[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of VAT on sunscreen products.
We should be united across this House in our efforts to beat cancer, and that means all cancers—not just the ones it is politically expedient to target. Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, killing 2,300 people each year. It receives only a fraction of the political attention it deserves, especially when we consider that 90% of cases are preventable with adequate skin protection—that is more than 2,000 lives we could save each year.
In recent years, both melanoma and non-melanoma cancers have been on the rise across the UK, with around 16,000 new cases of melanoma diagnosed each year— 90% of which, as I said, could be prevented by staying safe in the sun. With Cancer Research UK finding that getting sunburnt just once every two years can triple a person’s risk of melanoma, which sunscreen plays a vital role in preventing, it is just common sense that we should work together to make sunscreen products that bit more affordable for our constituents.
With the support of several organisations and Members across the House, my VAT Burn campaign seeks to reform the value added tax charged on sunscreen products of SPF 30 and above—products deemed by the NHS to provide significant enough coverage to our skin if applied correctly. Removing VAT from sunscreen is not a radical idea; in fact, when asked, most people are surprised, if not shocked, that VAT is charged on sunscreen. It is not a novel idea; both the US and Australia have made sunscreen exempt from VAT-style taxes. But removing VAT is a necessary idea—one that should, can and must be done to promote sun safety measures and reduce cases of skin cancer. It would be an important step to demonstrate the UK Parliament’s commitment to sun safety and send a clear message to the public about the importance of sunscreen.
We should not stop there. As in Australia, removing VAT from sunscreen should go hand in hand with an awareness campaign. The Australian Slip, Slop, Slap campaign was a huge success, and there is no reason why something similar could not be replicated in the UK. This is not hard. As Australia and the US have shown, any barriers to implementing this policy change are surmountable. That is why there are two folds to my VAT Burn campaign: first, to reform the value added tax charged on sunscreen products; secondly, education and awareness around skin protection from the sun. I encourage colleagues present today and others to sign early-day motion 839, in my name, which calls on the Government to launch an Australia-style awareness campaign around skin protection in the sun and the risks of prolonged sun exposure.
Sunscreen products are currently treated and defined as cosmetics or luxury goods for VAT purposes, which, given their clear health benefit, is unacceptable and unjust, particularly with temperatures rising—although, I must say that sunscreen should not be worn only when we perceive it to be hot outside. It should be worn all year round, which is why I launched this campaign in February, on World Cancer Day, and not at a sunnier time.
I am incredibly passionate about this issue, and I will put front and centre the reasons why. People like me, whether because of background, class or opportunities, do not tend to end up in this place. For those who do, we end up in politics, I hope, to create positive change for us and for our communities, but most importantly, for our constituents. Not many 30-year-olds—nor Members of Parliament, for that matter—can speak from a position of experience of having survived melanoma twice. It would be a dereliction of duty to my fellow cancer survivors, my surgeon and my family if I did not use that experience to speak up for those who cannot.
I will clarify that VAT Burn seeks a VAT exemption for sunscreen products of factor 30 and above, with a four-star UVA rating and marketed exclusively as sun protection. I will be crystal clear that this exemption will not encompass products from the cosmetics industry, such as foundations including SPF, as those products provide little or—I argue—no protection from the sun.
The anomaly of sunscreen products being exempt from VAT is longstanding, and seems perfectly reason to question, given we are in a cost of living crisis and a climate crisis. Also, given the VAT relief provided to drugs, medicines, medicinal products and aids for the disabled, it seems logical that preventive healthcare measures should be exempt too. Many of my constituents will find it hard to believe that the like of Calpol and paracetamol are exempt from VAT, but not sunscreen products.
The Government line that sunscreen products are exempt from VAT when dispensed by a pharmacist simply does not hold up to scrutiny. First, only a tiny amount of the population receive sunscreen on prescription. Secondly, prescriptions are already free in Scotland, meaning that our constituents do not receive any benefit from that. The Government, I assume, will also argue that this policy will cost the Treasury too much money. But given that it is estimated to cost somewhere in the region of £40 million, which is only 0.03% of the total amount of VAT the Government receive, it is a tiny amount of money in the context. This is clearly not about the money; it is about the Government’s unwillingness to act.
We should not be talking about money, especially the money it will cost the Government. Instead, let us think of the lives that can be saved—those 2,030 lives per year that I mentioned earlier. Let us think of the effort saved by our NHS diagnosing and treating less skin cancers. The money saved within this vital public health service cannot be ignored. At the risk of pre-empting the Minister’s response, why does she recognise the merits of zero-rating some products, but not sunscreen? Do the Government value the protection of our skin from the sun? Do they see merit in an Australian-style awareness campaign? Will the Minister take the proposal to the Prime Minister, and share his views on whether sunscreen products should be more affordable to our constituents?
