Gerry’s News Digest 181: VAT, from rags to pads, Syria (18th December, 2015)

Hi, this is Gerry. And welcome to my News Digest for Friday 18th December 2015. On today’s show I’m going to start by talking about one of our taxes – VAT – and why it’s been annoying a lot of women. Then there’s a related story about a rather special woman and her rather special project. After that, we switch to international politics and the vote at Westminster about Syria.

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Value-added tax [1] – or VAT as we call it – is a British tax, but one that today is partly controlled by the EU. A small part of the money that EU member states raise [2] from VAT goes directly to the EU. As far as I know, VAT was only introduced into EU member states after they joined the EU but with two exceptions. The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland both had VAT before they joined the EU, and this fact is important in my story. The EU regulates VAT rates, and this means no country can set a rate below 5% at present. All member states actually set their rates well above that. The standard rate in the UK, for example is currently 20%. In Britain and Ireland, however, you’ll find that some goods and services are taxed at 0%. This is for historical reasons. When VAT was first introduced into Britain in 1973, it was decided that food and other products that are considered necessities [3] would be taxed at 0%. No VAT, in other words on necessities. But it’s not easy to define a necessity. Food, books, newspapers, children’s clothes are all necessities as far as VAT is concerned. Chocolate and crisps aren’t and they’re taxed. A cold sandwich isn’t taxed but a hot snack, such as a kebab, is. A chocolate chip biscuit (in other words a biscuit with pieces of chocolate inside it) isn’t taxed but a biscuit covered in chocolate is. This is typical of any tax system that has exemptions [4] or allowances [5]. You soon find anomalies [6]. The thing is that the list of British 0% rated products was drawn up in 1972. The EU agreed that Britain could keep its 0% rate but only on the products on that list. There could be no new products that were 0% rated. The minimum rate allowed by the EU is 5%.

The reason why women have been protesting about VAT is because so-called feminine hygiene products, that’s to say tampons [7], sanitary pads [8], etc., were not on the 1972 list. They were not considered necessities. You’ll find many women who will tell you that the reason for that decision is because it was probably a committee of men who drafted the original list. Women’s sanitary products were originally taxed at the full VAT rate, which would be 20% today, but in 2001 the government re-classified them and put them at the 5% rate.

This year a petition [9] was started to protest about even the 5% tax rate. It led to a debate in the House of Commons demanding that the government scrap [10] VAT on tampons completely. The government claimed that it was sympathetic to [11] the demand but that its hands were tied [12]. There’ll be an EU review of VAT in 2016 and the case will be made then. At the end of the debate, the House of Commons backed [13] the government but not before we witnessed a funny moment. Menstruation [14] is one of those topics that men, particularly men of a certain age, don’t feel very comfortable talking about. In this debate, some Eurosceptics [15] saw an opportunity to have a go at [16] the EU and for that reason were keen to support the women who were leading the attack on that tax. One of the Labour women MPs [17] who was speaking in favour of abolishing the tax welcomed an intervention by one of the old Conservatives who had come to join the debate but she complained that the “honourable gentleman [18]” was refusing to use the word “tampon”. He insisted on talking about “these products”. The Labour MP said that she would not sit down until the “honourable gentleman” had used the word “tampon”. There was much laughter, and in the end the old Tory MP obliged her by uttering [19] the word “tampon” to great cheers all round.

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“These products” featured in another news story recently about a yoga teacher, a mother of young children, who has become a campaigner [20]. Her name is Amy Peake and she was shocked by the pictures of refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. She began to wonder in 2014 what it would be like to be living there. She wondered how the women coped with their periods [21]. She was right to wonder. There aren’t enough sanitary pads available and the commercially produced ones are anyway too expensive. Amy Peake then read about an Indian man called, and I hope I can pronounce his name, Arunachalam Muruganantham. This man has developed a machine to produce cheap sanitary pads. It can be installed in a village and operated by local women. He got his idea from finding out that his wife had nothing but old rags [22] to use for her periods. Amy Peake thought that his machines could also be set up in the refugee camps to provide pads for women as well as incontinent [23] old people and traumatised children who wet the bed [24]. She made a number of trips to India talking not only to the man with the long name but also to other people who had copied and adapted his idea. Now at the end of 2015 Amy Peake has got a plan to start producing pads for menstruation and incontinence in one of the biggest camps in Jordan close to the border with Syria. The United Nations have approved her plan and production is about to start. An inspiring story, I think: one woman really trying to make a difference, and dealing with an everyday need that doesn’t often get much attention – from men, at least. There’s a link to the full story on the website [25].

