Why UKIP’s focus on the ‘Tampon Tax’ is misleading

Yesterday UKIP unveiled its policies for women, including the flagship pledge to scrap the so-called Tampon Tax. I have written many times before about UKIP’s appalling record on gender equality, including outrageous comments made by Nigel Farage.

UKIP have long been silent on women’s issues and their late attempt to win over women voters reflects just how misguided and out of touch they are when it comes to equality.

What is the ‘Tampon Tax’?

VAT (Value-added tax) is charged on the supply of all goods and services unless they are specifically exempt. Businesses pay VAT on their purchases (input tax) and charge VAT on their sales (output tax). The difference between the two is then settled with HM Revenue and Customs and in the end the cost of the tax is borne by the consumer.

The UK has three rates of VAT: the basic rate (currently 20%); the zero rate; and the reduced rate of 5%, used in a limited number of cases. Tampons and other sanitary products are currently classified using this 5% reduced rate.

Previously, tampons and other sanitary products had been taxed at the basic rate (then 17.5%). Following a successful campaign led by the Labour MP Dawn Primarolo, the Labour government reclassified them to 5% in 2000.

Under EU law, certain products and services are exempt from VAT, such as the provision of medical care. Any decisions taken about VAT coverage and rates by Member States are governed by these rules meaning new exemptions cannot be introduced unilaterally. VAT rates on certain goods and services still vary greatly across the EU. Women in Hungary, for example, can expect to pay 27% VAT on tampons.

Other products which have a VAT of 5% in the UK include: mobility aids for the elderly, maternity pads, smoking cessation products and car seats for children.

The recent petition by the #EndTamponTax campaign now has more than 220,000 signatures.

Can this be changed?

It is deliberately misleading to say that the only way to rectify unfair rules is to leave the EU. EU Directives, including the one setting out rules on VAT, can be amended.

The tax costs the average woman an estimated £3 per year. Although this may sound insignificant, it unfairly penalises women for something which is an unavoidable and essential requirement. It sends a very negative signal to the electorate about the ability of politicians to understand their needs and it reflects the reality that we still have a very long way to before our politicians are truly representative of society as a whole.

We simply do not need the 5% revenue generated from essential products like tampons and sanitary towels in order to balance the books. Our efforts are much better focused on making everyone pay their fair share of tax, including very wealthy individuals who live and work in the UK. Women have already been hit the hardest by the Tory government’s cuts to public services; they should not be made to pay tax on essential sanitary items.

This is why Labour MEPs have asked the European Commission if they will amend the VAT Directive to classify the sale and supply of sanitary products as an exempt activity. As Labour’s spokesperson in Europe for women’s rights and gender equality, I will continue to argue for a reassessment of the rules governing VAT rates.

Women are still better off because of the EU

The EU has long championed women’s rights and gender equality. Indeed gender equality is a founding principle of the EU and a fundamental right. Many of the struggles for greater equality have been led at the EU level.

A whole 18 years before the Equal Pay Act came into force in the UK in 1975, the EEC (the predecessor to the EU) required that women and men were paid equally for work of equal value. Since then, a plethora of Directives have been enacted which have strengthened the rights of women in law. In 1978, sex discrimination in the field of social security became prohibited across all Member States. In 1992, the Pregnant Workers Directive guaranteed women at least 14 weeks of maternity leave and protects pregnant workers from exposure to risks to their health and safety at work. On so many issues – violence against women, FGM, the underrepresentation of women on company boards, educational inequalities, the gender pay and pensions gaps – Labour and our sister parties in Europe are leading the way on gender equality.

Abolishing the Tampon Tax would indeed make women slightly better off by a few pounds a year. But there is so much more to women’s economic independence than cutting the price of tampons. If UKIP were genuinely concerned with reducing the gender pay gap they would be talking about a range of policy areas: ending discrimination in employment; breaking down educational stereotypes; encouraging men to take on more caring responsibilities; or tackling precarious employment conditions like exploitative zero hours contracts which effect so many women.

UKIP are appropriating the language of gender equality as a last-ditch attempt to woo women voters. This comes just one month after a debate in the European Parliament in which the since-expelled UKIP MEP Janice Atkinson stood up and told us that we already have gender equality and that it was “rubbish” to suggest that we urgently need further measures to tackle problems like the gender pay gap, violence against women and the underrepresentation of women in decision making.

Due to the weight of evidence showing that women in the UK would be materially worse off if we left the EU, UKIP have no choice but to focus on this one anomalous feature of tax law.

Let’s be clear: this is motivated not by the pressing need for women’s economic equality but by UKIP’s utterly misguided desire to leave Europe.

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