I understand that there are some reservations about VAT exemptions, because previous zero ratings have not produced savings for consumers. That is exactly why, as part of VAT Burn, I have a pledge for retailers and producers to sign up to. I can confirm today that Morrisons has agreed to sign up to it, and, given that Tesco already absorbs the VAT on sunscreen products, I feel confident that our constituents will see a saving when it comes to sunscreen, should the Government choose to back VAT Burn.
VAT Burn is the product of months of work. To be honest, I never wanted to get to this stage. When I submitted a written question pointing out the anomaly of VAT charged on sunscreen, I had hoped that the Minister would respond positively, and the UK Government would intervene to remove the VAT and quickly bring sunscreen into line with all other healthcare products. But that was not the case. I was told people should wear hats, cover up and sit in the shade, while the Minister curiously ignored sunscreen. Those are important measures to keep safe in the sun, but only alongside wearing sunscreen.
I organised a cross-party letter to the Chancellor, and 40 MPs from every major political party signed the letter. The Chancellor, at the time the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), reiterated the UK Government’s opposition to removing the VAT, citing the same arguments as before: sunscreen alone does not mean someone is safe in the sun. But no one ever said that it does; it is clearly just one part of the solution. When the Chancellor changed, and we had a former Health Secretary in post, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), I re-sent the letter. I hoped that someone with experience in health policy would see the sense in this simple change, but I received another stock rejection.
Whether it was parliamentary questions or meetings with Ministers, none of it has got us anywhere. That is why we are here today, and why the campaign is being covered in the media. It is why six charities are backing the campaign, and why I will keep pushing until we see movement on the issue—specifically, with a ten-minute rule Bill on VAT Burn on 23 February.
I touched very briefly on the organisations supporting VAT Burn. I place on record my thanks to each and every one of them for the great work they do to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of cancer and its impact. I thank the Teenage Cancer Trust, Skcin, Melanoma UK, Young Lives vs Cancer, Melanoma Focus, and, last but not least, Melanoma Action and Support Scotland—Scotland’s only skin cancer specific charity, based in my constituency of East Dunbartonshire.
It is also a workers’ issue. Too many workers spend prolonged periods of time exposed to the sun without adequate, or any, protection. I note that Police Scotland provide their officers with sunscreen if they spend prolonged periods of their shift exposed to the sun. If sunscreen were more affordable, more employers would step up and provide sunscreen products for their staff. This Government proposed to provide free sunscreen to all emergency workers. It would be useful to get an update on that from the Minister. No worker should be put at unnecessary risk of skin cancer due to a lack of sunscreen being provided by their employer.
This common-sense approach to zero rating sunscreen can help everyone. It almost feels daft that I have to stand here today and make a case for it. Let us agree to work together to make this simple change for the benefit of all our skin.
“It won’t happen to me”—that is what we all think. But then it does. It happened to me. Back in 2019, I noticed a blemish on my left arm. Knowing that both my parents had benign skin cancer, I decided to get it checked out. After a biopsy, my blemish was diagnosed as melanoma and I underwent surgery to remove the cancer. I was one of the lucky ones. The melanoma had not spread. I was not ill. I was discharged from the cancer specialist in 2020, free from melanoma. While I am left with an impressive scar on my left arm, the outcome could have been so different had I not been aware of the signs to look for and caught the cancer early.
One in 36 men and one in 47 women in the UK will be diagnosed with melanoma in their lifetime. Tragically, 2,300 people die from the disease each year. That number has included a business acquaintance of mine, who very sadly passed away in his early 40s, and BBC Radio Derby presenter Colin Bloomfield, who passed away at the age of just 33 in April 2015 after his melanoma metastasised to his lungs.
These deaths do not need to happen—86% of melanomas are preventable by adopting simple sun protection. That is why I back the call for sun protection of SPF 30 and above to be available VAT-free. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) on securing today’s debate and on all the work she has done on this issue.
The Government can do a lot, but they cannot stop people going out in the sun; they can do a lot, but they cannot change the weather. But they can remove VAT from sunscreen. We need to remove every possible barrier that could stand in the way of people buying a life-saving product. At the same time, such a measure sends out the message that the Government are serious about tackling all types of cancer. From an economic perspective, a healthy workforce is a productive workforce. The cost to the NHS of not taking action against a preventable cancer must be huge. We need to break down the silos in the NHS, between the NHS and the Treasury, and between all Government Departments, and look at the cost of not removing VAT on such a product.
As is often the case, each and every one of us needs to take some personal responsibility. They say that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. We should be taking the same preventive measures during the hot summer months here that we would if we were on holiday abroad. That includes seeking shade, wearing a hat and loose clothing, and keeping out of the sun when it is most prevalent. Through a combination of these actions, we will see a noticeable decline in cases of melanoma, which at the moment takes far too many lives, far too early, but the Government have a part to play as well.
It is pleasure to be called to speak in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) for bringing the issue forward. She and I have been friends for a long time in this House, and I am really pleased to see her in her role here. We share APPG roles and I deputise for her—not very well; she does it much better than I do. What a pleasure it is to be here.
