Walker welcomes UK taking a lead on issue of fairness for women

Worcester’s MP, Robin Walker, has welcomed the position of the UK Government, backed by the Treasury and the Government Office for Equalities that women’s sanitary products should be zero rated.

This is the first time that any UK Government has set out to challenge the EU rules which classify such products as effectively luxury goods and to make sure there is no VAT charged on them. 

The decision follows a long campaign by Conservative backbenchers such as Charlotte Leslie and the intervention of the Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Nicky Morgan. Robin has previously written to Treasury Ministers on the issue to raise the concerns of his constituents about the matter and was in the Chamber earlier this week when a Treasury Minister confirmed that his department would now campaign for zero rating. 

In the debate Ann Marie Trevelyan, the Conservative MP for Berwick upon Tweed made a passionate case to the Minister to take this step saying:

“I put my name to this amendment because I have long thought that this is a bizarre and discriminatory tax on sanitary products and it needs sorting out. Perhaps in the 1970s, when I am sure the Minister like myself was at school, the luxury goods description still made sense as many women were not using a product which has now transformed our ability to be freed up from the monthly restrictions of periods. Many girls at school with me were off games every month because they did not have access to what is now considered a completely normal part of our sanitary products and frees young women to be sportswomen. I ask the Minister to be brave, to think about this and to stand up for all young women.”

The Minister responded: “This debate has highlighted the ongoing campaign to zero-rate or exempt from VAT tampons and other sanitary protection products. As we have heard tonight, that campaign has cross-party support. In the case of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), that support goes back many years to when she was at school. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) has also campaigned on the issue for many years, and my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) has raised it tonight and on other occasions, as have many other hon. Members.

“As the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) pointed out, this Government sympathise with the aim of the new clause. As we have also heard, however, the UK does not have the ability to extend zero rating to new products unilaterally. We have more extensive zero rating than most, if not all, other member states, but any change to EU VAT law would require a proposal from the European Commission and the support of all 28 member states. Without that agreement, we are not permitted to lower rates below 5%. None the less, as this debate illustrates, there is considerable cross-party support for the UK to abolish VAT on sanitary products. To that end, I undertake to raise the issue with the European Commission and with other member states, and to set out the view, which has been reflected in this debate, that it should be possible for a member state to apply a zero rate to sanitary products. “

Nicky Morgan, for whom Robin is the PPS was asked about the matter after the debate and said: “It's blindingly obvious that sanitary products aren't a luxury and shouldn't be treated as such.” “We will push Europe to change this classification."

The rate of VAT on such sanitary products was set at 5% in 2000 under the previous Labour Government and remained at that level throughout their time in office. At no point during their time in Government did Labour’s Treasury team campaign for a zero rating. This means that the UK Government is now leading the way in pressing for a zero rating for the first time and that a Conservative Government will be the first to make the case that all such products should be zero rated.

Unfortunately the Minister had to make clear in the debate on the finance bill that the UK cannot unilaterally apply this decision before taking it to the European Commission and, as with all decisions on VAT, there needs to be a negotiation in order to achieve this effect. With this in mind he asked Labour to withdraw their amendment to the Finance Bill, which would have been illegal and unworkable. 

Despite Labour MPs in the debate praising the Minister for the position he had taken and the opposition spokesman even saying “I salute the Minister for coming a very long way” they decided to force a vote on their amendment knowing that Government MPs would have to vote against it. Some campaigning organisations have since cynically spun this as showing that Government MPs have voted to keep duty on sanitary products despite the clear evidence to the contrary from the debate. Both Charlotte Leslie and Ann Marie Trevelyan voted with the Government but have been leaders of the campaign to achieve a zero rating.

Commenting on the debate and its outcome Robin said: “I can reassure my constituents in Worcester that I am strongly campaigning for zero rating on sanitary products, and it is a great shame that the cross party backbench campaign that achieved this, has been undermined by a partisan approach from Labour. It was totally cynical of their frontbench to push their motion to a vote knowing it was unworkable and then to use this to campaign against MPs who had campaigned on this issue much longer than they had. As this issue came up during the election campaign and I made clear my position on it then, I am glad to see that the Government is now firmly aware of the need for change.

“It is worth bearing in mind that throughout Labour’s time in office VAT was charged on these products and to my knowledge no attempt was made in thirteen years of Labour Government to reduce it to zero. Zero rating such products is a basic question of fairness.”