Anthony Browne is a former director of Policy Exchange and a former Europe correspondent of the Times.
It is probably the only tax cut that has enjoyed not just widespread public support, but consensus across the political spectrum. But as Chancellor, George Osborne was powerless to do it.
Tax has been applied to tampons and sanitary pads since the UK introduced VAT when it joined the EU in 1973. They are subject to the tax because they are not officially classified as necessities but rather non-essentials (quite what women are meant to do without them is not officially explained).
In 2001, after public pressure, the Labour government cut this hated “tampon tax” to five per cent. The issue erupted again in 2015, when the “Don’t tax periods, period” campaign launched a petition to scrap the tax and attracted 320,000 signatures. Graphic demonstrations followed. The BBC produced a tampon tax calculator, showing how many hundreds of pounds women of every age were being taxed for having periods. Parliament legislated to scrap the tampon tax when it supported an amendment put down by Labour’s Paula Sherriff. And in 2016, David Cameron promised: “Britain will be able to have a zero rate for sanitary products, meaning the end of the tampon tax.”
Countries around the world, from Canada to Kenya, and from India to Australia, have been scrapping the tampon tax after similar campaigns. But it turned out that Parliament and Government are powerless to do so. EU VAT harmonisation rules require tampons and other sanitary products to be taxed at a minimum of that five per cent rate.
ameron lobbied the European Commission to change its rules, but was rebuffed: it is apparently not a big enough political issue in other member states. The only EU country not to have the tampon tax was Ireland, and that is only because it was grandfathered in when Ireland joined the EU.
The whole campaign against the tax was thwarted by EU rules. But now Brexit will give the Government the power to scrap it, which it intends to do: Brexit will bring a bonus to all women with periods. Rather behind the curve, the European Parliament has more recently taken up the issue, and the EU plans to allow members to stop charging VAT on tampons, but not until 2022 – after the UK is meant to have left the EU.