I want to add a Northern Ireland perspective to this debate, as I always do. I fully support the hon. Lady’s request to reduce VAT on sunscreen products. Melanoma is a growing health problem in Northern Ireland. My office has six staff members, and three of them—50%—told me that they have immediate family members who had melanoma. One of the younger girls, who is in her early 20s, admitted that she used sunbeds until her father had third-stage melanoma. This is not a disease of the tropics. Perhaps because of our skin and where we are from, we take the sun a wee bit more aggressively than they do in the Mediterranean, for instance. We usually go boiled red to start with, and then when the pain is too much we move to the sunscreen, which we should have done at the very beginning.
It has been found that 86% of cases of melanoma can be prevented by adopting simple sun protection measures, including wearing factor 30-plus sunscreen. That is a very small thing to do, but the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire and for Erewash (Maggie Throup) and I are asking the Government to do something to incentivise that. We are not asking for a lot; we are just asking for a wee nudge in the right direction. The United States of America and Australia have already done that.
The incidence is increasing, and there are now more than 16,000 new cases of melanoma skin cancer each year in the UK. The problem is growing, and therefore the need is greater than it ever was. Of course, that does not take into account repeat diagnoses of melanoma—the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said that she got it twice.
In the 15-to-44 age group, melanoma skin cancer is the second most common cancer in males and the third most common in females. I find it difficult to comprehend why that is the case when all those people were taught the dangers of the sun in school. We were told to be careful when we go out—mum and dad told us that as well, but more often than not we ignored it.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, despite people believing they do not need to wear sunscreen in Scotland, Northern Ireland and other places across the UK, it is essential that they do? They are more likely to contract melanoma if they are pale and fair haired, or have red hair, which is common in our isles.
In my case, with no hair.
You’ve got a wee bit.
I’ve got a wee bit round the sides. I used to have a whole lot of hair. The hon. Lady makes a fantastic point, and it is true: we are of a fair skin, and that right away puts us in the target area.
We have the information, but for some reason the message just is not getting across. One in 36 males and one in 47 females will be diagnosed with the deadliest form of skin cancer in their lives, so we need to stop seeing sunscreen as a luxury, like a nice moisturiser. We should instead see it as an essential, like good nutrition or drinking water. If it is put in that category, the seriousness of what we are trying to achieve will be clear.
One way of getting the message across is to make it cheaper to purchase sunscreen. My speechwriter—a very busy girl—loves her holidays abroad. I think it is because it means she does not have to answer my calls for two weeks. She has no speeches to prepare, and of course she has no internet access due to overseas roaming charges. She never buys sunscreen before she goes because it is half the price in Florida—that is where they go for their holiday every year. She waits until she gets to Florida and buys enough to bring home and do the whole year back here, because the savings are significant. Hon. Members might say that is an Ulsterman or Ulsterwoman thing, but we do look for a bargain. If it is a bargain that helps our skin and protects us, that is why we do it.
In the US, sunscreen products have been exempt from VAT-style taxes since 2012. In Australia, they are exempt provided they are principally marketed for use as a sunscreen and have an SPF rating of 15 or more. The reason for that is that in Australia and America, sunscreen is seen as an essential daily living product. That is how they categorise it. Some of us have been conditioned to see it as a holiday item, but they see it as something they need to have all the time. Many people who have never gone abroad have melanoma. It is not a holiday problem; it is a lifetime problem.
Public polling indicates that many people find the cost of sunscreen too high, and with the current cost of living crisis deepening, that cost is likely to deter increasing numbers of people from buying sunscreen. The major retailers Tesco and Asda have recognised cost as a prohibitive barrier for people buying sunscreen, and Tesco reduced the price of its own-brand sunscreen by 20% in 2021 to offset VAT. In a consumer poll—such polls are good barometers of what people are thinking—some 57% of respondents said that the product was too expensive, and 29% claimed that they would wear it daily if it were a little bit cheaper. Incentivise it, make it happen and address the issue.
The call for VAT to be removed from sunscreen was part of a sun safety campaign in 2013. That is why I support removing VAT from sunscreens that are factor 30 or more: as Melanoma Focus has said, doing so will make sunscreen more affordable and send a powerful message from the Government about the importance of skin protection. We only have one chance for our skin: it will last us our lifetime, but if we have constant cases of melanoma, then unfortunately it might not last us for the right time. I further support the recommendation that that measure be coupled with a Government-backed cross-media awareness campaign akin to the Australian Government’s successful Slip, Slop, Slap campaign, which the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire referred to. It reminds me of one of those catchy 1960s tunes from when I was a wee boy—I am aging myself by saying that —but a campaign is significant.
