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Sanitary Products

Volume 624: debated on Thursday 30 March 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Heather Wheeler.)

I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on women’s health.

I am grateful to have secured the final debate before the recess to raise the issue of period poverty. I have touched on this matter before in this House in the context of homelessness. I wish to expand on that, and also to talk about the shocking recent reports of period poverty among school-age girls in west Yorkshire. The phenomenon of period poverty has gone under the radar for some time and is only now starting to be discussed after the successes of the campaign against the tampon tax. It is a unique challenge faced by women in poverty, who all too often face a choice between buying sanitary products or food. In the worst-case scenario, homeless women have been faced with a choice between stealing sanitary products and doing without.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that women using sanitary products beyond their recommended duration are at risk of toxic shock syndrome, and that homeless women, in particular, self-ration these products at great risk to their health?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I will be coming to the issue of toxic shock syndrome and other associated health conditions, but she makes that crucial point very well.

The horror of these choices cannot be overstated, and they are choices that women in one of the most advanced industrial nations on earth should not face. Period poverty represents nothing less than the affected women being robbed of their human dignity. As an illustration of this, the Salvation Army has relayed to me the experiences at its Darlington Citadel food bank, where women have turned up literally begging for sanitary products. With your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will quote its commanding officer in full, because I believe that the House really needs to hear this:

“Since we have started supplying”

sanitary products,

“with tears in their eyes many women have told us what they do when they can’t afford them. They use rolled up socks, they rip up clothing, they even use newspaper, they stuff these into their underwear as makeshift sanitary wear—or they simply have to free bleed. These women however, struggle to pay for electricity and so doing laundry to a sufficient level to kill any bacteria is a problem and they are putting themselves and their daughters at risk of infection resulting in possible medical treatment with antibiotics or even hospitalization. Some women have informed us that they have needed dilation and curettage treatment and courses of antibiotics for infections, costing the NHS money and resources.”

Unfortunately, this testimony does not stand alone. An investigation by Amanda Ternblad of Goldsmiths University into period poverty in London has found that some women resort to using toilet roll, which can pose a risk of thrush infection, or using sanitary products for longer than they should be used—that follows on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins)—which can lead to fatal toxic shock syndrome and the risk of further long-standing health problems. Of course, that costs the NHS in the long run, but that should be as nothing compared with the desperation, indignity, humiliation and degradation visited on those women, who are already among the most vulnerable in our society. That should beggar belief in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet.

The problem is most pronounced for women who are homeless, who typically have no stable source of income with which to buy sanitary products. In the debate on homelessness on 14 December 2016, I mentioned that homeless shelters get an allowance from the Government to provide items such as condoms and razors, but they have no such allowance to buy sanitary products, leaving them reliant on charity donations instead.

When I last raised that point in the House, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), said that the Government provide funding for outreach services for homeless people, meaning that such facilities would ultimately be funded anyway. Unfortunately, the point is that there appears to be a shortfall in toiletries such as sanitary protection for women. In many places in the UK, condoms are given away for free, and there is a clear and well-understood public argument for that. Why, then, is that not commonplace for sanitary products, which every woman requires, and the absence of which can have grave health consequences? Although valuable work has been done in the past couple of years by organisations such as St Mungo’s to ensure that homelessness services are gender-appropriate, the Government’s allowance for such products does not appear to have kept pace and speaks to something of a male-dominated view of homelessness.

In reality, women who are homeless face numerous unique challenges, from their personal safety, to vulnerability and falling into prostitution. Those challenges, while grave, have in various ways been targeted before by the good works of homelessness charities. Period poverty, however, is one of the unique challenges for women that has been under-represented, which makes it all the more important that it is now taken seriously.

The reliance on charity is a problem in itself. Donations of sanitary products to food banks and homeless shelters are often not enough to keep up with demand, while supply is variable across the country, meaning that the donations are not always made in the areas with most demand. The Homeless Period campaign is an attempt to gain more attention for the problem and to secure more donations of sanitary items to homeless shelters and food banks so that their stocks are more readily available. I again wish to pay tribute to the incredible work of Laura Coryton, who campaigned so effectively with me on the issue of the tampon tax, for her work in bringing the issue to wider public attention.

As part of my support for the campaign, I have secured a trial of a donation point for toiletries at a Boots store in Dewsbury to go to the Fusion Housing charity, which supports food banks in the Kirklees area. It is a small step, but I hope that many more like it can be achieved in the near future and that they will make a difference.

