Sunday, 27 March 2016

Europe and the "Tampon Tax"

Scottish Independence Referendum

When I blogged about the Scottish Independence Referendum back in historical times (August 2014) I felt that, if I had had a vote, my Head would have voted “Yes” to Scottish Independence whilst my Heart would have voted “No”. I thought “Yes” because it might have one day led to Independence for Yorkshire and an end to the London/Westminister stranglehold of national perspective and the unfair allocation of resources. I thought “No” because I love Scotland as a tourist and as a student of literature, education, ideas and history. I like living in England. I like living in the UK. I like living in Great Britain (including Ireland), a collective of regional tribes. I think our system of government (local, regional and national) is badly in need of modernisation. But on balance I think the UK gets many things right most of the time. I of course didn’t have a vote about the Scottish Independence Referendum, so my opinion was theoretical but I was glad whatever the result that democracy was happening and that the winning “vote” would be accepted (at least for now.)

Forthcoming European Referendum

But I DO have a vote in the forthcoming In/Out European Union Referendum. So I want to make my mind up. I expect to be voting to STAY in Europe, although I am trying to read as much authoritative stuff as possible because, like with Scotland, some parts of my Head say “Yes, a Brexit might lead the way to a UK break up and the road to a Yorkshire parliament which makes more sense to me than a patronising pretend “Northern Powerhouse” morsel thrown from the half-time canapé tray of the Etonian London-centric playing fields. Another part of my Head also says “Yes, a Brexit might stop people trying to blame Brussels and the EU for administration and legislation caused by the House of Commons’s uselessness.” If we left the EU, no-one could put the blame on the EU any more…. For example….

Who invented the “Tampon Tax”? (Answer: Tory Government 1973, not the EU)

It was interesting seeing the way the press dealt with the “Tampon Tax” as if it had been imposed by Europe and “squashed” by George Osborne, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer. VAT was introduced in April 1973 by Edward Heath’s Conservative government (it replaced “Purchase Tax”). Female sanitary products were then defined as “non-essential.”  Every legal challenge to the tax since then has been by Labour MPs, though often the amendments were filibustered out of being debated. (Something Labour politicians do to Tory amendments too when Labour is in power, though challenges to the “Tampon Tax” have always been by Labour MPs when in opposition. I’ve searched Hansard for references to check this.)

Ted Heath's government in 1973 took us into Europe and replaced Purchase Tax with VAT

Who took us into Europe in the first place?

On 1st January 1973 Edward Heath’s Conservative government led us into the European Economic Community (the Common Market as it was then popularly called.) In April of that year, when VAT was introduced, the “Tampon Tax” was (clumsily) grouped with products that were treated the same way across Europe. Sadly, and to the discredit of all politicians from all parties, neither Conservative nor Labour governments ever had the gumption to check properly how easy it was to zero-rate specific products in each country. So Labour governments as well as Conservative governments have been responsible equally over time for not getting rid of the “Tampon Tax” (or, for example, the “Condom Tax” or “Razor Tax” or “Child-Safety Car Seat Tax” or any other VAT rate that people complain about) since the time the Conservatives introduced VAT in 1973.

Dawn Primarolo plus a few taxed non-essentials
2000 campaign led by The (now) Baronness Primarolo

The only creditable change came when, in 2000, the Labour government (following a campaign led by Dawn Primarolo, Labour MP for Bristol) cut the rate from standard VAT rate to 5%. What is interesting – and not widely understood – is that under the European regulations (and UK Law) the tax on tampons could have been zero-rated at any time. Basically the UK governments since 1973 have proved lazy when defining and re-defining “essential” and “non-essential” products so many new products (like Viagra, for example) are listed as “essential” and not subject to VAT. It is the discrepancies that make campaigners furious. But it is not, nor has it ever been, the fault of the EU what rates of VAT are attached to each product marketed in the UK.

The Daily Mail outlines government red tape problem

The Daily Mail, a Conservative newspaper, made my case clearly enough in October 2015:
Ministers last night avoided a defeat in the Commons by pledging to lobby the European Union to scrap the five per cent VAT on tampons of the UK. Frans Timmermans, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker's deputy, said this morning that it would be 'perfectly reasonable' for the tampon tax to go as part of David Cameron's renegotiation deal. But he added that Britain had never asked for the VAT to be removed from tampons in the past and said EU members too often blamed Brussels for red tape they created themselves. 'When it was decided before, Britain did not ask for an exemption whereas Ireland did and do have leverage to charge 0% VAT on certain items'
Frans Timmermans and Paula Sherriff
Paula Sherriff's success

Paula Sherriff, Dewsbury and Mirfield Labour MP, has been the most recent campaigner within parliament to get the zero rate applied to tampons. She cannily started courting Eurosceptic Tories who were all about to support an amendment to a bill tabled by her. When there was to be a major Tory rebellion to support a Labour amendment, suddenly George Osborne took an interest, as explained by The Daily Mail in the quotation above, and began to claim the “Tampon Tax” removal as a feature of his own policies.
Imagine if men had to use tampons, image by
Menstrual blood – an excellent little earner

I’m glad Osborne got the VAT deal, but he only did so because he wanted to keep Tory Eurosceptics at bay – and he – and all other Chancellors before him – could have done this much earlier. It’s fitting that a Tory Chancellor gets rid of VAT on tampons since it was a Tory Chancellor (not the EU) who introduced it in the first place in 1973. But the “Tampon Tax” has been – for both parties – a nice little earner for 40 years. I imagine all governments have decided it’s better to tax mopping up menstrual flow than to challenge Big Business or the Banks for money to support the country’s public services…. Apparently women lose 16 to 18 litres of blood in an average lifetime so there was no danger the revenue would ever dry up – but it will soon….

Treasury plans to replace the “Tampon Tax” with a “Cum Rag Tax”

I understand the Treasury has been discussing how to claw back the money lost through not taxing the absorption of menstrual blood. Saliva and sweat were considered but it was decided that men ought to pay extra VAT for a few years to offset women’s contributions to the nation’s welfare over the past forty years. The cabinet were thrilled to learn that as a result of a lifetime’s jizzing an average male releases 61 to 64 litres of semen into the world. Unlike women and their bodily fluid release, men are not restricted to particular times of the month but can generate income every day, sometimes several times a day, particularly in the younger years. The Treasury are intending to add (or raise) VAT on tissues, handkerchiefs, flannels, hand towels, sponges, T-shirts, boxers and socks (or anything else we men use to mop up.) The Select Committee looking into these proposals pointed out that, just as women won’t stop having periods, men won’t stop wanking. So the revenue stream will keep spurting forth.