With increasing temperatures in the United Kingdom from climate change, such a measure is becoming increasingly urgent. The hon. Member deserves great gratitude for bringing this debate forward, because—as others have said, and as those who follow my speech will say as well—this is an urgent subject. Removing VAT from sunscreen would not have been possible under EU rules, but it is now; there is nothing to restrict us, except those of us who live in Northern Ireland. I hate to say it, but in every debate I have, I have to temper everything with the Northern Ireland protocol. In Northern Ireland, we would not be able to take advantage of leaving the EU in this way, due to the protocol. However, that is a different issue for another day.
Melanoma Focus believes that if this policy were implemented, the reduction in VAT revenue would be offset by reduced melanoma skin cancer cases and therefore reduced costs to the NHS. That is a crucial factor: if we take action to ensure that people can protect themselves more by being able to buy sunscreen that wee bit cheaper, we can ensure that those people do not need ongoing healthcare, with its associated costs. That seems logical to me.
The hon. Gentleman is making a great speech, and I welcome his support for VAT Burn. On his point about the EU, there are little to no advantages of Scotland being outwith the EU, but while we are tied to this place and also outwith the EU, we can reform the VAT on products such as sunscreen. We will take that tiny little benefit that we can, and we appreciate it.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. We certainly encourage the Government to take advantage of opportunities to promote better health as a result of leaving the EU.
The “Getting It Right First Time” NHS review of dermatology highlights high and increasing demand for skin cancer treatment, with 200,000 surgical operations for suspected skin cancer carried out every year, and skin cancer rates doubling every 14 to 15 years. That is the main factor driving the request being made today. When it comes to health, those are the stark figures, and I believe they highlight the need for additional workforce to meet current and future pressures, and also suggest that we need to raise sun and skin awareness to reduce pressures on dermatology services.
In conclusion, I support the call to remove VAT from sunscreen. I say to the Minister, who knows that I respect her greatly, that we make that call today because we believe it is worth supporting. The Government have taken other steps when it comes to VAT—the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire referred to sanitary products. Removing VAT from those products was something that the Government should have done; they did so, and I welcome that. Today, we make another request.
It is not just a matter of listening; it is also about taking action to protect our people and our NHS, and the future of its services. Here is a figure for everyone— 85% of cancer is preventable. This is preventable, if we take some steps in the right direction. Let us take the steps in this place to prevent it right across all of this great nation, this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) on her excellent work in securing this debate and on her powerful speech. I also commend colleagues from all parties in the House for their speeches.
I want to make three brief points, first about the obvious importance of sun protection, secondly about the context of the cost of living crisis, and thirdly about the importance of investment in public health.
First, on sun protection, we have heard a persuasive argument today about the importance of protecting ourselves from skin cancer. Quite clearly, it is a threat that can be managed and that we can protect ourselves from, and the hon. Member is absolutely right to point that out. However, those 2,000 preventable deaths surely prompts a question for the Government: what is the state of their current public health work on this important matter? I hope that the Minister will be able to answer that in detail when she responds.
I also urge colleagues from all parties in the House to consider the context for families—who will perhaps have started thinking at this time about booking a summer holiday, or going away for a weekend or to the seaside at Easter—because we are living through the most serious and sustained cost of living crisis for 40 years. When families go to purchase everyday goods, they will see cost increases of around 20% for those goods in the supermarket, and there is a real issue with additional items possibly not being bought as a result. We need to understand that that is a huge risk. There have been many reports in the media of families paring back other products and services because they are under such severe pressure. I hope the Minister will consider that context and see the obvious additional importance of wise public health advice and any measures that are deemed necessary.
When we consider the cost of the summer as a whole for families, particularly those with two or even three children, which involves buying hats, sunglasses, loose-fitting clothing—as we heard earlier—and sunscreen, there are quite obviously considerable extra costs for the many families who are thinking about a summer holiday, either in the UK or abroad. Obviously, sunscreen is part of that cost, so the point that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire made about the cost of sunscreen is an important one.
Finally, I turn to the need for more investment in public health. It is noticeable that in this country we have a very strong tradition of public information campaigns, which have actually been very successful over the years. Some of us will remember campaigns such as Clunk Click, or other campaigns to try to prevent smoking or many other health risks. What are the Government prepared to do to try to prevent the risk of melanoma, perhaps through better advice, through the media and by directing Government information in a more effective way?
There is also a wider point about working with the health service and other public health professionals. It is a tragedy that since 2010, and certainly for the period immediately before the pandemic, there was a cut in Government spending on public health. In my opinion that is a tragedy, and sadly many important health priorities were allowed to drift in that time, including action to tackle smoking, and there may well be other important measures that were not supported, possibly including the battle against melanoma.
I am conscious of time, so to conclude, this is an important health issue, and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire has made an interesting point. This debate is also timely, given that this is the time of year when many families are booking holidays and considering what to do in the summer, and at Easter and in other holiday periods approaching in the spring. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, and I hope she will address a number of the points made today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I am delighted to participate in the debate and I pay tribute to my esteemed colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan), for her pursuit of this important matter and for her excellent, comprehensive and very powerful opening speech.
