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'Negotiations ongoing' on zero VAT rate for newer period products like menstrual cups

A report launched today found that extensive research is required to examine the impact of period poverty in Ireland.

Image: Shutterstock/Alina Kruk

NEGOTIATIONS ARE CONTINUING at EU level to give greater flexibility to member states to allow for lower VAT rates on newer period products.

That’s according to a discussion paper on period poverty published by the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and the Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman.

“Most women and girls will have 12-13 periods per year with some using up to 22 tampons and/or towels per cycle. Overall annual costs of period products for individual women, including pain relief, can be estimated at a minimum of €121,” finds the report.

The report recommends that the government work with other countries across the European Union to remove VAT on all sanitary products, including healthy and environmentally-friendly sanitary products such as cups and period-proof underwear.

In Ireland, while tampons and sanitary towels are zero-rated for VAT purposes, newer period products introduced to the market after 1991 cannot be zero rated, with the standard rate of 23% applying.

Since the 1990’s, a number of new period products have been introduced to the market, including menstrual cups, period panties, and menstrual sponges. 

A sub-committee on period poverty – which is when girls and women struggle to afford sanitary products – was established within the National Strategy for Women and Girls (NSWG) Strategy Committee in 2019. 

The committee’s remit included establishing the extent of period poverty in Ireland, as well as the population cohorts most at risk.

The committee was also tasked with considering the circumstances of young people under the age of 25, targeting of high-risk groups, stigma reduction and mainstreaming period poverty mitigation measures across all relevant government departments and public bodies.

The report, launched today, found that extensive research is required to examine the impact of period poverty in Ireland.

The programme for government commits to providing a range of free, adequate, safe and suitable period products in all educational publicly funded settings – including schools and colleges.

“While it is not possible to accurately estimate the cost to the exchequer of any reduced VAT rate, it is expected to be extremely low, given the small number of users who avail of the products concerned,” the report states. 

No significant increase in uptake as a result of a reduced VAT is expected, it adds, stating that there should be a consistent tax policy that does not limit affordability or availability for period products.

Surveys and studies needed

The committee found that more data is needed to quantify the prevalence of period poverty across all age groups and cohorts.

The first priority should be conducting surveys, studies and focus groups that “provide a comprehensive and reliable evidence base regarding the prevalence of period poverty across all age cohorts. This should be undertaken prior to the implementation of any measures to address period poverty that are likely to incur any significant cost”, finds the report.

It also recommends that there is a social stigma exists around discussions of periods and period products, stating that Government bodies should consistently use the term period products over euphemisms such as female hygiene product or female sanitary product. 

It also called for government to provide online access to educational and health resources concerning menstruation.

The report also addresses the issue of rolling out free products for schools and colleges, stating that the majority of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), schools and colleges are also privately owned and managed institutions and not public buildings.

“Such entities cannot therefore be included in any mandatory schemes to make products available in public buildings. In the event that wider data collection justifies period poverty mitigation measures provided through such organisations, any plans to make products available in these settings would have to be developed in consultation with key stakeholders, on a voluntary and “opt-in” basis,” finds the report.

The committee states that when the evidence is collected, it is possible there would be a high uptake.

Proposed legislation

The report comes as two senators have put forward proposed legislation on the issue.

Labour Senator Rebecca Moynihan first brought her Period Products (Free Provisions) Bill to the Seanad this month. If enacted, it would provide for period products to be freely available in schools, education institutions and public service buildings.

The Bill also places an obligation on the Minister for Health to engage in an information campaign to ensure people know where to obtain the products.

Modelled on the legislation introduced by the Scottish Labour Party, which will make period products freely available, the Bill places the onus on the relevant institutions to consult with women on the variety of products required.

Fianna Fáil’s Lorraine Clifford-Lee has also introduced her own Bill on the issue, with the proposed legislation aiming to ensure that everybody who needs to use period products obtains them free of charge.

The Bill, which was accepted by government, imposes an obligation on the Minister for Health to produce a scheme to set out and regulate access to free period products.

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‘Landmark step’

Welcoming the report today, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said period poverty “has long been recognised as a serious issue, in terms of both women’s health and gender equality”.

“I have no doubt that the report will prove to be a landmark step in understanding and addressing period poverty and I look forward to seeing its recommendations implemented,” he said.

Roderic O’Gorman, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, said he welcomed the recommendation to strengthen the evidence base around period poverty, to address the stigma associated with periods, to normalise periods through education and to assist those high risk groups who need it most.

“No woman, girl, intersex, trans or non-binary person who menstruates, should have to exclude themselves from the activities of daily living during menstruation or suffer the physical and mental health impacts resulting from both recurrent exclusion and the use of unsuitable period products,” he said.

Anne Rabbitte, Minister of State with responsibility for Disability at the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth said it is vital the government move forward from this report “with momentum and an intention to make sure that every person who menstruates has access to the things they need to manage a natural and common biological process. Period products are not and never should be regarded as a luxury item”.

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