As Rishi Sunak commended a twenty-year campaign to abolish the tampon tax, he proudly declared that from January 1st 2021, “There will be no VAT whatsoever on women’s sanitary products”. However, if you purchase any brand of period underwear today, you will still be charged tax.
Research consistently demonstrates the necessity of period underwear and its role in offsetting the environmental impact of single-use period products. However, the UK Government refuses to include the insights of that evidence base under the new tampon tax exemption act.
The ‘tampon tax’: a timeline
MP Christine McCafferty tabled an Early Day Motion to abolish the ‘tampon tax’ in 1999. That effort only partially succeeded: it prompted Gordon Brown to reduce the tax from 17.5% to 5% in 2001. In 2015, Chancellor George Osborne announced that whilst the tax could not be scrapped (due to EU laws), its revenue would fund women’s organisations through the Tampon Tax fund.
Following years of austerity cuts to those same organisations, politicians and the public alike criticised the UK Government for charging women with their own experienced violence, and for characterising domestic violence as a woman’s issue to solve. The Tampon Tax Fund also awarded money to anti-abortion charities.
With the UK’s departure from the European Union earlier this year, VAT on most period products has been removed – with the exception of period underwear.
Period pollution has become a critical issue worldwide. The average menstruator will use between 5,000 and 15,000 single-use products in their lifetime. The combined annual consumption of these products worldwide could take over 1000 years to decompose.
In an attempt to halt impending environmental crisis, numerous reusable period products have been introduced to the market. One of the most innovative designs is period underwear – a solution inspired by pre-20th century menstruators who would fashion together repurposed fabric to absorb their flow.
Whilst the majority of these environmentally friendly alternatives are omitted from VAT (such as menstrual cups), period underwear is specifically advantageous for those who suffer from medical conditions such as endometriosis and bladder weakness.
Disabled menstruators have also shared anecdotal evidence on how period underwear can make their periods less anxiety-inducing and more comfortable. Paige Fashoni, founder of the underwear company Flux, highlights the inclusivity of period underwear, which can be designed so that the wearer does not need to pull the garment over their legs.
Taxing a sustainable and inclusive solution
Despite this large body of evidence supporting a policy change, the UK Government refuses to embrace it. In response to a petition launched by period underwear company WUKA, HM Treasury reiterated its position, and it cited ‘difficulties in policing the scope’ of the tax relief and expressing concern for loss of tax revenue. Justin Parkhurst has coined this dismissal of evidence in the policymaking process to protect political and economic interests as ‘cherry-picking’. Cherry-picking is a form of technical bias, which falls below scientific best practise.
Parkhurst also posits that research is more likely to be treated with bias if the subject at hand is complex, uncertain and polarised. Menstruation has long been stigmatised. This was particularly evident in a viral internet incident, in which a Twitter user misconstrued a graphic of a tampon tweeted by HM treasury, and labelled it as inappropriate.
Whilst the UK Government did initially remove the tampon tax on the basis of evidence and research, such a removal could be perceived as politically motivated. Refusal to meet the demands of a large, cross-party campaign group would likely attract backlash and poor approval ratings. In addition, as the EU mandates a tax on period products, supporters of the campaign to leave the European Union were incentivised to frame tampon tax exemption as a ‘pro-Brexit’ victory.
Conversely, the UK Government is failing to make period underwear VAT exempt because the campaign group is smaller and less visible. Removing tax from a product that is designed to accommodate marginalised groups is less likely to receive mass media attention and be heralded as a ground-breaking victory.
For the UK Government to revoke VAT on period underwear, the cost of retaining the current policy needs to outweigh the loss of tax revenue. Heightening their visibility and political power, the media needs to platform the campaign against taxing period underwear. The proponents of that campaign are holding the Government accountable for discriminating against disabled menstruators. The recent filing of a supportive EDM by MP Daisy Cooper provides one such opportune platform. Alongside these immediate measures, menstruation needs to be de-stigmatised through the universal provision of comprehensive education that acknowledges all lived experiences of periods.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.