My hon. Friend, along with the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), came to Westminster Hall today to speak as a survivor. That gives what they say power and authenticity. When survivors speak, it is incumbent on us all to listen to the lessons they are trying to teach us. Whether we are in government or not, what they say matters and must be listened to in that way.
It seems odd to most people that suncream is not already classified as an essential healthcare item in the UK and, as such, is not exempt from VAT. After all, we know and have heard today in some detail that suncream plays a vital role in preventing serious health conditions such as skin cancer. In all honesty, I am not aware of anybody who wears suncream for cosmetic purposes; they wear it because the consequences of exposing themselves to the sun without sunscreen are extremely serious and potentially fatal. That is because it provides protection against harmful ultraviolet radiation. Importantly, it is strictly regulated to ensure that it provides sufficient ultraviolet protection for consumers, so there is no sense or logic in classifying it as a cosmetic product.
As we have heard, that is recognised in the US, where sunscreen is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and in Canada, where it is classified as a non-prescription drug, so there is international precedent for reclassifying the product as a healthcare item. The hon. Member for Strangford reminded us of those international examples and precedents for the change that everybody in the Chamber seeks.
The debate matters, and it is even more important when we consider that skin cancer is now much more common across the UK, where around 16,000 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed each year. Of the 16,000 people who are diagnosed, about 2,300 will die. Cancer Research UK concludes that being sunburnt just once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma, and statistics show that more than one in four skin cancer cases are diagnosed in people under 50. When we consider the cost of treating the growing numbers of people diagnosed with skin cancer, removing VAT from suncream should be considered as important preventive spend. I suspect that the Minister will tell us about the pressure on the public finances and the significant contribution that VAT makes to the public finances, but, like others in the debate, I find it unbelievable that simply removing VAT from sunscreen—that one act on its own—would create insurmountable fiscal challenges for the Treasury. It would make sunscreen more affordable, and that can only be positive when we think about the quest to reduce skin cancer cases and pressure on our NHS.
Some retailers, such as Tesco, have decided to absorb the cost of VAT on sunscreen, so that at the point of sale the consumer is spared that cost. It is worth noting that when Tesco made that announcement, in May 2021, consumers were outraged to discover that sunscreen was subject to VAT. There is a lesson in that outrage for all of us and for the Government: we are working in a situation in which the public believe one thing when the reality is entirely different. Of course, the public are using logic, which we all want the Government to use. The work that Tesco and other retailers have done is to be applauded, but it is a pity that the Government will not and have not taken the lead on the issue and shown that they understand the importance of making that important health product VAT-free.
Tesco made the decision to absorb the cost of VAT on its sunscreen products because, after it did some research, it discovered that 57% of adults think sunscreen is too expensive, 29% say that they would wear it daily if it was a little bit cheaper and 31% of parents—this is important in terms of the stats for melanoma—state that they cannot always afford to apply sunscreen to the whole family. That means that this is not really a debate about sunscreen; it is a debate about public health. It is hugely disappointing that the Government are content to leave this important public health concern to the discretion of retailers, who have taken a lead on the issue. It is important that retailers have done so when the Government have not acted, because we know how financially challenged households are at this time.
I do not want to second-guess what the Minister will say, but I suspect that she will say that high factor sunscreen is available on the NHS on prescription for certain conditions, and therefore is provided VAT-free when dispensed by a pharmacist. That point has been made to me in the past. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire said, that does not really help someone in Scotland; to be honest, it does not really help all the people who do not get it on prescription but who would benefit enormously from using it.
Removing VAT from sunscreen for everybody will help make the product just a little cheaper during these difficult times. More people would be able to stretch to affording it and would get the protection they need, and it would thereby help to prevent some of the 16,000 diagnoses a year of melanoma. We all urge the Minister to rethink. This is not a debate about the wider principle of VAT—we understand that VAT is levied on certain products. It is about VAT on sunscreen. When I have asked about the issue in the past, I have been told, in great detail, why VAT matters. VAT does matter, but the Treasury is well able to forgo VAT on this particular product, for the sake of public health.
The levy on this particular product has to end. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire said, that would logically go alongside a public health campaign on the importance of wearing sunscreen. Such measures would ultimately take pressure off our NHS. I urge the Minister to ensure that sunscreen is no longer categorised as a cosmetic item—that is just daft; it is ludicrous. We need to call it what it is. Sunscreen is an important weapon in our armoury for tackling melanoma.
It is a particular pleasure to serve in this debate with you, Mr Sharma, my parliamentary neighbour, as Chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) on securing the debate and raising this important health issue. I am pleased to be here on behalf of the Opposition and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. People have spoken powerfully about the impact that skin cancer can have on people’s lives, and on friends and family.
