Watford MP Richard Harrington has defended his decision to vote against scrapping the so-called "tampon tax", blaming a lack of government powers to make the change.

A motion that would have forced the Government to axe the five per cent VAT paid on women's sanitary products was defeated by 305 votes to 287 on Monday.

More than 250,000 people have signed an online petition to scrap the rate, which has been described as a "tax on women".

But Harrington said it would not have been right to vote for the motion because the power to make VAT exemptions was restricted by European law.

The Conservative MP said: "I do think that sanitary products like tampons should be classified by the EU for VAT at the zero rate, they are clearly an essential item.

"However, EU rules won’t let the UK Government rate them at less than five per cent.

"It is really important that this was debated on Monday but as the government does not have the power to actually reduce sanitary items to the zero rate, I did note vote in favour of making this law.

"This is an important issue and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has pledged to raise this with the European Commission. I really hope he is successful.”

The Government says five per cent VAT for sanitary products is the lowest allowed under EU law, because they are classed as "non-essential luxury items".

Three other Conservative MPs in the county voted against scrapping the tax, including David Gauke, Anne Main and Oliver Dowden.

Following Monday's no vote, David Gauke, financial secretary to the treasury and MP for south west Hertfordshire, promised to lobby EU lawmakers on the issue of VAT on sanitary products.

He said: "There is very considerable cross-party support for the UK to abolish VAT on sanitary products.

"To that end, I will raise this issue with the EC and other member states setting out our views – that it should be possible for member states to apply a zero rate to sanitary products."

Hertsmere MP Oliver Dowden and St Albans MP Anne Main, both Conservative, also voted against scrapping the tax.

If Monday's amendment had passed, the Government would have been forced to outline a strategy for renegotiating the tax with lawmakers in Brussels.

Items which are already exempt from VAT include bike helmets, pistachio nuts, and chickpeas.