Mia Rees is a Cardiff councillor and a Senedd candidate for Cynon Valley.
Just over a year ago in his first Budget, Rishi Sunak announced the scrapping of the so-called tampon tax from January this year, in a victory for an over two-decade long campaign against VAT rules that once categorised tampons as “non-essential, luxury items”.
The scrapping of the tax immediately after the transition period ended was rightly held up by the Government as an early example of how our new post-Brexit freedoms could make a tangible difference to people’s lives.
As important for many as the cost reduction was the principle that periods are not a luxury – and that therefore the essential products used to manage them should not be taxed as luxury items. The Chancellor’s move to axe the tax was therefore met with near universal acclaim.
However, following this year’s Budget there have been rumblings of discontent as the zero rate of VAT introduced in January does not apply to period underwear, which was specifically excluded from the updated rate by the Finance Act of 2016. Period underwear looks very much like regular underwear, but has a special layer which works as disposable period pad does, with the added benefit of being washable and reusable.
Because it is excluded from the new zero-rate, VAT continues to be levied on period underwear at the full rate of 20 per cent – the same rate applied to luxury items. This means that conventional, disposable sanitary products made from 90 per cent plastic – which according to the Women’s Environmental Network generate 200,000 tonnes of waste per year – are VAT free. Meanwhile, an environmentally sustainable alternative is taxed at 20 per cent.
A campaign led by leading the UK period underwear brand, Modibodi, and backed by the likes of the Fawcett Society has been calling on the Chancellor to change this. Disappointingly, the Government did not take the opportunity of the Budget to remove what’s fast becoming viewed as the last remnant of the Tampon Tax.
The Government has argued that, for tax purposes, menstrual underwear is considered clothing – and so is subject to the full 20 per cent rate. I am sympathetic to the complexities of drawing the line between what is considered clothing and what is considered an essential healthcare product. However, I think the Government are missing an opportunity.
Period underwear is becoming increasingly popular in the UK, particularly amongst those seeking environmentally sustainable solutions to period management. Its high absorbency, reusability and comfort levels are particularly beneficial to those whose jobs mean they may struggle to visit the bathroom regularly, as well as those with certain disabilities and health conditions.
Research commissioned last November by Modibodi shows that searches for period underwear have grown by 46 per cent year-on-year in the UK, indicating a growing preference for this product category.
Legislation needs to keep up with the times. Cutting the Tampon Tax on disposable pads and tampons was absolutely the right decision, but as more and more people look to reusable and sustainable alternatives, the range of which is ever-growing, it is important that this market shift is not distorted by misguided Treasury policy that reflects an outdated version of what the menstrual products market actually looks like in 2021.
While other reusable products, such as menstrual cups and reusable pads, already benefit from the VAT zero rate, these products will not be suitable for everyone – particularly those with certain disabilities, painful conditions such as endometriosis, or those whose occupation means they might struggle to make regular bathroom visits to empty a menstrual cup or change a pad.
The ever-growing range of menstrual products available is a hugely positive development – it enables more people than ever before to find the product that is right for them. No wonder a growing number are questioning the Treasury’s decision not to include all of the available options in the zero rate of tax, now they have the freedom to do so.
In doing otherwise, the Treasury risks being accused of constraining this personal choice through the tax system – and financially penalising those who want to switch to an environmentally friendly product.
It is not too late. Many within government were for years frustrated that EU rules prevented the UK from cutting the tax on menstrual products, despite the fact that this policy was popular with the British public. The Chancellor made the right call in introducing the new zero-rate as soon as the UK was freed from these restrictions. There is nothing standing in the way of the Government extending this policy to include all menstrual products.