If, as we sadly now find, the Government are content to let charity supplant welfare in providing for the needy in our society, I will call on other companies to follow the example of Boots. Every area will have similar problems, and similar charities will try to cope with them. Many companies that deal with toiletries could set up similar schemes as part of their wider corporate responsibility to their communities. I was encouraged by an example on a recent trip to Brussels, where a hotel chain was donating surplus toiletries to its local facility for the homeless. With a bit of ingenuity, companies can make a significant difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable—as could this Government.

It is not, however, just homeless women who are vulnerable to period poverty. I was absolutely appalled—actually, I was heartbroken—by the recent BBC Radio Leeds report that a west Yorkshire charity called Freedom4Girls, which usually sends sanitary products to girls in Kenya, had been contacted by a school in Leeds to provide sanitary products to girls there. Concerns were raised after girls were found to be playing truant because they could not afford sanitary protection. I ask everyone to take a moment to consider what is happening in one of the richest nations in the world.

As with the homeless women in the examples I mentioned earlier, the same makeshift and risky remedies had been tried. We heard about 15-year-old girls sellotaping toilet roll to their knickers because they could not afford tampons or sanitary towels. Girls would rather not attend school than go through the indignity of doing so in a vulnerable state. There are related reports of teachers having to pay for sanitary products for their pupils. That, too, beggars belief. Schools are the perfect place for the Government to enact early intervention on matters relating to women’s health, as has been borne out by the valuable human papilloma virus vaccination programme. I urge the Government to investigate how the problem of period poverty can be tackled in schools, for example by including menstrual health in sex and relationships education and by looking at the possibility of using eligibility for free school meals for the provision of sanitary products to vulnerable young girls.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate and praise her for the passionate way in which she speaks about the issue, on which she has campaigned for a long time. I have heard the BBC Radio Leeds report about the girls in school. I am a father to young girls, as she knows, so it was something that hit me. Has she thought about whether the tampon tax funds that are being distributed at the moment could be directed to support girls from low-income backgrounds with tampons and sanitary towels? Perhaps pupil premium money could be used, or boosted, to help to provide those much-needed products to girls so that they do not have to go through the horrible situation that the west Yorkshire girls faced.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I note that the first time we debated the tampon tax in this House, he chose to vote to keep it, but I do take on board what he says about the tampon tax funds. I would much rather see the tax removed from sanitary products, but while it is still there—I appreciate that Brexit causes complications—I would absolutely support some of the money going towards schools.

I remember the night when the hon. Lady forced a vote on the tampon tax. As she is well aware, it is due to EU regulation. She had a lot of cross-party support, and this is not party political—it is about coming together to look after young, vulnerable girls, and homeless people. The Government are trying to address that with their approach on the tampon tax. As she knows, through cross-party working, we can help those vulnerable women, rather than scoring puerile, partisan points.

The existence of this problem in our schools speaks to my grave concern that we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg. I dare say that if we looked hard enough, up and down the country, we would find examples of similar schools whose girls face the same problem. Leeds City Council has the same concern. It notes:

“This issue has happened in Leeds—a city where services for children are judged to be ‘Good’ and over 90% of schools are judged to be ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted—and as such could be happening in towns and cities right across the UK.”

The Salvation Army has said that

“it appears that this phenomenon may be more widespread”.

We need to ask ourselves what is so fundamentally broken with our society that the poorest families, even those in work and secure housing, cannot afford sanitary protection for their daughters.

When the House returns from the recess, the two-child cap under the Government’s universal credit will have come into effect. The poverty that led the girls in Leeds into this position existed even before that, but I ask the Government whether they honestly believe that their changes will not make the situation even worse. The Opposition have repeatedly said that any such limit to child tax credit will serve only to punish unjustly the children involved. I fear that we may be setting a time bomb of poverty, misery and indignity for the underprivileged girls of the future if we do not act now to ensure that period poverty goes no further.

My sense of sadness about this issue comes not only from the assault on the health and dignity of the women involved—as I have repeatedly said, they are some of the most vulnerable in our society—but from the fact that the whole situation is absolutely avoidable. It is no accident of history that these women are being left in such a vulnerable situation; it is a direct result of the obsession with austerity of this Government and their coalition predecessor, which is disproportionately hitting the poorest in society. Many families now experience in-work poverty because of increasingly insecure jobs and hours. That leaves thousands of women at risk of being unable to afford sanitary products, with many on the precipice of rent arrears or in danger of losing their home altogether.

