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26 October 2015

How the tampon tax is bringing together feminists and eurosceptic Tories

A proposed amendment to the finance bill has forged an unlikely alliance.

By Stephanie Boland

It’s that time again: the one where the tax on sanitary products is headline news, and everyone can once more be on the look-out for the entertaining sight of certain male politicians trying to wrench the word “tampon” out from between their cripplingly repressed lips.

The problem is longstanding but simple. Tampons, EU regulations rule, are “luxury, non-essential” goods, unlike flapjacks (fair), bingo (okay), Jaffa Cakes (deeply wrong) and “exotic meats” (absurd). Thus they are subject to VAT at a rate of 5 per cent — a fact that feminist campaigners have long taken issue with.

The “tampon tax” comes up so often you might call its appearance cyclical – a particular highlight being alleged adult man and then-Chancellor Gordon Brown being too embarrassed to say the words “sanitary products” in the House of Lords when he cut the tax to 5 per cent in 2000. (“We tried to get him to say ‘sanpro’ . . . but even that didn’t seem to appeal,” an MP told the Guardian).

A petition of over 250,000 names is urging George Osborne to recognise the “essentiality” of tampons. In response, David Cameron has promised to “go away and have a look and get back to [the campaigners]”.

Now, two MPs – Labour’s Paula Sherriff and Alison Thewliss of the SNP – have tabled amendments to the finance bill, demanding respectively that the tax be abolished and that the Treasury publish a report setting out the impact of such a move. “Sanitary protection products are not an optional luxury,” Thewliss told the Guardian, calling it “absurd” that razors, which many men feel it is socially necessary to use regularly, are free from VAT, while tampons, which many women feel it is socially necessary to use regularly, are not. More than 50 Labour MPs have supported Sherriff’s motion.

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The problem, Cameron claims, is that there’s little he can do, with the VAT being an EU – not a national – ruling. As a result, some eurosceptic Tory MPs, already frustrated with what they see as Cameron’s pro-EU stance, are likely to vote for the amendment, meaning there is a chance the Prime Minister will be defeated despite his majority in the Commons.

Bernard Jenkin, a vocal opponent of the “EU superstate” and one of the 11 MPs to support the amendment, has told the Express and Star that he believes many of his fellow Tories “would be prepared to vote with the opposition”.

“This is an example of where the EU has taken over jurisdiction over our tax where it should not have. The UK Parliament should be able to set whatever taxes it wants,” he added.

Ukip is also a vocal opponent of the tax, with its former head of policy Suzanne Evans calling the policy “outdated and outrageous” in the run-up to the election. Any actual change to the rate would require a proposal to the European Commission and the unanimous agreement of the EU’s 28 member states – an unlikely outcome give that France recently turned down a proposal to cut the tax on tampons there.

In practice, then, the most the amendment can do at this stage is secure government support in taking the fight to the EU. In the meantime, feminists and eurospectic Tories can enjoy their unlikely alliance. It just goes to show: the “enemy of mine enemy” principle can take you to strange places.

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