not make any profit from periods – all sanitary products are sold at cost price. By launching ‘Tampons Don’t Grow On Trees’ during Homelessness Week, I hope to raise awareness of the cost and indignity of the tampon tax and encourage students and the general public to donate products or cash to support this important message.”

A number of collection points for sanitary items have been set up around University, with students and the greater public being urged to donate whatever they can give.

So why can’t, or won’t, the government change their response to the issue? Some critics argue that at present, by maintaining the VAT charge, the government are simply making money at the expense of discrimination against female needs. The 5% charge on sanitary products is part of EU legislation, a three-tier system of indirect taxation (a consumer tax paid on goods and services as opposed to direct tax taken from people’s incomes). Whilst 20% is charged for most products, the 5% charge acts a reduced rate. However, the government often justifies the Tampon Tax by pointing out that it is actually the lowest rate of VAT that can be added to a product and is also applied to items such as child car seats, home energy and things for helping quitting smoking.

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Nevertheless, as stated on the gov.uk website, plenty of goods are exempt from taxation. These items are branded as a necessity and range from most children’s clothes, non-luxury food items and books to, more contentiously, lottery tickets and magazine sales. This inevitably raises the argument over what is more important: is a magazine more essential than a sanitary towel? Or is a crocodile steak more necessary than a tampon? What emerges is a world of loopholes and disparities, perfectly illustrated by the 1991 VAT tribunal, ‘McVitie’s vs. HRMC’. Battling against the tax authority, there was a dispute over whether the Jaffa Cake is in fact a chocolate-covered biscuit, which is a taxable luxury, or a cake which is not; the Jaffa Cake was not made subject to VAT as it was deemed to be a cake.

The defence of David Cameron and the government is that although they see the importance in addressing the Tampon Tax and working towards a commitment of abolishing it, it would be a huge challenge to change the VAT legislation in terms of the EU because to do so would require the assent of all 28 member states. Furthermore, they argue that at present the tax is at the lowest possible rate that EU law permits. The 5% U.K. VAT reduced rate appears much smaller in comparison to the 18% reduced rate of Hungary, for example. Nevertheless, much of the public remain unsympathetic with the government’s stance: the powerful language on the Change.org online campaign to ‘Stop taxing periods’ overflows with disgust about the government’s failure to recognise and fight for the needs of society as a whole. Laura Coryton writes: ‘Our Government capitalises on misogynist discourse and period shame that has caused us to fear our own menstrual cycles. It’s a double-edged sword that cuts women on both sides’.

The Tampon Tax is not just a women’s issue. It is a fundamental failure of society which has wider implications of gender discrimination and blatant inequality. It can be questioned why an incontinence pad is free from tax whilst a sanitary towel, almost identical in appearance, comes with an extra charge. This only fuels the sentiment that we are living in and being governed by a ‘man’s world’. The Gryphon spoke to students Sophie Roberts and Ele Johnston, who said about the tax: “it’s pretty sexist. Why are women penalised for having a period?”

Jamie Montgomery, a first year Geography student, stated:

“Tampons are a necessity. However much the government wants to find ways of raising tax revenue, they should be looking at direct tax on incomes rather than increasing prices on consumer items.”

As the LUU’s ‘Tampons Don’t Grow on Trees’ campaign aims to show, this measure hits those who are vulnerable and in poverty the hardest. After the rejection in parliament over Laura Sherriff’s proposed amendment to the finance bill, what will result from the efforts of campaigners? The government has agreed to attempt to discuss the issue with the EU commission under Treasury Minister, David Gauke. This can also be seen as a significant victory for long-standing campaigns, with small steps being taken towards getting the EU to recognise the efforts of their petitioning and the injustice of the tax. But some may argue that if politicians were adamant about its abolition, they would have voted for the amendment and issued a report on the VAT rate. In light of this, at least we can take solace in the fact that a huge amount of awareness has been generated as a result of recent campaigning. Next year, the European Commission intends to publish a review of VAT rates, which could finally lead to the eventual scrapping of the Tampon Tax.

Meenakshi Parmar

Images: Lily Rose Thomas, @AllyKatte

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