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Sanitary Products

Volume 632: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2017

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of sanitary products.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I am delighted to have secured this debate on an important topic that—let’s face it—remains taboo and is still a bit embarrassing for many people. It is precisely because no one wants to talk about it that I believe it is so critical that we do, so I will start by putting my money where my mouth is and telling the House one of my most embarrassing moments.

I was in the first week of a new school. I was 12. I was feeling very out of place and very lost. I saw a teacher beckoning me from the top of a stairwell. I walked towards her and said, “Yes, Miss? What did I do wrong?” I was convinced something was wrong. She said, “Don’t worry—everything’s fine, but I wanted to let you know that you have a stain of blood on your skirt.” Of course, it was not fine. I looked behind and on my light blue uniform there was indeed such a stain. My face went red, and then white. I remember going to the bathroom and crying, and when I stopped crying I called my mum. She came and we went home; I told the school that I wanted to go home to change. In fact, she had brought me another skirt, but I was just so mortified by how many people might have seen it and not said anything.

For me, that was a one-off and I was better prepared the next time, but for thousands of girls in this country, missing school because they cannot afford sanitary products is a regular occurrence. It is an outrage that in a country as wealthy as Britain we let that happen. Thanks to the double whammy of the stigma attached to both poverty and periods, we simply do not know the scale of the problem.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. Does she share my intense frustration about the fact that when I asked the Secretary of State for Education about period poverty just a few weeks ago, her response was ambivalent at best? She appeared to be in denial about period poverty even existing.

Yes, I share the hon. Lady’s frustration. I hope we will hear something different on this important issue from the Minister.

Food banks are now actively asking for donations of sanitary products. Teachers are dipping into their own pockets to keep supplies of sanitary products in their desks.

As a former teacher, I have heard lots of stories from teachers about keeping a supply of sanitary products in the classroom so that girls do not miss out on education because of poverty. Does the hon. Lady agree that that should not be the responsibility of teachers? The Government should do something. The Secretary of State for Education is also Minister for Women and Equalities.

Speaking as another teacher, I completely agree. On the meagre salaries that teachers are now paid, they should not be asked to fork out themselves for sanitary products.

Many of us first realised that period poverty was such an issue for young women when it came to light that teachers in Leeds had got in touch with a charity called Freedom4Girls that provides sanitary products to women in Kenya and had asked whether it would be willing to give them a supply for girls in their school. They had noticed that girls were missing class at around the same time every month, like clockwork. Given the substitutes, including rolled-up toilet paper or old socks, that girls from low-income families are using, it is no surprise that they choose to stay home. Now, I admit that the rolled-up toilet tissue trick has served me well, but I can go and buy some products or go home. For these girls, it is a regular occurrence. It should not be.

Period poverty affects not just girls, but women. Charities and campaigners tell me that it is rife among asylum seekers, refugees, women in refuges, and indeed any vulnerable women who cannot afford to buy the products they need. As a nation we must do better, and as a society we need to get better at talking about this. Given that 52% of the population menstruate, or have done at some point, is it not ridiculous that it has taken until 2017 for an advert for sanitary products to show red liquid rather than blue? I assure hon. Members that it is never blue. The more we talk about periods and normalise what is a completely natural and healthy function, the easier we will make it for young girls to talk about this.

When I was at school and we were given a very brief talk about periods, boys were sent out of the class. It is important that menstrual health is covered in detail in statutory sex and relationships education, but does the hon. Lady agree that boys need education about periods, too? Many of them will go on to be husbands, fathers, teachers or doctors. Just as women should understand the signs of testicular cancer, men should understand about periods and period poverty.

I completely agree. School is exactly the right time for that education. I have delivered those lectures myself, and although they may be embarrassing for the boys, it is very important that they understand how this works, and that it is completely natural. That is the point.

The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Period poverty also has an impact on homeless people. Not only do they need to be supplied with sanitary products, which the Lunar Project in York supplies, but they need access to public toilets. Surely that needs to be a Government priority. It is a public health issue.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I visited St Mungo’s last week, and that was raised as an important issue that it needs help with.

Very little research has been done on period poverty in schools in the UK, but what we do know is shocking. In a Plan International UK survey of 1,000 girls, 49% said that they had missed an entire day of school because of their period. Critically, of those, 59% had lied about why, claiming that something else had caused their absence. Meanwhile, 82% of the girls surveyed admitted that they had hidden or concealed their sanitary products, while nearly three quarters said that they felt embarrassed even buying them. Again, I will admit to that: during the 2015 election campaign, I was approached for a chat about politics in Boots, where I had just bought some tampons. I remember standing with them behind my back because I was a bit embarrassed. I would not have done that with toothpaste. That shows how desperately we need to talk more about the issue.

