A fortnight ago, there was a vote in the House of Commons on a Labour amendment that would have required the Chancellor, George Osborne, to have published a strategy to negotiate a tax exemption for sanitary products with the EU. The amendment was defeated by 305 votes to 287, although the government has pledged to take-up the issue with the EU Commission. Sanitary products are currently classed as ‘luxury’ items and are subject to a 5% tax based on European legislation.
The parties who voted against the amendment were the Conservatives (except three who broke whip) and two Ulster Unionist MPs. Labour, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, SDLP, Greens, UKIP and an independent all voted in favour of the amendment. The government argued that the amendment was not achievable, largely because a tax exemption would require the agreement of every single EU member.
Yet, ignoring politics and focusing on what is right, I do not see how sanitary products can legitimately be treated and taxed as luxury items. My period is not a luxury; it is a biological necessity. The survival of our species depends on this natural process that over 50% of the world’s population is forced to endure. This fact needs to be appreciated and respected by law-makers, not just in this country but across the world. By classing tampons as luxury items, governments are suggesting that women have a choice in the matter.
My personal objection to the ‘tampon tax’ is not economic. I can afford to buy the sanitary products that I prefer. However, women on low incomes also have periods and buying these products at tax-inflated prices can reduce the money they have to spend on other necessities such as food. A legal awareness of the necessity of sanitary products would not merely lead to their exemption from taxation. It would also, surely, justify price controls, similar to those applied to contraceptives.
Ultimately, I can cope without Jaffa Cakes, which are not subject to a luxury tax. I cannot cope without sanitary products. It would be nice if our government, and the European Union more generally, swiftly reconsidered its stance on this issue, and acted with haste to end the malignant injustice of the tampon tax.