MP: Menstrual Politics

As you will have read several times by now, A Bloody Good Cause came into being after Sanya was inspired by the great work done by The Homeless Period campaign to raise awareness about the lack of provision for menstrual hygiene products fromthe UK government to homeless shelters. Having been inspired by the politicised approach taken by campaigns such as the Homeless Period, and the Stop Taxing Periods petition, Sanya and I thought it was high-time we contacted our own local Conservative MP for Stevenage, Stephen McPartland.

Steve of Stevenage

Steve of Stevenage

Unfortunately, we were told by Stephen’s Senior Caseworker, Kirsten, that he would only be free to see us about six weeks in the future from the time of our initial email, at his local surgery, a date when I would be back in Spain and Sanya would be away. Having suggested other dates and being told none were available, we took to Twitter to see if Stephen would respond. Unfortunately, once again we were met with radio silence, and, eventually, we emailed a list of four brief questions (included below) over to Stephen’s aide in the faint hope he may have a few quiet minutes in which to type us some responses.

On September 10th, I received this letter from the House of Commons from Stephen McPartland (or, at least, an aide who handed him the typed letter to sign):

Dear Ms Harrold and Ms Masood,

Thank you for contacting me about sanitary products.

I do appreciate this is an important issue. However, I understand the UK Government has no power in reducing the current VAT rate charged on women’s sanitary products.

This is because VAT law is governed by the EU, with EU legislation determining a very specific set of products which may be zero-rated, and have no VAT. The EU does not allow the UK, or any other member state, to extend unilaterally the scope of existing zero rates or to introduce new ones. Let me assure you that the Prime Minister is truly frustrated with the difficulty of removing sanitary taxation entirely. However, I am pleased that the 5 per cent VAT rate is the lowest rate currently allowed under EU law.

It is great to hear of the admirable work being done by the Homeless Period campaign and I fully support the work that they are doing. I hope that their rewarding campaign continues to expand and that their fundraisers and donations continue to help more homeless women in the future. In Stevenage the Government has invested in a new purpose built homeless shelter for Stevenage Haven, which provides much more accommodation for single homeless people.

I would like to assure you that I represent everyone in Stevenage and take homelessness cases us with the Council on a regular basis. I believe homeless people are some of the most vulnerable people in our society and take my duty to protect them very seriously.

Thank you again for taking the time to email me.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen McPartland

Member of Parliament for Stevenage

Corresponding with the Commons

Corresponding with the Commons

So, we can sum up Mr McPartland’s responses to our questions thus:

1) Currently, sanitary products are taxed as a “non-essential luxury item”, whereas products such as crocodile meat are not. What are your views on this? Is this an oversight on the part of the Chancellor? What steps could your government take to rectify this? 

My views are in accordance with the Prime Minister and his non-specific masculine “frustration”. We can and will take no steps to rectify this, as it does not directly affect us and therefore means nothing to us.

2) Currently, the government provides grants for homeless shelters to stock condoms and razors. However, there is no such grant or subsidy for the provision of sanitary products in homeless shelters. This is an issue which the Homeless Period campaign seeks to rectify with their recent petition. Have you signed the petition? 

Their work is “admirable” and I support their individual efforts to fundraise and donate as it takes pressure off my Government. I remain silent about whether I have signed the petition and offer no comment on the actual issue at hand.

3) Would you be willing to publicly back the petition, which has received over 100,000 signatures and thus can be considered for debate in Parliament?

No comment.

4) What do you consider to be the biggest issues facing women in your constituency, and what are you doing to aid them? 

Nothing nothing nothing la la la I can’t hear you!

It frustrates me that this response is basically a defence of doing nothing. As it stands currently, sanitary products (excluding incontinence pads) are taxed at 5% VAT, the “lowest” rate (the real lowest of course being zero, handily overlooked by Mr McPartland) allowed by EU VAT law. You can see this here on VAT Notice 701/18, and you can see what products and services are ranked as more deserving of a zero rate here. When the UK joined the Common Market way back in 1973 (an era not exactly known for its strides in gender equality), sanitary products were taxed at 17.5%, being classed, as we have seen, clearly “non-essential, luxury” items, instead of the hygienic, dignifying necessities we all know them to be. In 2000, after a long campaign, Labour MP Dawn Primarolo successfully changed sanitary taxation to 5%, rightfully saying it was a change brought about for the sake of “fairness”. After the standardisation of tax across member states, no separate member state of the EU may revise VAT reductions without the permission of the Union itself.

I read this whole book for the purposes of this blog.

I read this whole book for the purposes of this blog.

To me, this letter from Mr McPartland tells me that the issues I care about are not important enough to fight to change. If the man who claims to “represent everyone” in my town can’t be bothered to raise his voice to his own Party about this issue, and in turn have them raise their voice about this issue in Europe, then who will? I don’t believe for one second that Mr Cameron has sleepless nights over sanitary product taxation. I expect he imagines that he has bigger fish to fry. This worries me, as overlooking an issue as apparently not-worth-fighting-for as this plays into a wider dialectic of the subordination of women’s issues in a still overwhelmingly masculine Parliament. Leave the men to their “serious” issues, to their drones and their expenses, as we bleed painfully, expensively, and silently.

Lucy Mangan, a columnist who often writes on “women’s issues” (and seems, disappointingly, to fear “being seen as one of those female columnists who only writes about periods ’n’ that”), recently wrote in an article for the magazine Stylist that she disagrees with the exemption of sanitary products from tax. She writes,

“this is not the time to be seeking this particular tax cut. This is the time to be demanding no cuts to disability benefits, no forcing jobseekers to work for nothing and effectively gifting giant corporations free labour by a government also hoping to backtrack on the 50p tax rate or no cuts to child benefit. Yes, it’d be lovely to live in a world without a 5% ‘luxury tax’ on something [essential]… But that world isn’t yet here, and is in fact probably receding at speed.”

I refuse to concede, as Mangan does, that “that world isn’t yet here”. We are half the world.  Of course there will always be issues that seem more prominent, more immediate, more relevant than the issues that follow us around once a month for forty years. And that, I truly believe, is exactly why we need to carry on campaigning, and to carry on speaking up and out, about the ongoing disparities we face everyday as women, whether it be financially or socially. If we shout loud enough, we can make the likes of Stephen McPartland, David Cameron, and even the Europe Union at large take notice. The inner workings of our pants are a ubiquitous and universal bloody issue!

I urge you to contact your local MP and raise this issue with him or her. (You can find contact details for your local MP here.) And why stop there? Find your local MEP (Member of European Parliament) here and get onto them too! As Harry Potter has shown us, a lot of letters can do a lot of magic.

Courtesy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Courtesy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Until next month,

~ Sophie

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