Vexing And Taxing: the ‘zero rate’ debate

At the moment, good news seems few and far between. So my eye was caught yesterday, on my morning scroll of the BBC News page, by this headline:

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Imagine me, on a Saturday morning, spitting out my tea in surprise

After years of campaigning following Laura Coryton’s 2014 petition to Stop Taxing Periods, after years of waiting following Cameron’s 2016 equivocations, this should be a joyous moment: the new Chancellor has given us a semi-fixed date for the end of an insulting and discriminatory imposition. But I just felt anger. This may not be too little, but it is much too late: you can guarantee that if the likes of Cameron, Osborne and BoJo were bleeding out the end of their measly cocks once a month and being charged for the privilege, they wouldn’t have spent four years dragging their heels over ending a VAT rate that has repeatedly been pointed out as absurd – lest we forget, menstrual products have been taxed more highly than ‘essentials’ such as alligator steaks and helicopters.

So of course I’m still angry, even though I’ve got what I wanted (or at least, will have in 10 months’ time – notwithstanding any other delays the government manages to find). But I’m even angrier at the BBC‘s coverage yesterday morning. Their short article is a budget round-up. That is what the petitions, the campaigning, the protesting, the marching, all come down to: a footnote to a man’s red briefcase.

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Specifically, this man’s red briefcase

This is a momentous occasion – not just a deserved financial boon for women and girls across the UK, but a government-sanctioned acquiescence to acknowledge the importance of women’s issues. And yet in this article, it’s cobbled together with the future of paper money, not even meriting its own piece of reporting – despite the fact that this VAT exemption will impact millions and millions of menstrual product users across the country.

Why is it that women are so routinely denied their own platform? Whether it’s on toilet signs or in the titles of government ministries, why are we still so consistently and (hopefully/worryingly) unconsciously sidelined? This journalistic choice, not to specifically celebrate a huge step forward for both the levelling of the financial gender gap and for progress in ending the menstrual stigma that has held this debate back for so long, is indicative of the government’s reaction to this whole, years-long debacle: they’ve put it off for as long as they can, but now that it must be done, do it quickly and quietly. (And considering we’re just a few months on from accusations of the BBC’s pro-Tory leanings in its coverage of the winter election, why am I surprised?)

And it’s not just the anticlimactic nature of this announcement that got my goat. Within the first two sentences of the article, there is the implicit implication that this VAT reduction has been exclusively stalled by Europe. Styling myself on FactCheckUK, I decided to read (OK… skim) the government’s full 2019 briefing paper ‘VAT on sanitary protection’, a summary of all the Parliamentary prevarications around the topic. (Even the wording gives itself away – the adjective ‘sanitary’ is now increasingly replaced by ‘menstrual’ amongst feminist campaigners, due to the ingrained implication that those who bleed are ‘unsanitary’, a taboo that, at its most extreme, leads to women being denied entry to sites of religious worship).

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TL;DR: no clear conclusion

At every step, the language used in Parliament by those delaying the zero rate dances around the matter, implying their hands are tied by European red tape. But, since 2016, this has not been the case; the Council of European Finance Ministers ‘unanimously agreed’ on proposals to allow EU member states to apply a zero rate to menstrual products. Committee Treasury Minister David Gauke reported that the Government anticipated the zero rate being in place by 1 April 2017; but then Brexit happened, providing a convenient excuse to bump it down the priority list, as women’s issues so often are. Gauke claimed,

‘until we leave the EU […] fixing a date [for the zero rate to come into effect] risks contravening EU law at a time when we are entering critical negotiations with the EU […] We would risk jeopardising our negotiating position by preempting EU legislation on sanitary products.’

In other words, an issue pivotal in manifesting our society’s stance on the importance of women’s health and financial rights ranks less highly than issues of commerce and continental one-upmanship. Disguising this reluctance to engage in a meaningful discussion (or, simply, the reluctance to proactively fight for what is right for half the population) as affable, hand-tied Great British helplessness in the face of the big, bad, bureaucratic EU co-mingles patriarchy and xenophobia in a quasi-dystopian way that makes my stomach turn.

Despite my angst and scepticism that something else won’t get in the way of achieving the zero rate, I did find hope in the Guardian‘s coverage of the news. Although still sharing the limelight with the future of cash cash money money, the tampon tax gets the lion’s share of the piece, and campaigning MP Paula Sherriff calls out the BS:

‘I am pleased that the tampon tax is finally being scrapped. Contrary to government claims, permission was granted to 0% rate menstrual products in 2016, following acceptance of my budget amendment.’

So it remains to be seen whether the government steps up to the plate and delivers on this much-awaited promise, or whether we the grassroots must again pile on the pressure. Whilst the tampon tax may seem a minor issue to many – it is estimated that it costs women £40 over their lifetime – it is synecdochic of the systemic oppression that women still face in a society that Boris Johnson doesn’t think is patriarchal. And this is exactly the problem. Powerful, wealthy men tell us and show us that our issues just simply do not matter as much as other matters, that our perception of our reality is just a bit off, really; the BBC sidelines our issues in their journalism; the government postpones actions that could and would mean so much to so many. Relegating the zero rate equals relegating the right of women to be listened to, understood, respected, and above all, valued. And we deserve to be Valued so much more highly than any Added Tax.

Until next month,

~ Sophie

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