Comment: Osborne’s tampon tax ‘gift’ is an insult to women

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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I BET whichever Spad/civil servant it was that first came up with the idea of using the tampon tax to fund domestic violence refuges (and other women’s health and support services) thought he’d played an absolute blinder.

I bet there was high-fiving and back-slapping all over the shop when he shared it with his fellow Spads/civil servants. I bet they were all so pleased with themselves, they clocked off early to go to the pub, then stood around saying: “That’s the last we’ll hear about VAT on sanitary products.” And I bet, when the plan met with less than wholehearted approval, they eye-rolled and tutted about the contrariness of women and joked that it must be our collective “time of the month”.

Tone deaf the lot of them. Because if they weren’t, they’d understand: it’s bad enough to need tampons, it’s worse to be taxed on them, but to be told they’ll be used to plug gaps in front-line services for victims of violence is beyond the pale, especially when those gaps have been caused by the government’s own austerity policies. To put it another way, under the scheme unveiled in George Osborne’s spending review last week, money raised only by women will be used to tackle a problem caused predominantly by men. Or try this: victims of domestic abuse will be expected to fund their own safety and counselling through a levy on their bleeding. In fact, there is no palatable way to present this decision, as Osborne would have known if he had spent half a minute reflecting on the symbolism of it. Or, better still, running it past a few women in his inner circle. Oh, wait…

Instead, the Chancellor smiled his smug smile as he offered up his “gift” to the female voter. He knew he was laying a trap and hoped to sit back and watch women walk right into it. After all, what better way to silence campaigners than to offer to support a cause that is close to their hearts? To spurn a cash bonus that could prove a lifeline to someone fleeing their violent partner is bound to be seen as self-defeating and unsisterly, even if you know it’s a sop – a bribe to stop women free-bleeding outside the House of Commons and an excuse to avoid the complex negotiations with the EU that might lead to the ludicrous levy being abolished.

This is, presumably, why some campaigners – including Caroline Criado-Perez – have reluctantly embraced the tampon tax plan as making the best of a bad situation. In England, funding for domestic violence-related charities has been slashed and refuges are closing. In Scotland too, refuges – like all third sector organisations – have a precarious existence, living hand to mouth and constantly on tenterhooks as they wait to find out if the next round of funding has been secured. The £2m already allocated to Women’s Aid/SafeLives will be used to provide an early intervention service it could not otherwise have afforded. The Eve Appeal and The Haven (both women’s cancer charities) will also benefit from the first £5m, with other organisations invited to bid for the rest. When budgets are stretched – and services shrinking – it’s best not to look a gift horse in the mouth, Criado-Perez reckons.

But the message Osborne’s announcement sends out does matter: why use tax from women’s products? Why not from beer or razors or something else purchased chiefly by men? Are we really saying sanitary protection should pay for physical protection? Based on what? The arbitrary association of words, stripped of context? Comparing the plan to the way the Libor fines are spent on good causes doesn’t help either. There is some logic to greedy bankers giving back to the society they have plundered, none at all to effectively absolving men from having to deal with the consequences of male violence.

Ideological objections aside, the principle of siphoning off a levy on one product to fund a vital service is fraught with risk. It is true that, under Osborne’s initiative, the tampon tax will be on top of money provided from the central pot, but there is no guarantee that will continue. What if future chancellors see it as an excuse to make further cuts? What if they decide the tampon tax would be better spent on other stretched services? And what if the EU eventually agrees it should be scrapped? Will charities who have launched new ventures on the back of the extra funding have to abandon them or pass round the begging bowl to find alternative sources of finance?

Making sure the proceeds from the tampon tax goes to women’s charities has a superficial appeal if you don’t stop to consider the underlying assumptions, but it is an attempt to distract us from more important issues. The taxing of sanitary products may be an anomaly caused by our early entry into the EU, it may be set at the lowest possible level (5 per cent), but it is still iniquitous and the priority should be to get it abolished ASAP 
(let’s not forget MPs last month rejected an amendment to the Finance Bill, which would have forced a negotiation with the EU, by 305 votes to 287).

As for women’s refuges, we ought to be defending their status as an essential service deserving of state funding, not accepting Osborne’s offer with a gratitude and subservience that ignores the fact the government is responsible for the reduction in provision in the first place. As campaigners hold their annual 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, we should remember that neither tampons nor women’s shelters are luxuries. Anything else plays straight into the Chancellor’s hands.