My letter to constituents on my role in axing the Tampon Tax follows below.
Thank you for writing to me about the abolition of the “Tampon Tax”.
Having fought for it, I am very pleased a zero rate of VAT now applies to women’s sanitary products. This is part of wider action by this Conservative Government to end period poverty, which includes free sanitary products in schools, colleges and hospitals.
You can find the Government’s announcement here:
“The Chancellor announced that the tampon tax was to be abolished from 1 January 2021 at March 2020 Budget. As the transition period ended on December 31st, the UK is no longer bound by the EU VAT Directive which mandates a minimum 5% tax on all sanitary products.”
I regret that I have been defamed after working so hard to secure this success. Given the shoddy journalism and opposition activism which have misrepresented a vote in the House of Commons, I am glad to have this opportunity to provide you with the truth.
I will address two claims. My claim is that I worked hard to secure this success, which I shall show to be true. My opponents’ claim is that I voted against ending the tampon tax and I shall show that to be false.
In short, my opponent’s argument has the benefit of being short and easy to understand, but it is also untrue.
The relevant vote was in relation to an amendment to the Finance Bill on Monday 26 October 2015. It reads as follows, emphasis mine:
New clause 7—VAT on sanitary protection products (No. 2)—
‘(1) Within three months of the passing of this Act, the Chancellor of the Exchequer shall lay before both Houses of Parliament a statement on his strategy to negotiate with the European Union institutions an exemption from value added tax for women’s sanitary protection products.
(2) A Minister of the Crown must lay before Parliament a report on progress at achieving an exemption from value added tax for women’s sanitary protection products within European Union law by 1 April 2016.’
As you can see, this amendment did not have the effect of applying a zero rate of VAT to women’s sanitary products: it did not end the Tampon Tax. It sought to require the Government to make a statement on a strategy to negotiate an exemption with the EU and to lay a progress report. This is not the same as ending the Tampon Tax. The amendment did not do that because it could not, as I set out below.
I signed this amendment and organised support for it among Conservative MPs. The purpose of the amendment was to force the Government to negotiate with the EU to end the Tampon Tax. The amendment had the side effect of forcing the Government to explain why they could not unilaterally axe the tax.
In the course of the debate, I personally forced the issue, obtaining a public commitment from the minister which rendered that amendment unnecessary. You can find it below. That’s why I voted against it: we had achieved the aim and in other circumstances, the amendment would have been withdrawn.
Amendments requiring statements and reports are a common device in Parliamentary proceedings but they are not normally made law.
You can find the debate here:
In debate, it was pointed out that axing the tax would require unanimity among EU member states. I made several contributions, for example:
“This problem of taxation on tampons and other sanitary products is one that, quite rightly, excites a great degree of anger and controversy, but the solution to the problem is uncontroversial. It is perfectly obvious that we are all agreed in the House that we should get rid of the tax on tampons and other sanitary products. The reason why this is a subject of interest to so many is that the House is of course prohibited from doing so by EU law.”
“I am very glad that my name appears on new clause 7.”
I set out five courses of action the Government could take. First I ruled out doing nothing. I then briefly touched on negotiating an exemption, renegotiating our power to provide an exemption, legislating notwithstanding EU law and leaving the EU.
“This evening, I want to listen extremely carefully to what my hon. Friend the Minister says. It is quite clear that we can no longer go on saying that this issue of the taxation of tampons and sanitary products is too difficult to push through all the member states and the European Commission. Clearly, action must be taken that is robust and dynamic. I must say to those who criticise us for being Eurosceptics that we know we are taking a risk. Unlikely as it seems, the Commission and the member states may well rise to the occasion and solve the problem. Well, good on them if they do. I should be very glad indeed to see no tax on these products right across the European Union.”
“My point is that this situation cannot continue any longer, and I hope the Minister will say that the Government accept the principle that tampons and sanitary products should be zero-rated. I hope they will explain why they are not able to bring such a measure before the House, and that the Minister will commit robustly to advancing this cause in the interests of women in the UK and across Europe this year and in future. We should get the whole thing cleared up as soon as possible.”
In due course, minister David Gauke – a man famously in favour of EU membership – described how the amendment required a statement on a strategy to negotiate an exemption and a progress report. He explained, emphasis mine:
“… 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. In that context, I thank the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) for raising the matter tonight. We have seen on both sides of the House a demonstration of the belief that that flexibility should exist.”
In response to an intervention, he said further,
“I do not want to conceal from the House the fact that we do not have flexibility in these circumstances. Nor do I want to conceal the challenge that we would face in reaching agreement on this.”
“It does require a proposal from the Commission and the support of all 28 member states. Just to be clear, this is not a formality.”
Of course, I had arranged in advance that if the minister committed at the despatch box – something conventionally relied upon – then I would call off the rebellion. I recall the moment vividly even now. I had not quite caught his commitment. I held in my hand a bulk SMS app, ready to advise Conservative MPs to rebel in numbers. Some were looking up at me anxiously. I forced the issue:
I have listened extremely carefully to my hon. Friend and he knows how seriously I take this issue. Will he reassure me directly that he will specifically press the European Commission to bring forward measures to zero-rate tampons and sanitary products right across the EU?
Yes, I will make those representations to the European Commission to allow member states to have the flexibility to do that, which I think is the key issue here.
In that moment, we achieved the aim of having the Government commit to negotiate to end the Tampon Tax and a vote on the amendment to make it a matter of law to do so became unnecessary. As a Conservative MP should when dealing with a Conservative minister, I accepted his reassurance and cancelled the rebellion because it was no longer necessary to threaten to force the issue.
That is, I forced the government of the day to pledge to work to axe the Tampon Tax. I am today proud we have done it. Obtaining the commitment on that day – and indeed securing our exit from the EU – were a great deal of hard work towards this success.
I am sorry that opponents of the Government are using half-truths to sustain a disgraceful campaign of defamation, aided by shoddy journalism. It is dispiriting but the plain truth is that I worked hard to axe the Tampon Tax and I am glad we now have. As you can see from the motion in question, any claim that I voted against axing the Tampon Tax is false.
I am grateful for the opportunity to set the record straight. I am reminded once again of the old saying that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.
Finally, I hope we can join together in celebrating the end of VAT on women’s sanitary products and the Government’s wider action to end period poverty, which no one should have to endure.
Steve Baker MP