Lucy Mangan

"VAT on tampons should not be axed"

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12 March 2012

I was recently tweetasked (twasked? Yes, I wish this to become a word) to sign a petition campaigning to remove VAT from sanitary products, which they attract by being classed as ‘non-essential items’. Now, I have thanked a great, benevolent and – on these grounds – quite possibly female god every month since I was 13 that modern menstru-wear exists.

I hadn’t got my period by then, but I had read Helen Forrester’s various autobiographical volumes about growing up in the Thirties and having to use, wash out and re-use torn-up towels and rags for the absorptive purpose, an idea which nearly made me pass out with horror. The invention of the tampon, it seemed to me then and seems to me now (though for more empirically proven reasons involving swimming, leggings and not wanting to feel like I’m wearing a nappy for a quarter of my adult life instead of rampant germ-and-haemo-phobia), is up there with the steam engine, antibiotics and Charlie Bigham pies as pieces of life-enhancing progress.

And yet I hesitated to sign up and re-tweet – although word deserved to be spread just for the genius of the Twitter name: @BloodyDisgrace. Why? Well, I’d like to pretend that it was for the following rational, soberly reasoned reasons:

1. VAT on sanitary products has already been reduced to 5%. This was done in 2001 as a result of years of campaigning by impassioned people like @BloodyDisgrace (from whose efforts we all have therefore benefitted for the past 10 years and more) to get the zero rate applied.

2. Should retrospective gratitude towards pioneers grant unconditional support in a new endeavour or should it be evaluated on its own terms? Own terms, say I, reluctantly. And so I conclude 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 for which, if we ran the EU, we’d probably invent a special category called “Yes, I’d call that pretty effing essential, guys, wouldn’t you? Unless you fancy taking your turn at cleaning the bloodsoaked rags, of course? No? Thought not. Zero-rate it is then.” But that world isn’t yet here, and is in fact probably receding at speed.

I’m facing my fear of being seen as one of those female columnists who only writes about periods ’n’ that

3. I recoil from any proposal that a tax is unfair. Nine times out of 10, this translates as “I don’t believe I personally benefit sufficiently from what it funds and therefore I don’t want to pay.” Well, tough. We’d all like to contribute only to the things we need. But that’s not how the tax system in a civilised country works. I’m a non-driving, non-smoking, never-flying, barely-drinking, until-very-recently-childless citizen who’s never been on benefits. A big wodge of my tax bill goes towards road maintenance, fuel subsidies, NHS bills for smokers and state bills for educating children who aren’t mine. I mean, it’s appalling when you think about it! Except, of course, it’s not. Other people cross-subsidise the things I do use, even when they don’t need them.

And so the world turns that bit more smoothly than it otherwise might. VAT on tampons may not be one of those big buggers that spring to mind when you think about taxation, but it still comes under the same principle – a little from many people improves the lot of the whole.

But, I’m ashamed to say, it was none of these that made me hesitate. I hesitated because I didn’t want to put my name to something so… vulgar. So… female. Even, in some deep, dark, shameful way, so… feminist. I am so…

stupid. Or backward. Umpty-billion years on from Germaine Greer pointing out how women take their whole handbag to the loo instead of just extracting the towel or tampon that they need, I still feel residual embarrassment at the notion of associating myself with periods or the products they mop up. And now I’m facing my fear of being tagged as one of those female columnists who only writes about periods ’n’ that. I’m glad there isn’t a susceptibility-to-cultural-conditioningslash-idiocy tax in the UK. I’d be bankrupt. Instead of just a bloody disgrace to the cause.

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