Plan International’s campaign to normalise periods—including with a period emoji—is brilliant, as is all the great work that businesses and charities are doing up and down the country. Boots and others have introduced drop-in donation points. Bodyform has promised to donate 200,000 packs of sanitary products by 2020. There are grassroots campaigns such as the Periodical Diary, which has a website on which girls can talk frankly about their periods; it also goes into schools and delivers workshops. However, we should not leave it to charities and business to pick up the Government’s slack. How can it be okay for a mother to be forced to choose between food and sanitary products? That is exactly the choice that far too many women in this country face.

I was disappointed that the Chancellor did not make funding available in last week’s Budget to ensure that schools could stock sanitary products for those who need them. Let us focus on that small issue. Such a small, simple step would restore dignity, save embarrassment and reduce the number of girls who are missing valuable days of teaching and learning.

It is not too late. The Minister could offer something to these desperate women. I hope that she and others are feeling the political pressure mount. Last year, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) tabled amendments to the Finance Bill that were rejected by the Government—shamefully, I might add. I thank and commend her for her excellent work on the issue. In March, the Education Secretary—who is also Minister for Women and Equalities, as we have already been reminded—said in answer to the then Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West, Greg Mulholland, that she would look at the issue of period poverty “carefully”. I look forward to an update from the Minister on where that assessment is, and when the Government plan to publish their work.

I also ask the Minister: did this issue even get a mention in the discussions with the Treasury over the last weeks and months? I sincerely hope that we will not be spun the line that the reallocation of money from VAT on sanitary products to women’s charities is enough, because it is not.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. Does she share my concern that £250,000 of the tampon tax fund went to a pro-life charity called Life, which confirmed to me on the radio that if a woman it was helping with housing then decided to have a termination, or indeed had a miscarriage, it would withdraw its services? It is absolutely obscene that money that women pay is going to a charity or organisation that does not provide choice.

That is indeed shocking. This money should be available to all women, no matter their choices, especially if those choices are legal in this country.

We estimate that the small measure of providing sanitary products in schools would cost in the region of £5 million, which is a drop in the ocean compared to the £1 billion found for the Democratic Unionist party. I mention that simply to point out that when an issue is important enough, somehow money seems to be found.

Finally, I also plead that responsibility for this issue not be passed on to schools. Yes, schools have budgets, but those budgets are ever squeezed, and schools still need to find a further £1.7 billion, according to the National Audit Office. I ask the Minister not to pass the buck today on this issue, and to find the small amount of new money that is needed to fund these very important initiatives. Period poverty is a hidden plight, and it is time that it was taken seriously by all. I thank all Members in advance for their contributions, and of course I thank the Minister, who I have much respect for, for listening intently to the arguments put forward in the short time that we have.

It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Sharma; I do not think that we have done so before.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on securing this debate. She is absolutely right that this topic remains taboo. I think we can go back 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000 years to find some of the origins of the taboo. Even today, some of the cultural issues around women and menstruation are still very strong and not what we would want to see, certainly in this country.

I thank the hon. Lady for her honesty in the story that she told. I was once a young girl at school, and the situation she described would have filled me with horror; I would also have been in the lavatories weeping. I will deal with the issue of poverty and sanitary products in a minute, but while it is a shame that we have not made as much progress as all that, I think back to when I was first elected in 2005, when hon. Members would have been a bit aghast at us even mentioning the word “period” or “menstruation”, so maybe we have made some progress. It is good to see two men in the Chamber—my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), and for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall)—because this is not just a women’s issue. It is also about men.

Period poverty has been the subject of quite a lot of media and parliamentary attention in recent months; I know that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) put a question on it to the Minister for Women and Equalities. In general terms, we are clear that no person should be held back by their gender or background, and if someone cannot attend school on the days that they are having a period, it is much harder for them to reach their potential. They are missing out on valuable school time.

On school absences, the evidence is quite clear. We have all seen that every day of school missed can alter a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSE results and have a lasting effect on their life chances. It is important to say that in this context. That is why we have made it a priority to reduce school absence. There has been some success, with overall yearly absence rates decreasing from 6.5% of possible sessions missed in 2006-07 to 4.6% in 2015-16, which is quite a marked drop. In the context of this debate, it is interesting and perhaps surprising to note that in 2015-16, the absence rates for boys and girls were almost identical, with boys missing, on average, 4.6% of possible sessions and girls missing 4.5%.