There is consensus among hon. Members present about the importance of sunscreen products and their growing importance in our lives. While these products have perhaps historically been associated more with travel to warmer climates, the past year has demonstrated how susceptible we are to heatwaves and the intense periods of direct sunlight they can bring to the UK.
I echo what other hon. Members have said today. Organisations including Cancer Research UK have long made clear that the amount of UV exposure over someone’s entire lifetime is one factor that contributes significantly to the risk of skin cancer. According to the research, melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, with 16,000 cases a year, of which almost nine in 10 cases are preventable. It is vital that people can access sunscreen products when they need them.
As we heard earlier, high factor sunscreen products are already available on the NHS prescription list for a few specific conditions, and are exempt from VAT when dispensed through pharmacies. However, we are only too aware of the crisis facing our NHS and the difficulties people can encounter trying to secure an appointment with an NHS GP. That may restrict access to prescriptions, especially in cases where a repeat prescription is not available.
In her response, it would be very helpful if the Minister could share with us any information she has on the number of people receiving sunscreen products as a prescription on the NHS, and how many receive their prescription free of charge. It would also be helpful if she could update us on the average waiting time to obtain an NHS GP appointment. I am sure that the Minister will also set out the Government’s position in response to the call from the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire. The Opposition appreciate that expanding the scope of VAT release is a complex consideration that can add pressures to public finances.
There is a wider point about the affordability of sunscreen and other products that consumers may need to buy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) said. As the cost of living crisis has deepened, costs for ordinary households have risen to record highs. The Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted that living standards will be worse at the end of this Parliament than they were at its start. It has also outlined that real post-tax household income is expected to fall by 4.3% in 2022-23—the biggest fall since comparable records began nearly 70 years ago.
Finally, I would be interested to hear from the Minister what discussions the Government have had with sunscreen product manufacturers and retailers to determine what steps can be taken to ensure that such products are affordable for consumers. I would be grateful if she could also set out what support those manufacturers have said they may want or need from the Government to help make sure this can be achieved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) on securing the debate. We had a very interesting, helpful and detailed conversation in November, which was quite amicable, so I hope she will forgive me for saying that my recollection of our conversation is not that I said that people should wear a hat. I was merely pointing out to her that the NHS advice is that we should all wear appropriate clothing, particularly when we are in strong sunshine and in hot places. I think we all accept that sunscreen is but one part of our protection against the damage that the sun can do to us. If I remember correctly, she acknowledged that sunglasses, hats, appropriate clothing and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) said, staying inside during the hottest times of the year are all part of that jigsaw.
I agree that we had a very amicable meeting, but I do not think it was necessarily helpful to my VAT Burn campaign. What the Minister said is correct, but there are some questions from our meeting that are still to be answered.
I very much accept that, and I genuinely welcome the debate. I particularly thank her and my hon. Friend the Member of Erewash for bringing their personal examples into the debate. It is very important as part of our national conversation—not just on this topic, but on all sorts of topics that the House rightly debates. When we do so, it does not always get the attention it deserves, but it is important that people can bring their experiences to the debate. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) brought the experiences of his staff and their families into the debate, underlining the point that has been made fairly and effectively about how common melanoma is in the UK and the particular impact it can have on people under the age of 50.
As one would expect, the NHS advises people to wear suitable clothing, to spend time in the shade during the hottest times of the day, and to wear high factor sunscreen with at least a four-star UVA rating. The hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) made an interesting point when he said that this is the time of year when a lot of people start to book summer holidays, whether here in the UK—I would always recommend the coastline of Lincolnshire for a holiday, unsurprisingly—or overseas. There is some interesting research that I looked into as part of my preparation not just for today’s debate but for the meeting I had with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire in November. Increased exposure to intense sunlight is thought to have increased because more people can travel internationally and to go abroad, and there is some thinking that that may explain the increase in the rate of melanomas since the early 1990s. It is important to note that, as although sunscreen is an important part of our defence, where we go and what we do when we go abroad on holiday also has an impact.
I am sorry to fulfil hon. Members’ predictions about what I would say, but the truth is that any Treasury Minister worth their salt would make the point that VAT is a broad-based tax on consumption. The 20% standard rate applies to most goods and services, including sunscreen products purchased over the counter. A couple of misconceptions about that seem to have arisen, which I will correct.
We do not have categorisations of cosmetic products for the purposes of VAT, or the Canadian categorisations that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) described. Either products are bought over the counter, and will therefore have VAT charged on them, or they are prescribed by a doctor or other prescribing professional. Those are the categorisations. VAT applies to all products bought over the counter, including paracetamol and Calpol. In their examinations of patients, GPs carefully analyse whether families are able to buy products over the counter or need them to be prescribed.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran is right that the NHS can provide sunscreen on prescription in certain restricted circumstances. Doctors can prescribe sunscreen, which will therefore be provided without incurring VAT, to people who suffer from certain skin conditions characterised by extreme sun sensitivity, including porphyria. In addition, it can be prescribed to patients who have an increased risk from UV radiation because of chronic disease, therapies or procedures. The hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) asked for numbers; I do not have the numbers from either the Department of Health and Social Care or the NHS to hand, but I will happily provide them to the House of Commons Library.