This sorry state of affairs was not always the case. Under the previous Labour Government, rough sleeping was nearly eliminated, but last year it increased by 16%—the sixth successive annual rise. In the final year of the previous Labour Government, 41,000 people were given aid by Trussell Trust food banks, compared with over 1.1 million in 2015-16. It should go without saying that when more women are homeless and more are relying on food banks just to get by, period poverty is going to be an increasing problem.

I implore the Government today—I beg the Minister—to find the political will to ensure that these horrors are not visited on any more women in our country. In the words of Tina Leslie of Freedom4Girls,

“we need to give these girls their dignity back.”

May I finish by taking this opportunity, Madam Deputy Speaker, to wish you, the other Deputy Speakers and Mr Speaker a very happy Easter? I thank all the staff of the House who, particularly during the past seven or eight days, have performed their jobs at the most incredible level. I also pay tribute to those affected by last week’s horrendous Westminster attack, especially the families of the bereaved.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) on her continuing and committed work in ensuring the affordability of sanitary products. During the passage of last year’s Finance Bill, she and I had reason to discuss this issue on several occasions, not least in relation to her successful amendment to reduce the level of VAT on sanitary products. I of course stand by the pledges the Government made at the time. Those pledges have been legislated for, as she knows and has acknowledged. I recognise, as I think all hon. Members do, the clear and evident passion with which she spoke, and we know how sincerely she campaigns for the rights of women and girls. I hope to be able to respond to some extent, if not to all her wider points, at least to some of the specific points she made.

Before I narrow down to the specific points, let me turn to the broader ones. The Government have been clear that tackling disadvantage is a priority for us. That includes taking action to help the most disadvantaged, with a real focus on tackling not the symptoms but the root causes of poverty. We are determined to reform the welfare system to incentivise work and to help people to achieve their potential. We believe that, as we have seen during the past six years, our reforms have helped to improve lives and living standards for some of the most vulnerable in our country, most prominently by helping people to get back into work.

That is why in our approach to general taxation we are increasing the personal allowance to £12,500 by the end of this Parliament. Next week, increases in the personal allowance and higher rate threshold will have cut taxes for 31 million people and taken 1.3 million of the lowest paid out of income tax altogether, compared with 2015-16. A significant proportion of them will of course be women. Next week, we will increase the national living wage to £7.50 an hour, which marks a £1,400 a year increase in earnings for a full-time worker on the national minimum wage since the introduction of the national living wage in April 2016. It is also why we are reducing the universal credit taper to 63% from April, so people who progress into work can keep more of what they earn, which will enhance the support provided to working families in meeting day-to-day costs; why we will double free childcare to 30 hours a week, which is worth up to £5,000 a year for eligible working parents of three and four-year-olds; and why we will introduce tax-free childcare in the coming month. These are just some of a range of measures that we are taking to ensure that work always pays and that hard-working families can earn more and keep more of the money they earn. It is by taking these steps that we are supporting ordinary working families, including the women about whom the hon. Lady spoke.

Let me turn to the tampon tax fund, because we have had a timely update from the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), who is the Minister for Civil Society. I will take a moment—I think I have enough time—to update the House on some of the work that the fund is going to support. That is important, not least in the light of the hon. Lady’s successful campaign to change the law so that we reduce VAT, as soon as we practically can, as has been mentioned, within the constraints of EU law. In the meantime, we have established the £15 million a year tampon tax fund, which, as hon. Members will know, is equivalent to the amount of VAT paid on sanitary products each year.

Since the 2015 autumn statement, £32 million of tampon tax funding has been allocated to women’s charities. The majority of that funding is through grants to frontline charities that aim to improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls. Those include health, wellbeing and education initiatives and support services for vulnerable women. A significant proportion of this round’s funding will focus on initiatives that help to tackle violence against women and girls—something that all of us across this House want to see borne down on—alongside a broader criterion to support disadvantaged women and girls.

I saw today’s update on where the tampon tax funds have gone. Rather than point scoring, I want something positive to come from this debate. Will the Minister please consider using some of those funds to help with supplies of sanitary products for schools, to make sure that all girls, no matter what their economic background, have access to tampons, pads and towels?

I will certainly draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East, the Minister for Civil Society, and I will come to some of the support available in schools and the work already under way as a response to recent questions in Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Civil Society has today announced the full list of funding for charities from the latest round of the tampon tax fund. That means that more than 90 charities are now set to benefit from the fund over this Parliament. The fund continues to benefit organisations in every corner of the UK, from Children North East to the Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre in Cornwall. It is helping to improve the lives of women and girls who suffer disadvantage, supporting our wider ambition to create a fairer society for everyone.

