What is happening?
Since January 1st 2001, sanitary products have been marked with a 5% ‘tampon tax’.
However, on January 1st of this year, this was finally abolished after the first announcement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, during the March 2020 Budget, who added that he was “proud that we are today delivering on our promise to scrap the tampon tax. Sanitary products are essential so it’s right that we do not charge VAT.” This reverts Sunak’s previous decision to vote against the motion in 2015, leading to the question as to what changed. Whilst it would be incredible to perceive this as a victory towards the perception of periods, it is unfortunately a rather naïve view. Towards the start of the campaign, tampon tax abolishment was employed in the campaign for Brexit, and, as such, it seemed the government were forced to come through on their offer, in order to illustrate the benefits of Brexit during such an unstable economic period.
Why did we ever have to pay it?
The tax was justified through the enigmatic labelling of sanitary products as ‘non-essential, luxury goods’. Whilst there is a monetary saving element, the greater issue is the fact that this was a discriminatory tax targeted towards those who menstruate – a necessary biological process. The tax was enabled by a predominantly male government, yet when the motion was brought to abolish the tax in 2015, it was seen to be objected to by the majority of Conservative MPs, including female members. This was identified as unfair by many, including Tesco who were the first UK supermarket to internalise the VAT costs.
Ordinarily, taxation serves to protect businesses, the environment and society holistically, yet this tax did not. Instead, it was necessary to demand recognition that menstruation is a natural and necessary occurrence, and that the required products are a necessity. Thus, whilst Sunak’s comment was warmly welcomed, his sincerity may be questioned. Nevertheless, this change illustrates our progress towards a more equal society.
Why did it take so long?
The current European Union (EU) agreement on VAT rates dictates that Member States can charge a reduced rate of VAT – between 5% and 15% – on certain specified supplies, including sanitary protection. Introduction of a new zero rate would contravene these rules, which is why the UK were never able to enact change earlier.
Thus, this outcome was only successful due to the completion of Brexit. Our withdrawal from the EU terminated our obligation to comply with their rules and as such allowed us to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles surrounding tampon tax. It is worth noting that Parliament approved the move to a zero rate and included a provision in the Finance Act of 2016 for such an eventuality, explaining how the change was implemented so quickly. 
Why is the end of tampon tax so important? What more is there to be done?
This is a monumental success for the UK given the years of protesting which preceded the change. Furthermore, the eradication of tampon tax is an addition to larger government action which led to the availability of free sanitary products in schools, colleges and hospitals. The reason for this being so significant a change is twofold: sexism and period poverty.
Ultimately, as pointed out by Felicia Willow, Fawcett Society Chief Executive, tampon tax was a sexist tax facilitated by the stigma surrounding menstruation, with it now proving a relief to see it ‘consigned to the history books’, at least in the UK.
The end of the tampon tax is a pivotal move in the quest to end period poverty, which affects the health, cleanliness and education of many, with estimates suggesting that on average each person menstruating will spend £4,800 on sanitary products in their lifetime – an amount that many struggle to afford. In order to supplement this progress, we need to normalise conversations about menstruation.
This was demonstrated by a study showing that many girls within the UK were too embarrassed to ask for help when they could not afford sanitary products As a result, they would lose considerable amounts of valuable school time, cumulatively up to 145 days, facilitated by the stigma surrounding menstruation, caused by a society that teaches that this natural process is to be ashamed of. Reliance on socks, newspaper and excessive amounts of toilet roll instead of pads is an unacceptable way to be treated. If a teenage boy can ask for free condoms, why does society make it too taboo for someone in need of essential sanitary products to ask?
Moreover, we should still be inclined to ask why this was only achievable after Brexit. Periods are universal which makes the issue universal: it is not just those in the EU who remain affected, but also those in poorer countries struggling with the extremes of period poverty, with these issues further exacerbated by the global pandemic.
Ultimately, Scotland illustrated the way to eliminate period poverty through frankly providing free sanitary products to all those who need them. The benefit of doing so not only directly supports those who need them, but also, through making provision in public places, diminishes the stigma that insists that those menstruating must subtly reach for a sanitary product, as if it is unhygienic and should be kept secret.
Cover photo: Josefin on Unsplash