As part of the EU, the UK was bound by the EU VAT Directive. This meant that the VAT rate on sanitary products couldn’t go below the 5% in any EU country. Since leaving the EU, the UK government have reduced this to 0% VAT on tampons and sanitary pads.

Will this make my tampons cheaper?

VAT is collected and paid to HMRC by businesses. Most businesses pass on this cost to their customers. And they can cut their prices if the VAT rate they need to apply to their products or services is reduced. But they don’t have to.

So businesses now need to apply zero rated VAT to the sanitary products they sell, instead of the previous 5%. They collect and pay 0% – nothing – to the government. But they don’t have to cut their prices. The pricing of their goods is up to them. HMRC don’t make them lower prices simply because they have less VAT to pay to them.

Why did they bother then?

Period Poverty is an issue for girls and women around the world – including in the UK. Cutting the VAT on sanitary products “is part of wider government action to End Period Poverty which includes the roll out of free sanitary products in schools, colleges and hospitals”, according to an HMRC news story.

It’s one part of a wider solution, to make sure that no women or girls endure the ill health effects and humiliation that lack of access to sanitary products brings.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak said:

“I’m proud that we are today delivering on our promise to scrap the tampon tax. Sanitary products are essential so it’s right that we do not charge VAT. We have already rolled out free sanitary products in schools, colleges and hospitals and this commitment takes us another step closer to making them available and affordable for all women.”

Periods aren’t an optional extra

But it’s not just about the financial cost. It’s a recognition that women’s periods exist as a matter of fact and that sanitary products are a necessity – not a non-essential item.

Fawcett Society Chief Executive, Felicia Willow said: “It’s been a long road to reach this point, but at last the sexist tax that saw sanitary products classed as non-essential, luxury items can be consigned to the history books.”

In 2015, the government also set up The Tampon Tax Fund. This “allocates funds generated from the VAT on sanitary products” to charities supporting girls and women. Donating a total of £47 million since it started.

Where you can get free sanitary products

There are different approaches to this, depending on which UK country you live in.

  • Northern Ireland: There is no scheme like this in Northern Ireland at the moment
  • Scotland: The Scottish government announced legislation in November 2020 which means that schools, colleges and universities are legally obliged to provide free period products for their students. They’ve also placed a legal obligation on local authorities to make sure that anyone who needs them has access to menstrual cups, tampons and sanitary towels.
  • Wales: The Welsh government gave additional funding to primary and secondary schools in 2020 to make sure their pupils can get free period products.
  • England: English state primary and secondary schools, and colleges can order period products for their students. This started in January 2020 and means that they’re free to the girls and women.

Other organisations, charities, shops and universities also provide free period products to girls and women in need, at a locally organised level.

This new categorisation of period products as ‘essential’, in tax terms, is a positive step forward. It also contributes to the wider discussion of a subject that many people would prefer not to participate in. You might not see a difference at the till. But there will be more coverage given to this and, by extension the surrounding important issues.