VAT: women’s sanitary products

Part of Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:00 pm ar 7 Gorffennaf 2016.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 12:00, 7 Gorffennaf 2016

Clause 115 is designed to implement the Government’s pledge to abolish the so-called tampon tax, following a long-standing campaign by women’s groups, as well as by my hon. Friend Paula Sherriff and other Members from all parties. As we have heard, among those other Members was the hon. Member for Glasgow Central, who represented the Scottish National party on last year’s Finance Bill Committee, and whom I will describe as “the hon. sister” for today’s purposes.

It has taken us some time to get where we are. The EU rules have allowed countries to keep VAT exemptions and reduced rates—including zero rates—where those rates and exemptions were negotiated at the point of their joining the EU. However, there were significant restrictions on removing goods and services from VAT, which meant that under existing rules the UK had been able to reduce VAT to 5% but not remove it altogether. That is what the previous Labour Government chose to do for women’s sanitary products; following a campaign by women Labour MPs, the then Paymaster General, Dawn Primarolo, reduced the rate to the 5% minimum—but that 5% rate was left in force.

More recently, there was a grassroots campaign to remove the VAT. Prominent in that campaign was a petition, started by feminist campaigner Laura Coryton, that attracted hundreds of thousands of signatures. Similar campaigns have been run in other countries. The issue was raised in this place by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central in the Finance Bill Committee last year, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury, who then tabled an amendment to the Bill on Report. That amendment attracted considerable cross-party support, including from several Conservative Members.

The Government announced some concessions, which included finally starting negotiations on the issue at European level. Nevertheless, the matter was largely ignored during the Prime Minister’s EU renegotiation, as the Government focused on issues such as defending the interests of the City of London. The issue was finally addressed only when Ministers were staring into the face of defeat over the ultra-shambles Budget. I know that the Minister will appreciate my saying that the Chancellor became the first in history to accept not one but two amendments to his own Budget resolution: one was in my name, on green energy VAT, and the other was, of course, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury. Do not worry, I have more to say on green energy VAT later in Committee.

The amendment to the Budget resolution led to the Minister raising the issue at the European Council and it being addressed in the Council communiqué. In April, the European Commission published an action plan on VAT. That was a move further towards a single European VAT system based on the destination principle—the principle that goods and services are taxed in the country where they are consumed. The European Commission also announced a consultation with member states on proposals to allow countries to vary their reduced VAT rates on items including women’s sanitary products. One option would see the establishment of a list of goods and services on which reduced—including zero—rates could be introduced by any country. Another option would simply give member states complete freedom to select any goods they favour for reduced rates.

Of course, those steps at European level have been somewhat overtaken by the vote to leave the EU, although, as we know, European law may remain in force for some years to come. None the less, the EU VAT action plan anticipated concluding the reforms by 2018, even if we had not completed the process of leaving by that stage, so it would be helpful if the Minister could say whether the UK will now have a say on the options put forward in the EU VAT action plan and, if so, what option is favoured. I hope that he can confirm that in either case, the tampon tax would be abolished, full stop.

A pledge to abolish the tampon tax was made by the Vote Leave campaign during the referendum campaigning season. It was even suggested that that would be included in a mini-Queen’s Speech following a Brexit vote. However, as we have the Bill before us today, we can take steps without that being strictly necessary; I am sure that the Minister understands the clear, basic point.

The explanatory notes, which were of course written before the referendum vote, state :

“This clause reduces the VAT rate on the supply of women's sanitary products from 5% to zero %.”

However, I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that that is not really the case. The clause does not zero-rate women’s sanitary products; it merely provides the Treasury with enabling powers to do so, if it chooses to, at a time of its choosing. The clause leaves open the question of not only when it will do so, but whether it will so so.

That is the issue dealt with in amendment 5, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury tabled and which I have signed. There is no reason to leave the matter open-ended, given the possibility that Ministers will simply never get round to abolishing the tampon tax once the heat is off. The amendment would impose a hard deadline. If for any reason it could not be met—if we were still negotiating Brexit and the EU VAT action plan had not been concluded with the necessary reform—the Government would have to return the matter to the House by way of an amendment to a future Finance Bill, and explain why they had failed to follow through at that stage. A firm date will hold the Government’s feet to the fire and set a clear objective and a legislative backdrop, to prevent sliding.

Sadly, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury was of course not chosen for this Committee. I will not press the amendment to a vote if the Minister does not accept it, but I think my hon. Friend will want to raise the issue later, depending on the Minister’s response. It is only fair to add that I suspect that the whole House will not provide the Government with a majority as solid as the one that the Minister has in Committee. I hope that he will give some sort of positive answer today, because the change was a key pledge of the Vote Leave campaign. Other pledges seem to be unravelling fast. I hope that Conservative Members who supported Brexit will at the very least feel an obligation to follow through on the pledge. Otherwise they will be judged very badly by constituents who voted in the referendum.

It would be helpful if the Minister would address another issue, although we have not at this stage tabled an amendment on it. It is about the women’s charities that received funding from the tampon tax fund. It is understandable that many people criticised the use of a tax on women to pay for support that they often needed as a result of male violence. None the less, that money was still better than nothing while the tax continued. Now that it will be abolished, what consideration has the Treasury given to ensuring that there will in the future be stable funding for the vital work of the organisations in question?

My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury previously raised another issue with the Minister, and I want to press him on that again today. That is the fact that the benefit of zero rates is not always passed on to consumers in full. It depends largely on the market. There is evidence, for example, that in France a similar tax cut was not passed on to women, but simply bolstered the profits of retailers and manufacturers. When the rate of VAT on sanitary products was reduced to 5%, the Government said they would monitor whether the benefits were passed on to consumers here. It would be interesting, if possible, to compare the margins at that time with the margins now, to see whether that happened. Can the Minister give any information about that today, or by way of a written response later, and provide the full data from any assessment?

My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury, in her usual hands-on manner, has grasped the issue directly, and has herself negotiated a deal with leading retailers: they will pass on the cut in full. I understand, however, that some smaller retailers have yet to make that commitment, and there are others in the supply chain who could also benefit, theoretically. Will the Minister join me in urging these businesses to pass on the tax cut in full and to sign up to the arrangement that my hon. Friend has reached? Will the Minister also outline what he intends to do where companies do not pass on the benefits to women? Will he speak out against them and make it clear that the Government anticipate that this tax cut will benefit female customers, not big business shareholders, and will he consider tougher sanctions if they do not pass on the benefits? For example, is there an argument for including an enabling provision for a windfall tax in this Bill? Even if there is no current intention to use such a power, it might have a useful effect if companies know that the option to use it is in the Bill. It is sometimes easier for politicians to talk quietly if they carry a big stick. The Minister is a very effective talker, even though he does not have his stick with him this week. His thoughts on this issue would be very welcome.

We note that the Scottish National party has tabled two amendments, and the arguments for them were put forward articulately today. The amendments seek to expand the definition of “women’s sanitary products” for VAT purposes. We start from a position of sympathy, and we will support any amendments on these matters that the SNP Members choose to push to a vote.

In conclusion, we will support the clause, which has come about largely as a consequence of the campaigning of Labour Members and other Members in this House. The Government are not right to say, “job done.” On the contrary, this is a case of, “We now have the tools, and we may do the job later if we feel like it”, and that really is not good enough to meet the promises made by European leaders, the Prime Minister, his Government and the winning side in the recent referendum. It is not good enough for women. I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury. I look forward to hearing what he has to say on the other issues that I have raised.