There are no plans to change the VAT rating on sunscreen.
On that point, will the Minister give way?
I will develop my argument, and then I will give way to the hon. Lady.
I know that hon. Members have said they suspect they know what I am going to say, but I cannot change the fact that VAT is one of the main forms of revenue for the UK Government. In the year 2022-23, VAT is predicted to raise some £157 billion. To put that into context, that it almost the entire cost of our NHS. That is how important it is as a revenue raiser for the Government so that we can fund the services we care so much about.
Against that VAT backdrop, we look at items that we want to zero-rate or exempt. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire mentioned period products; I am really proud that a Conservative Government removed VAT from period products. That is a definite benefit of our having left the EU. Starkly, evidence is emerging that such VAT cuts are not being passed on to customers by those who sell those products. I have asked for more details about that, because when Government change tax policy in order to try to help with the cost of living—
On that point, will the Minister give way?
In a moment. It is important that those changes are passed on to the consumer, as that is the purpose of the policy. Our raw concern is that if relief is provided, not just with VAT but on other taxable items, it may not be passed on to the customer.
Colleagues across the House have rightly commended Tesco for choosing to absorb the VAT on sunscreen products within its profit margins. I stand with those Members and encourage other retailers to do the same, if this is a matter they care deeply about. While I am delighted to hear that Morrisons will promise to pass on the cut to customers if this VAT policy is changed, I gently point out that we would expect it to do that anyway; perhaps Morrisons should be encouraged to follow the lead of its market competitor Tesco. I know not, and I had better not get involved in competition between supermarkets. However, I would very much hope that retailers—I am sure they take a close interest in their customers’ ability to pay—will follow Tesco’s lead.
The Minister has made a number of points that I want to pick up on. While it is great that these larger businesses pick up and absorb the VAT, we cannot expect that of the small retailers, such as independent pharmacies, in our constituencies. I am thoroughly disappointed that the Minister’s response is living up to expectations, to be honest. Does she recognise that the Government previously committed to reviewing VAT on sunscreen products on the Floor of the House, when the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) committed to it?
There were a number of points there. First, the hon. Lady asked about independent retailers, and I fully accept what she said. I do not pretend that this is an easy decision or an easy policy area. My duty as a Minister is to weigh up the trade-offs implicit in deciding tax policy. We have to ensure that when we make changes to the VAT system, we do so fully understanding the potential consequences for other aspects of that system.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said that this change would represent a very small sum. The truth is, since the 2016 referendum, the Treasury has been encouraged to make changes to the VAT system totalling some £50 billion. Many of those changes will be commendable, and we will have a great deal of sympathy with why a Member feels compelled to make that case on behalf of their constituents. However, we have to make these difficult decisions as to which items are VAT-exempted or VAT-free and which are not, and that is why those products are so small in number.
The Minister is making a powerful case as to why VAT is an important source of revenue for the UK Government, and I do not think anybody would dispute that. But if she was to do as Members in the Chamber ask and remove VAT on sunscreen, can she tell us how much that one single measure would cost the Treasury?
It is very difficult to calculate. Because of the way multinational companies such as Tesco conduct their VAT returns, it is difficult to break it down. Our concern is, as I say, a practical one about the impact. Each and every time I get asked to exempt a product from VAT—this is a regular occurrence, I promise, and I completely understand why Members of Parliament would wish for such matters to be exempted—I have to conduct this trade-off. It is incredibly difficult. I very much understand the intentions behind the campaign, but this is the thinking behind why we have thus far had to say no. Of course, we keep it under review.
I completely understand the point the Minister is making about trade-off and balance, but will she commit to looking at the cost to the NHS of melanoma as a condition? That, surely, should be balanced out against the loss of VAT. Obviously, she will have to go to the Department of Health and Social Care for that, but let us look at that trade-off and that balance in more detail.
That is a very fair challenge. I keep talking about difficulties, but that is the reality of the decisions we have to make; while a lot of melanoma is caused by of exposure to the sun, even in this day and age, some melanoma will be due to sunbed use, which I know colleagues across the House will have great concerns about. Some melanoma will be from damage caused decades ago, when we were less aware of the risks of the sun, and some will have no link at all to sun damage. It will never be a straight swap.
I thank the Minister for her response, and I want to follow on from what the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) said. In my contribution I referred to 200,000 surgical operations and 16,000 new melanoma cases every year, and the scale of that results in a significant cost for the NHS. We are not criticising the Minister; she is doing what a Treasury Minister has to do. We are saying, very respectfully, that there is a cost to the NHS every year. That has to be part of the mathematics of the process.