The Minister agrees that this is a taboo subject—she is absolutely right—but it seems as if the Government have prevented us from talking about it during the passage of the Finance Bill by refusing to table the normal motions. Can she assure us that the Government will allow us to address this issue directly in the House, because we have been prevented from doing so thus far?

With the greatest respect, I do not know this, because I have not looked into it, but I would imagine that that was not to do with the subject. I have no doubt that the Government were not unhappy to discuss periods; we are having this debate today, so there is no question of that. I have no doubt that there are other reasons for what she describes. I am sure that if the hon. Lady made representations to the Backbench Business Committee, it would accept a proposal for a debate on this subject. It is also open to her party to put this forward as the subject of an Opposition day debate—there is an Opposition day debate today.

There is no question of anybody—certainly not me, as Minister for Women— suppressing any debate about periods; the more we talk about these issues, the more we lessen the taboo. If we cannot talk about them here, how can we expect children to talk about them in school?

We need to look into those absence rates further. Also, not being able to afford sanitary protection does not necessarily mean being absent from school; the two do not necessarily correlate. In fact, if the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon is suggesting that that is the reason why many girls are missing school, it is of note that the girls’ absence rate is still lower than that for boys. As I say, we need to do a lot of research on this, and I know that the Minister for Women and Equalities is very keen for that to take place. It will be difficult to dig down into the detail, but we will find out more information by doing so.

The hon. Lady talked about alternatives to sanitary towels and tampons. I looked into this. I was at a meeting with young people who raised some of the issues that she has raised. Actually, I think that one of the Labour Members present was there. We discussed school lavatories being locked during lessons. It seemed odd to me that they should be locked at that time, but it to do with the fact that often it is in the lavatories that a lot of sexual abuse, bullying and harassment takes place. Although there is no policy on that—schools are open to do what they want, and they will open the toilets during breaks, when there can be a teacher on duty—it is a sorry state of affairs that we have got to in this country when bullying, harassment and abuse are so rife that we cannot do what we should be able to do, which is leave the lavatories open so that young girls can be excused from class to change their sanitary protection, or for whatever reason.

There is an underlying problem there, which I know the Minister for School Standards is looking at: making sure that we reduce the amount of sexual abuse and bullying that takes place in lavatories. It has always taken place there; it did when I was at school. The boys’ lavatories in particular were a place where boys’ heads were shoved down the lavatory at regular and frequent intervals, and the girls’ loos were a place where a lot of bullying took place. That has got worse, not better, which is worrying, if we consider all the guidance that has been produced for schools and the fact that we should be a more progressive and open-minded society. I am probably a great deal older than many other Members in the Chamber today, and it feels as though the situation has got worse; it feels regressive, including with respect to taboo.

Interestingly, I saw online a story about Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, that showed just how ignorant people are. She was asked if 100 tampons was the right number for a one-week mission. It is quite extraordinary that people in NASA had no idea—no more than a lot of other people—about this issue.

Although this is a very serious subject, I will raise a smile and share an event with Members. It is to do with the taboo and the lack of awareness, particularly among males. As a father, I was encouraging my oldest daughter to go to her swimming club one night. We had a great exchange of views, but how embarrassed was I when I found out the reason why she was not going? I felt so small, and I was an adult. Both the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) and the Minister are absolutely right about the taboo, and that the subject is one that a parent of a 10 or 11-year-old girl has to understand; indeed, I am the father of two girls and we have had a number of these experiences. Promoting awareness and talking about this is helpful, although that does not excuse the poverty aspect and the need to provide young girls with the products that we are discussing. That is a male contribution, to balance the conversation.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I particularly commend him on being here, because it shows that we are all prepared to talk about the issue.

Sex and relationships education and religious education definitely came up as issues. We need to do a great deal more to educate young people about the alternatives. Mooncups are one option; I should think that a lot of people do not know about them. There are alternatives.

I am having a CupAware party here in Parliament in January. I agree that they are a fantastic sustainable solution, although they are not for everyone. Will the Minister join me at that CupAware party? Will she also join us at the period poverty march in Westminster on 20 December? Parliament is sitting that day, and I am speaking at that event. I hope the Minister will come along and listen to people who have been affected.

