Sanitary products: the great VAT debate

Here’s a teaser: what do the following have in common? Lentils, sewer cleaning and motorcycle helmets?

feminine hygiene - beauty treatment - tampons and sanitary towelsClever you if you recognised items from the VAT zero rate list1. But why am I drawing your attention to the items on which we pay VAT?

Well, some of you may be aware that recently there has been a lot of publicity, supported by a campaign mounted by Laura Coryton2, about paying VAT on sanitary products.

Tampons seem to be the most popular item mentioned in the media, but sanitary towels, panty liners and maternity pads are all part of the same group.

A recent vote in Parliament rejected the proposal that sanitary products be VAT zero rated by 305 votes to 287. Although this will now go to the European Commission, we won’t be holding our collective breath because, in order for the rate to be changed, all 28 member states need to vote unanimously.

Politically, I would hazard a guess that unanimity will not be on the agenda as we don’t have the support of all the states. Plus, France has recently voted against a similar motion, so logically we might expect them to be against Britain – and it only takes one no vote.

In the European Community, I believe only Ireland has no VAT on sanitary products – this was already in place before joining the EU – and some countries charge VAT at 20%.

When Britain joined the then Common Market in 1973, VAT was introduced at a rate of 17.5%. This was a tax that was placed on luxuries. As sanitary products were deemed ‘luxuries’ the full amount of VAT was applied to them.

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Due to lobbying by Labour MP Dawn Primarolo, this was then dropped to 5% by Gordon Brown in 2001 – the least amount that could be charged without going to the European Commission and asking for a reduction.

What is a luxury?

The dictionary definition is ‘a state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense.’

Synonyms are quoted as ‘opulence, sumptuousness, richness, costliness, grandeur, splendour, magnificence, lavishness’.

I’m not sure that any of us would apply any of those nouns to tampons or a sanitary towel, let alone a maternity pad!

Although what some of us pay in order to have safe sanitary protection not made from toxic materials can sometimes feel as though it involves ‘great expense’.

Gas and electricity are not luxuries, but they attract VAT. As do exotic meats, including horse.

What’s the alternative?

Bridget Christie in The Guardian3 suggests that until the VAT is lifted we use tax-exempt products to stem the flow.

How long would a Jaffa Cake last, I wonder? Or should we go back to ‘being on the rag’ and rip up old babygros to use?

Perhaps we should even use incontinence pads – which are zero rated – despite the bulge in our pants and the feeling that we have a pillow between our thighs?

The UN Human Rights Office says that we all have a right to human dignity. But there is nothing dignified about having to mend and make do when we are dealing with what is, after all, a fact of life.

Women menstruate. Most every month.

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We all need to feel comfortable and safe at this time. Able to sit confidently on a seat in public transport, not worrying that the bulky outline in our trousers is an immediate giveaway – and here we are also considering those women who are transgender, who are even less likely to want to be drawing attention to something that is an obvious indicator of the sex they do not feel to be.

Sanitary products are a sexual health necessity. Okay, so tax wise, they may not cost a lot over the year. It has been suggested that, individually, each woman is paying on average, about £3 a year in VAT.

But for me, the question is not ‘How much?’ but ‘Why?’

Due to scientific advances, menstruation is now no longer unavoidable. Women can use certain types of contraception – the pill or injections – to arrange not to have periods.

And these methods are free. Shocking as it may sound, some women are apparently opting not to bleed because it saves money.

Is there a case for sanitary products to be free as well? Or surely, at the very least, zero VAT rated?

Find out more…




About Jacqueline Seddon

I was born in Oxford, have lived in 36 houses (not all in the UK) and I suppose you could say I’ve learned a lot in the university of life - although Janey Lee Grace once told me that that was not a very original thing to say. Now I’m settled in Nottingham – until the next move? - where I work as a therapist. See my website for more details about what I do.