Skip to main content

Sun Protection Products (Value Added Tax)

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2023

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to exempt sun protection products from VAT; and for connected purposes.

I declare from the outset a deeply personal interest in the area in which I am trying to legislate; in fact, it is a deeply personal interest for myself and two of the co-sponsors of the Bill. The point is simply this: if sunscreen products are more affordable, our constituents will be more likely to buy them, use them and protect their skin. We know from market research that our constituents and families across our constituencies are being priced out of buying sunscreen products—a point explained to me just on Friday past, when I visited two primary schools in East Dunbartonshire. One of the headteachers told me with exasperation that after long weekends off towards the summer, her pupils—my constituents—are returning with sunburn. The Government will inevitably bring this down to money, especially if the Bill passes to the next stage, but the facts are undeniable. Less than half a percent of revenue generated by the Treasury from value added tax comes from sunscreen products—£40 million out of £256 billion.

I would caution the Government not to ignore the serious risk that skin cancer poses, but I would also ask them to consider whether they want to go down the dangerous path of ignoring the voice of survivors, particularly when the survivors are Members of this House trying to create a positive change when it comes to how the wider population view skin cancer. It is life-threatening, not something to belittle, and the UK Government should and could be leading the way on this.

We know that unprotected sun exposure causes skin cancer, and we know that sunscreen is an essential part of protecting us from this exposure, so it should be uncontroversial to state that these products must be made as accessible and affordable as possible. Armed with this information, we have a responsibility to ensure that our constituents are aware of the risks of unprotected sun exposure and the necessity of sunscreen to prevent cancer. This should not be a controversial idea, and for the most part it is not. The Bill has received support from several organisations, retailers and Members across the House, so I have been surprised at the Government’s resistance to it thus far, although I am sure they will not deny an opportunity to see a Bill with significant benefits to our constituents pass in this House.

Every year, 16,000 people across the UK are diagnosed with melanoma and it kills 2,300 people, making it the fifth most common cancer across these isles. Cancer Research UK has found that getting sunburn just once every two years can triple someone’s risk of melanoma. Sunscreen can help to prevent these melanomas—that is a fact—yet skin cancer is too often forgotten about in political conversation. This lack of conversation is dangerous, as 90% of melanoma cases are preventable with adequate sun protection, meaning that we could save 2,000 lives a year if we were to successfully introduce measures that encouraged widespread sunscreen use.

To clarify, VAT Burn seeks a VAT exemption for sunscreen products that are factor 30 or above, with a four-star UVA—ultraviolet A—protection rating, and marketed exclusively as sun protection products. The Bill does not encompass cosmetic or make-up products that may contain a sun protection factor. It is only effective and necessary sunscreen products that I and my co-sponsors seek to make VAT-exempt. It is a relatively narrow selection of products that accounts for only 0.03% of VAT revenue, so this proposal barely makes a dent in Government revenue, especially when compared with the massive benefits that could come from it.

As I said, skin cancer prevention is often overlooked. It is a known fact that smoking greatly increases the risk of lung cancer, and we can compare that with skin cancer and unprotected sun exposure. Across these four nations, we have taken significant steps to prevent smoking by banning it in restaurants and bars and, most relevantly, reducing the VAT on smoking cessation products to 5%. That includes over-the-counter products such as nicotine patches and gum. No similar steps have been taken to encourage the prevention of melanoma. Surely the Government cannot argue that smoking cessation products are more necessary to public health than sunscreen. Both serve very similar functions of preventing cancer, and sunscreen products are necessary for the whole family, making the extra financial burden of VAT that bit more damaging.

The VAT Burn Bill is not an assault on Government income from value added tax; it is but a tiny sacrifice in VAT revenue that could save lives and save money down the line. The saving of lives is very possible, given that 90% of cases are preventable. If we make prevention that much more accessible and affordable, and make people that much more aware, we can prevent many of these cases, which will save lives, most importantly, and save the NHS time, effort and money in diagnosis and treatment.

I acknowledge that in the past, VAT exemptions have not always produced savings for consumers—our constituents. That is why I have built in a pledge for retailers and producers to ensure that the VAT exemption translates directly into savings for our constituents when they buy sunscreen products. I can confirm that Morrisons has already agreed to the pledge, and Tesco already absorbs the VAT on sunscreen products, so I feel confident that if the Government accept the proposal behind the Bill, it will result in sunscreen becoming far more affordable for our constituents.

Many occupations across the UK require prolonged exposure to the sun, so we must acknowledge that this is also a workers issue. Too many people are exposed to the sun for prolonged periods as a result of their work, greatly increasing their risk of melanoma. Organisations such as Police Scotland provide sunscreen for officers who face this exposure at work. If we were to make sunscreen that bit more affordable, more organisations and businesses could take that step towards protecting their workers outside.

A successful awareness campaign matters, too—one that puts the risks of sun exposure at the forefront of public health conversations, so that more employers are encouraged to consider providing better sun protection for their workers. I am proposing that, hand in hand with this VAT reduction, the Government launch a skin protection awareness campaign akin to Australia’s “Slip, Slop, Slap” campaign, because combining greater accessibility of sun protection products with greater awareness is the best chance we have of reducing melanomas and saving lives. Just 0.03% of VAT income is not worth the human cost of melanoma, and if we make sunscreen more affordable and widely discussed, we can save some of the 2,000 lives that are lost each year.

We are in not only a cost of living crisis but a climate crisis, which means that sun protection products are becoming less affordable but more necessary. I hope that, having raised this issue, the Minister will not only be sympathetic to my aims, but responsive. Knowing the importance of VAT burn yet refusing to take action is something that I cannot accept and that the public should not have to accept. I call on the Government to listen carefully to the points I have raised and to consider them not as a political or economic issue, but as an essential public health policy. I am sure that the Minister will say that I am talking to the wrong Department, but this issue is intrinsically linked to the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care.

We must give skin cancer prevention the attention it deserves because that can make a difference. The battle against melanoma is not futile; in 90% of cases it is one we can win. We know how to win, so we need to do everything we can to equip the public with the essential protections that they need so that we can win this battle.

Question put and agreed to.


That Amy Callaghan, Sir Chris Bryant, Maggie Throup, Jim Shannon, Ian Blackford, Caroline Lucas, Charlotte Nichols, Mrs Pauline Latham, Mhairi Black, David Linden, Patricia Gibson and Dr Philippa Whitford present the Bill.

Amy Callaghan accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 248).