This is a very long intervention, and I apologise for that. Given that Australia and the United States of America have cut VAT on sunscreen, has there been any discussion with the relevant bodies about what those countries achieved by doing so?
I do not know if there have been any discussions. I will ask, because it may be that my predecessors had them. In terms of comparisons with Australia and the United States, we have to tread a little bit carefully. With the horrendous damage that has been done to the ozone, Australia has a very particular problem with exposure to the sun, and we have to remember the strength of the sun there. I note what the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said about UVA and UVB being present in Scotland, but I do not think that anyone would suggest that Scotland has the same strength of sun exposure all year round as the sunnier parts of Australia.
Will the Minister give way?
I have been quite generous with the hon. Lady, so I will carry on. We have to tread carefully with international comparisons. On the broader point, I understand the argument, but we have a great deal of other extremely good causes that I have to look at carefully. It is the responsibility I have to bear. That is the thinking behind our approach to the VAT system.
I thank the Minister very much for giving way. The point that she was getting to prior to the previous intervention hinted at the desperate need for an awareness campaign. If she will not commit to reforming the VAT on sunscreen products, will she consider an awareness campaign around exposure of our skin to the sun?
I fear I may be treading on Health Ministers’ toes if I commit the Department to an awareness campaign. I have already written to the relevant Health Minister to ask what plans there are to help the public on this. Again, it should not just be the Government working on this. Any parent who has a baby nowadays will be told by medical professionals —I remember that I was with my little boy—how vital it is to protect infants, babies and young children with sunscreen, and, critically, to keep them indoors at the hottest times of the day.
There is work that schools can do to help with this, and, in fairness, an awful lot of them do. I do not know if the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire is aware of this, but when there are hot days, such as during the heatwave we had last summer, schools encourage mums and dads to put sunscreen on their children before they go to school and to top it up. I think there is a greater awareness of the risks than there was 20 years ago—even than there was 10 years ago, dare I say.
On the point about the cost of sunscreen, one of the best things that the Government can do is, of course, to cut inflation. Inflation lies at the heart of many of the issues that we as a country are facing. It is precisely why in his new year speech, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made, as his very first pledge to the British public, the promise to halve inflation. We want to cut inflation, because if we cut inflation, prices across the board begin to fall. The poorest, who are the ones hurt most by inflation, will then begin to see their money going a little further, helping them with the cost of living. As well as cutting inflation, we have to get the economy growing and we need to continue on our path of fiscal prudence. That is why I have set out the Government’s responsibilities when it comes to the administration of VAT and its importance as a single revenue raiser towards the cost of the public services that we care so very much about.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire asked about emergency workers. I will try to chase that one down. If I am completely honest, I was not at the urgent question, but I will get back to her on that issue. We take the point, of course, that people working in our emergency services are outside day in, day out. We absolutely accept that and we thank them for the services that they provide on behalf of us all. Whatever our disagreements in this Chamber, we can certainly agree on that.
In the fight against cancer, we are taking action to improve early diagnosis for all cancers. That is why the NHS long-term plan sets out the ambition for 75% of cancers to be diagnosed at stage 1 or 2 by 2028. A recent NHS campaign called Help Us Help You focuses on the barriers to earlier presentation across all cancer types and aims to address some of the underlying challenges to earlier diagnosis. That campaign ran during March and June of last year and in both months saw a 1,600% increase in the number of visits to the NHS website’s cancer symptoms landing page. In addition, the cancer programme has worked with the British Association of Dermatologists and NHS England’s out-patient recovery and transformation programme on a timed pathway for suspected skin cancers, as well as guidance on implementing teledermatology and community spot clinics. Both documents promote the use of technology and efficient pathways to prioritise and quickly diagnose suspected melanomas so that treatment can start as quickly as possible.
I conclude by thanking again the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire for highlighting this important issue and by thanking hon. Members from across the House for their contributions and, in particular, for sharing their personal experiences. I know that we all continue to advise the public to buy sunscreen but also to follow the other guidelines presented by our NHS to help to tackle skin damage. There is a need to protect people’s health against the very real risks that have been presented in this Chamber today.
I thank colleagues from across the House for their support for VAT Burn. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant), who is not in his place today, and the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) for sharing their personal experiences of melanoma. I also place on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate in the first place.
I appreciate that the Minister has been generous with her time, both today and previously, but I must record my disappointment that VAT Burn is not a priority for this Government. A lot of effort goes into campaigns like this, and I thank my team, some of whom are here today, for the huge effort that they have put into this campaign so far. VAT Burn is not over; this is literally just the beginning. I will keep pursuing this issue, including with the ten-minute rule Bill that is coming up, as I said previously. I thank everyone for their contributions thus far and I hope that Members from across the House will continue to show their support at a drop-in event that I am hosting in the first week back after the recess. They can come and hold a pledge board and get a photo, and show their support for VAT Burn; and we can show the Government and the Minister just how important the strength of feeling on this issue is across the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of VAT on sunscreen products.