THE BLOG

VAT Is a Feminist Issue

08/03/2016 12:34 GMT | Updated 08/03/2017 10:12 GMT

It's a bloody outrage. European women are paying tax on products they need to use every month when they have their period. This is why, inspired by the End Tampon Tax campaign, I am using International Women's Day to launch a campaign at EU level for a VAT exemption on sanitary products.

Many will be aware of Laura Coryton's petition which has been signed by over 300,000 women and men to demand that the Treasury axe an 'outdated and overtly sexist tax'.

VAT is a sales tax charged at different rates depending on how essential products are deemed to be. Many items considered essential are either zero rated or exempted. Food products are an obvious case in point, although the list also includes baby clothes, cycle helmets and incontinence pads. Surely tampons, sanitary towels and mooncups should also be considered as essential purchases? Or is the government suggesting that women choose to have periods or should manage them without sanitary products?

As well as exemptions and zero-rated tax, there is also a reduced VAT rate on certain products. When Britain first joined the EU in 1973, the then Labour government agreed to a 17.5% VAT rate on such products. Following extensive lobbying by Labour MP Dawn Primarolo in 2000, this was eventually reduced to 5%.

The Tories have always sought to absolve themselves of responsibility for the tax on sanitary products by waving their arms in the direction of Brussels. It is true that the VAT Directive only allows the UK to lower the VAT rate to 5%, not to 0%.

However, when the VAT Directive was last negotiated in Brussels in 1991, the UK Tory government asked for a long list of exemptions. Crucially this did not include sanitary products, even though the EU Commission has always said it would be 'perfectly reasonable' for the tampon tax to form part of the negotiation with Britain.

Furthermore, an attempt by Labour to amend last autumn's finance Bill, which would have forced the government to open negotiations with the EU on exempting sanitary products, was defeated. Just three Tory MPs supported the amendment. This is one of many examples where national government inaction is conveniently blamed on the EU.

But a new window of opportunity has opened: the VAT Directive is going to be changed. The Commission is soon to release an Action Plan and national governments, businesses and the public will be consulted. The review will consider whether to grant national governments greater autonomy in rate-setting and whether to allow for exemptions, zero rates and super-reduced rates in a revised VAT regime.

As I will be working on the VAT review as part of my role on the Economics Committee, there is a real chance to build renewed momentum behind a Europe-wide VAT exemption for tampons, towels and mooncups. However, such an agreement will require the support of all 28 EU member states. So now is the time to support my efforts and shout out for bleedin' change!

Cashing in on women's menstrual cycles is just one way in which tax systems around the world discriminate against women. VAT is being used to bolster government revenues that have been lost as a result of globalisation and individual and corporate tax dodging. Men are more likely to accumulate wealth, own property, and be CEOs and shareholders, so any preferential tax treatment of capital disproportionately favours men.

A further response by governments to reduced tax revenues is of course to implement cuts to the public sector and public services, which evidence suggests impacts disproportionally on women.

The theme of this year's International Women's Day is gender parity. It is clear that ensuring a Europe-wide VAT exemption on sanitary products and creating a 'gender sensitive' taxation system is an important step to achieving such parity.