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Probably the biggest political story in the past few weeks was the 10-hour debate in the House of Commons leading to a vote on whether Britain should join the bombing campaign in Syria. The debate came shortly after the shootings in Paris. In fact the events in Paris were one of the factors that led the government to propose the bombing campaign. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, had already been defeated on this issue in the last parliament when the Labour leader at that time, Ed Miliband, decided not to support the government. The government’s case then was that Britain should join the opposition to President Assad in the civil war there. Labour’s position was that neither the legal case for intervening in a civil war nor the practical case as to whether air strikes [26] would do any good had been convincingly made. So they voted against. Now the situation has changed, however – both the situation in Syria and the political situation in Britain. In Syria, the group variously known as Isis, Isil, IS or Daesh is now the primary concern for the Western allies. The British are already bombing IS positions in Iraq. The legality of that is based on a request by the Iraqi government for help. The fact that IS is present on both sides of the border between Iraq and Syria was used as an argument by the government in the latest debate. It makes no sense, they said, to be fighting IS in Iraq but not in Syria. They also argued that IS is a threat to British security and we have a right to defend ourselves against attack. The government does not want to go as far as sending any troops [27] to the area. They describe the role of the Americans, French and British as being to support the other anti-Assad forces who, they say, are also fighting against IS.

The new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is and always has been against any military intervention in the Middle East or anywhere else. He leads a party that is, however, deeply divided on this issue. It was the Labour government led by Tony Blair, after all, that took the British into Iraq as America’s main ally in 2003, although there are not so many people today who still think that that was the right thing to do. There are nevertheless a considerable [28] number of Labour MPs who see themselves as internationalists. They see IS as a fascist organisation. We should therefore be ready to defend the victims of oppression as we did in the Second World War, they say. Jeremy Corbyn having voted against the party leadership on Iraq in 2003 was now faced with opposition to his own leadership. He agreed that Labour MPs should have a free vote. Over 60 of them voted on the government side. Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman was one of them. But 153 Labour MPs supported Jeremy Corbyn, as did the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. In fact both Scotland and Wales voted clearly against the government. About 10 Conservative MPs also voted against their own party. Their opposition was mainly based on scepticism about the government’s military strategy. In the end, however, the government won the vote with a big majority, and British planes are now flying over Syria.

From a Swiss point of view, based on the principle of neutrality, all the debate about the pros and cons of intervention must seem strange, to say the least. In Britain, however, there is a history of military interventions. Some of the recent ones are generally considered to have been a good thing. Declaring war on Germany in 1939, for example, is a precedent that’s still being used. Many feel that if we had intervened earlier in Bosnia we might have saved lives. On the other hand, our interventions in Iraq and Libya cannot be said to have led to peace and prosperity for the citizens of those countries. As for Afghanistan, the debate goes on. For most of our MPs, the Syria vote was a hard decision to make, and you could sense that in the atmosphere that day and in the words of those who spoke.

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Don’t forget the vocabulary trainer on the prize-winning Podclub app. And remember if you’ve got anything to say about any of my topics, write to me via the website: www.podclub.ch. Or use Twitter: my Twitter address is @Gerrypod. This is my last show for 2015, so let me wish you a merry Christmas and all the very best for the coming year. I’ll talk to you again in 2016. Until then, take care!


[1] value-added tax: Mehrwertsteuer / taxes sur la valueur ajoutée / imposta sul valore aggiunto / taglia sin la plivalur
[2] to raise: here: to collect, to generate (money)
[3] necessity: something that you need to have, something that is necessary
[4] exemption: permission to ignore something, not to count/include something (for example when you calculate tax)
[5] allowance: here: permission to include something, an amount of something that you are officially permitted to have (for example when calculating tax)
[6] anomaly: something that is unexpected (here: something that seems not to follow the rule)
[7] tampon: something that a woman puts inside her body (into her vagina) to collect the blood during her period (menstruation)
[8] sanitary pad: a thick piece of soft material that a woman puts inside her underwear to collect blood during her period (menstruation)
[9] petition: a collection/list of signatures from people (who demand something)
[10] to scrap: to abolish, to get rid of
[11] to be sympathetic to: to support, to be in favour of (NB false friend!)
[12] its hands were tied: it was prevented from acting, there was something that made it impossible for it to take any action
[13] to back: to support
[14] menstruation: the monthly flow of blood from a woman’s womb
[15] Eurosceptic: a person who is anti-EU
[16] to have a go at: here: to attack
[17] MP: Member of Parliament
[18] honourable gentleman: the name given to a male member of the House of Commons
[19] to utter: to say
[20] campaigner: a person who fights for something (in a political way)
[21] period: here: the time of menstruation
[22] rags: small pieces of cloth
[23] incontinent: unable to control your bladder, unable to control when you go to the toilet
[24] to wet the bed: to go to the toilet (urinate) in the bed
[25] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-34925238
[26] air strikes: attacks by aeroplanes (with bombs, missiles, etc.)
[27] troops: soldiers
[28] considerable: significant, substantial