What do crocodile meat, edible sugar flowers, flapjacks and helicopters all have in common? These are all items that Chancellor George Osborne and the UK Government believe are more essential than female sanitary products. You know - tampons and sanitary towels - those pesky 'luxury' hygiene products that stop half the population from bleeding all over the place as they go about their business, one week out of every four? That's right - as if women aren't patronised enough by marketing campaigns filled with grinning women in tiny white shorts doing handstands whilst having their period, we're also taxed for the 'luxury' of menstruating.
Ex Labour MP Dawn Primaloro led a successful campaign in 2000, which seen 'tampon tax' reduced from 17.5% to 5%. Whilst massively celebrated at the time, a new generation of equality campaigners are calling for further action.
It's estimated that the average woman spends £500 a year on sanitary products - that's £18,000 across our lifetime - before the menopausal fun-times set in. That equates to just under £1,000 extra for the taxman for every woman in the UK. The old adage "What more do you want from us, blood?" sits wryly on my tongue, without even touching on the fact that women are already on the back foot financially, short-changed by the gender pay gap.
The 5% VAT rate on tampons is opposed by a 250,000-strong petition that's growing momentum daily, as campaigners oppose essential sanitary products being classed as a luxury, taxable item. Most goods in the UK incur a 20% VAT rate, but this can be reduced to as little as a zero rate for essential items. Sanitary products currently incur a 5% VAT from HMRC, by being labelled as a non-essential sexual health product and luxury item, yet the fore-mentioned flapjacks and helicopters - and other essentials like food, drink, and children's clothes - benefit from zero tax status. Real sexual health items like condoms and contraceptive are (quite rightly so) available for free from the NHS.
UK MPs this week rejected an attempt to get rid of the 'tampon tax' as 305 members - an alarming number of them female - voted against a motion tabled by Labour MP Paula Sheriff to amend the finance bill, which would allow the Government to eliminate the tax on essential sanitary products.
However, cross party support for the campaign from the 287 MPs who voted in favour of the motion highlights a mandate for change. SNP have labelled the tax 'a long withdstanding failure in our tax system', with MP for Glasgow Central, Alison Thewliss saying: "It is absurd that while men's razors and children's nappies, and even products like Jaffa Cakes, exotic meats and edible cake decorations are free from VAT, women are still having to pay additional costs on what is already an expensive yet vital product."
Laura Coryton, who started the change.org petition, said: "Periods are no luxury. You can 'opt-in' to extravagance. You cannot choose to menstruate. Despite this, a whole heap of disadvantages have been created for those who do. Not using sanitary products can lead to health risks, jeopardise maintaining a normal, professional or personal life, and result in public ridicule. Equally, by using sanitary products, our Government capitalises on misogynist discourse and period shame that has caused us to fear our own menstrual cycles."
Canadian women are leading the way in abolishing tax on sanitary products. Sales of tampons, menstrual cups and sanitary towels made after 1st July 2015 are except from goods and service tax, following a similar campaign to Coryton's. The French parliament recently threw out a bid by socialist MPs to cut tax on sanitary products from 20 per cent to 5.5 per cent, with the Paris government arguing it would have cost it £40m in lost revenues. A spokesperson for UK Government said that David Cameron is said to be sympathetic to the issue and understands the concerns that are being expressed. On behalf of tampon tax campaigners and the 32.2 million women in the UK who are sick of platitudes, I say, it's not good enough David, period.