I know it is against the rules of the Chamber, but please indulge me, Mr Sharma; I am going to place a Mooncup on the desk. They were invented after I stopped having periods, but I should be able to talk—

Sorry, Mr Sharma. I will put it back in my handbag. I do not go on marches as a point of principle, but I will be interested in the feedback of the hon. Member for Dewsbury from that event. I do not feel under political pressure, because although we may argue about welfare benefits and poverty—we obviously do—and the route out of those things, we do not disagree on periods and sex education. It should be noted that the Department for Education does not issue specific guidance to schools on the provision of sanitary protection, but it is without doubt the case, and always has been the case, that the school office will have supplies for children who are caught short.

If I give way now, I will not have time to make all my points. I ask the hon. Lady to bear with me for a minute.

Members are aware of the long-running campaign for sanitary products to be exempt from VAT and the Government’s commitment to zero-rate such products once our leaving the EU offers us the discretion to do so. There are good and bad sides to Brexit, and that is perhaps one of the good sides. In anticipation of that development, we set up the £15-million tampon tax fund, which is equivalent to the amount of VAT paid on sanitary products each year. The hon. Member for Dewsbury raised an issue about one of the organisations, but I was not involved in that. The majority of funding has been grants to frontline charities that aim to improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls. Those charities include health, wellbeing and education initiatives and support services for vulnerable women. I understand that some of the money has gone to women’s refuges. As a former health professional, I can say how superb some of those organisations’ work is. While the tampon tax fund is not currently open for applications, we can look forward to updates on that in the near future.

More generally, I have to talk a bit about poverty. I have talked about periods, and poverty is the other side of the issue. We know that children do worse in households where no one is in work. Children in such households are five times more likely to be in poverty than those in households where all adults work. They are also almost twice as likely to fail at all stages of their education than children in working families. The number of households where no one is working is just short of being 1 million lower than it was in 2010, which means that there are 608,000 fewer children in such households than seven years ago.

I have seven minutes left, so I will not at the moment. I will give way if I have a bit of time at the end.

We have increased the national living wage, which means that a full-time worker is now £1,400 a year better off. We have increased the personal allowance again, meaning that a basic rate taxpayer is now £1,000 better off than they would have been in 2010. We have doubled the childcare entitlement for working parents of three and four-year-olds in England from 15 to 30 hours, introduced tax-free childcare and supported the right to request flexible working, which enables parents to arrange care in a way that works for them. We have a returner programme going on. It is easy to dismiss all that in the arguments that we want to have across the House on benefits, but it is important to recognise that those measures will make a difference to those families.

On the point of money, this is a women-only issue, pretty much by definition; does the Minister not agree that we need new money to tackle the problem? It is all very well us all agreeing with each other, but without the new money, we are not going to get where we need to go.

What we need is credible and robust evidence about the issue. There are a number of other issues, such as young men in school who possibly have to be clean shaven. There is an issue about razors for boys, which are very expensive. They are probably the item in the supermarket that is more frequently shoplifted than anything else. As a former public health Minister, I know that toothpaste is an issue. People with low incomes are perhaps not spending money on toothpaste when they should. There is a clear correlation between that and dental caries, given the fluoride in toothpaste. There are a number of issues. What things are families doing without because they feel that their finances are too tight for them to afford them? Sanitary products are separate, inasmuch as they are a sensitive issue that can increase the stigma that young women face about their menstrual cycle and their reproductive system. I accept that there are additional issues there, but sanitary products are not the only issue.

It is important to find out about school absences and how many children are not buying sanitary protection because they feel too poor to do so. Only then can we think about possible solutions. I thank Members for attending. I am sure that this will not be the last time that we discuss periods. SRE and RE are critical. What matters to me is that we have lessons that include boys and girls, because it is important for boys to understand. It is important to debunk some of the myths that some makers of sanitary products exploit. Saying that sanitary products are meant to keep someone odour-free is complete nonsense. There is no specific odour associated with menstrual blood; it is not like anything else.

There is a great deal more that we should do. Young boys need to hear about menstruation in the same way that young girls do, but I also feel strongly that young girls need an opportunity to have structured discussions on their own, without boys present, for the simple reason that someone going through puberty might feel very uncomfortable discussing things in front of people of a different gender.

I thank you again, Mr Sharma, for your excellent chairmanship, and for bearing with me when I produced an item in the Chamber. I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon for securing this debate and everyone for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.