Thursday 27th October 2016                 Change text size:

And another thing: a lack of Commons sense over tampon tax

Speakers Corner by CGP Grey

On Monday, MPs voted against a move to compel the government to negotiate a cut in tax on sanitary products, the “tampon tax”. Men’s razors, nappies, Jaffa Cakes, exotic meats and edible cake decorations are free from VAT, whereas women pay additional costs on an essential product, in a £2bn market.

MPs who regularly bemoan EU interference in the rights of British citizens were happy to be whipped into voting down a Labour amendment to the Finance Bill, 305 votes to 287. The amendment would have compelled the government to negotiate with the EU for a reduction in the 5% VAT rate.  The decision of the House of Commons is sovereign in the UK after all, as so many of those who voted down the amendment tell us when it suits them.

You can find how your MP voted here.

Treasury Financial Secretary, David Gauke (Con, South West Hertfordshire), expressed the government’s sympathy with the aim of the clause but added: “The UK does not have the ability to extend unilaterally zero rating to new products.”

The VAT rate charged on the items is the lowest allowed under EU law according to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Gauke will now take the negotiation to the EU.

SNP MP Alison Thewliss said: “It is absurd that while men’s razors, children’s nappies and even products like Jaffa Cakes, exotic meats and edible cake decorations are free from VAT, women are still having to pay additional costs on what is already an expensive yet vital product.”

Leader of the House, Chris Grayling (Con, Epsom and Ewell) responded to a question from Steven Baker (Con, Wycombe) who had suggested that some members of the public had been misled about the true nature of the amendment, saying: “it is not possible, under the current treaty arrangements, for this House to decide to cut VAT to zero… It is completely unacceptable for third party groups to misrepresent the vote as being a vote against a zero rate for tampons.”

Which is tantamount to saying “calm down dear” to women (a ‘third party group’ now it seems) affected by this sexist tax.

Grayling tried to improve his indignant response with: “I think that most Members support the principle of a zero rate for a product that is clearly not a luxury.” Well that’s alright then. He could have added: ” Now go back to your kitchens.” to perfect his response.

But he still misses the point by a country mile. The amendment would have compelled the government to negotiate with the EU for a reduction in the 5% VAT rate. As in, carrying out the will of parliament. Not hiding like cowards behind regulatory niceties and faux indignation that ‘third parties’ might have a view. Voting the clause through would also have sent a really powerful message to the country and EU, that our elected House of Commons is steadfast in fighting for women’s rights and equality, and against discriminatory tax measures.

But no.

Once again our unrepresentative House of Stale, Pale, Male Commons once again proves it is completely out of touch with the 21st century, building on its long track record of treating British women like second class citizens.

From the Commons’ historic stubborn opposition to giving votes to women, to preferring a shooting gallery over a crèche, cleaving to antisocial hours, to the bizarre everyday sexism of a senior male Conservative MP getting away with making lude gestures at female MPs, to making reforms to the tax and benefits system that disproportionately disadvantage women. And all this from a House that is still woeful in its representation of women (and the electorate for that matter).

Hiding behind EU law, for a party of government that ostensibly wants to reduce the EU’s influence over the UK, is pathetic.

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