I recognise that some excellent charities are receiving funds from the tampon tax, including Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, which I have been working with very closely. How will those charities be provided for when we finally see the abolition of the tampon tax, which I hope will come very soon?

Indeed; that is something we have explored in debates. We said at the time that while this is inevitably a time-limited fund by its nature, we will look at all those issues in the round. It is, of course, only one of a number of sources from which we support civil society organisations. I am glad that the hon. Lady picked out Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, a charity that I greatly enjoyed working with when I was at the Department of Health and that does excellent work.

A number of worthwhile organisations are going to benefit from the money, and the Government have committed to continuing the fund until EU rules allow a zero rate of VAT to be applied on women’s sanitary products, or until the UK leaves the EU—whichever comes first within the legal framework. The hon. Lady mentioned this in her speech, but I note that she has recently championed national retailers in her constituency to support the cause through charitable means, as she has outlined today, for those least able to afford sanitary products. I noted her work with her local Boots on that.

Turning to practical matters, like hon. Members on both sides of the House, I, too, heard the same BBC Radio Leeds report that has been referred to. It was a distressing listen. It was very difficult to hear about the girls in Leeds who were unable to attend school because they could not afford sanitary products. Of course, if this country is going to work for everyone, we clearly need an education system that enables people to achieve their potential. That is the Government’s clear aspiration. If someone cannot attend school on the days that they are having their period, it is obviously much harder for them to reach their potential.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) talked about school funding. Schools do have discretion over how they use their funding. The Department for Education does not currently give schools guidance on this specific issue, as we believe that headteachers should be able to use their professional judgment. However, we do encourage all schools to use their resources to support their pupils to be safe, healthy and ready to learn each day, so schools are free to support girls in this way if they need to. The evidence is clear—we have all seen that every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSEs, with a lasting effect on their life chances. We therefore strongly encourage all parents and schools to do everything they can to support children to attend schools.

The hon. Member for Dewsbury made a number of suggestions about funding. As one would expect, that question has been raised in recent days by a number of hon. Members. In fact, in response to the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), the Secretary of State for Education acknowledged the importance of the issue and said that she is looking carefully at it, and she has undertaken to write to him. I think there is more to be said by the Department for Education on this subject. The Secretary of State was very clear about the seriousness with which she takes the issue and her own commitment to gender equality is well documented.

We touched on the support available through the education system and the wider welfare system. We talked about the legal commitment we have made to zero-rating sanitary products as soon as possible, fully recognising the importance of the issue. In the meantime, we are using the VAT we receive to benefit women’s charities. I hope those responses go some way towards addressing the issues raised in the debate.

More widely, I believe the Government can hold their head up high on supporting women. The gender pay gap is at a record low and the number of women in work is close to a record high. We are one of the first countries in the world to introduce gender pay gap reporting, but we always acknowledge that we can go further. As I mentioned earlier, the national living wage will be increased to £7.50 an hour from next month. We expect that two thirds of those who will benefit from the rise in the national living wage will be women.

As well as continuing our efforts to get more women back into the workplace, we are providing an additional £20 million of funding over this Parliament to support organisations working to tackle domestic violence and abuse—a strong personal priority for the Prime Minister. She has committed to bringing forward a domestic violence and abuse Bill. The funding I have just mentioned increases the total funding for the Government’s violence against women and girls strategy to £100 million over this Parliament.

The hon. Lady raised the additional vulnerability of homeless women, which I think we all acknowledge. In October, the Prime Minister announced a new £40 million programme to provide an innovative approach to tackling homelessness, with prevention at its heart, looking at the complex underlying causes that I think all of us as constituency MPs acknowledge can lead to a person losing their home. That includes a £10 million rough sleeping prevention fund and £20 million for local authorities to trial new initiatives for those most at risk. I will draw the hon. Lady’s particular concerns about the additional vulnerabilities of homeless women to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones).

All in all, the Government are committed to supporting those who are struggling to get by. I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this important issue to the attention of Parliament. We feel that by taking steps to improve the living standards of ordinary working families across the country, committing to eliminating the VAT charge on sanitary products, and striving to provide greater equality more generally for women, the Government are showing they are sensitive to these issues. There are 200,000 fewer children in low-income households than in 2010, which is one of the ways in which we have demonstrated our commitment to tackling the root causes of disadvantage. I hope that in my response today I have shown that the Government take these issues seriously. We are looking carefully at the points raised today and will aim to respond further to them.

In closing, I echo the words of the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the actions of many of the staff of the House in recent days, and in wishing you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as well as hon. Members on all sides and all staff of the House, a restful Easter recess.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.