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Free Period Product Scheme for Schools

Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 15 December 2021

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government and House of Commons Commission guidance. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. I call Ruth Cadbury to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Free Period Product Scheme for Schools.

Thank you, Ms Rees. Is the loop on? I could not hear you very well because the loop was not on. As you probably will not be speaking too much, I hope I will cope.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. The debate concerns the Government’s free period product scheme, where period products are available in English schools. As Chair of the all-party parliamentary group on period equality, I again bring a debate. Until recently, we found the pages of Hansard rather bare when it came to menstrual health. I believe the word tampon was first used in this place in the 1980s, in relation to an incident involving a customs officer. However, we have made progress since I joined this place in 2015 and in more recent years, when I brought a debate last year.

I welcome the chance today to talk about the Government’s scheme for schools and colleges in England. I will start by describing in a few words what it means to come on a period when in school. The Minister will realise that it has been rather a long time since that happened to me. Not all of these words apply to me, but they are common emotions and feelings for youngsters in school: unexpected, messy, embarrassing, shameful, bad back pain, headaches, PMT, stress and unexplained strong emotions and, overall, bloody.

When I applied for the debate, we did not know whether the Government would extend the scheme or whether there would be any changes or tweaks to it. We were very pleased on 26 November, when we received the welcome news that the Government would extend the scheme for 2022. There was a sigh of relief from students, teachers and parents across the country.

The precursor to the current Government scheme was the red box project, organised and delivered nationally by volunteers. Like many MPs, I worked with our local organiser who ran the Hounslow red box, led by Yeliz Kazim. She worked tirelessly, like many across the country, to get red boxes into schools, so that students could easily access free period products. I learned from Yeliz that it was not only period products that young people were asking for via their teachers. Yeliz also supplied spare underwear, tights and deodorant in the boxes she supplied. She had started to work with other organisations, such as youth clubs and council and community settings, to ensure that period products were available free in other settings.

I have always supported this campaign. I know that in Northern Ireland, the local Education Minister is considering the matter, off the back of a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly last week. There is an eagerness for local councils to play their part. My own, Ards and North Down Borough Council, is part of that. I commend the hon. Lady, and let her know that there is a willingness and interest for this to happen in Northern Ireland in the way she is indicating.

It is welcome to hear about what is happening in Northern Ireland. I will later describe legislation that has been passed in the Scottish Parliament as well.

As many groups and charities, such as Bloody Good Period, have rightly said, that important work should not fall to the kindness of charity. Thanks to the tireless work of activists such as Amika George and of groups such as Free Periods, the school scheme was introduced after much lobbying and campaigning.

Although we have made much progress in improving how we talk about period poverty and menstrual health, I am aware that some people still question why we need the scheme. People incorrectly assume that tampons and pads are cheap, that women might need only one a day or that they are easy to get—but certainly, when pupils are supposed to be in school, it is not easy to go out to the shops, even if there is a shop nearby.

Period poverty causes pupils to miss schooling. A report by phs found that one in 14 girls said that

“they have missed schools as they could not afford or access period products.”

A report published in July found that period poverty got worse in the last year as the cost of living, loss of work and so on hit many families. It also found that 35% of teenage girls said that they had taken time off school because of their period, which was a 7% increase on 2019. Some of that will have been due to period pains or PMT, but poverty is a contributing factor. In that survey, 11% said that they had stayed off school because they could not afford period products—that figure was only 2% in the 2019 survey. The problem of poverty in accessing period products is getting worse and is affecting children’s ability to attend and remain in school.

Plan International UK, in its October report, estimated that nearly 2 million girls in the UK missed school at some point because of their period. It warned that there is a “toxic trio” of issues fuelling period poverty: first, the lack of proper education about periods; secondly, the stigma and shame around menstruation; and thirdly, the cost of the products. We have moved on since the distant days of my schooling, but we can do much more.

On stigma and shame, when I talk about the issue I tried to avoid the word “sanitary”, because it implies that having a period is a dirty or unbecoming act, which of course it is not. Great work is being done to tackle the stigma around periods in sport, which has an impact on many students. The Blood, Sweat and No Fears campaign raises awareness around sport and features powerful testimony from many elite athletes.

Young people, not just girls, need to learn and be able to talk about periods, which are a natural function and not something shameful. Too many mothers, teachers and other adults do not talk about periods and feel that they need to hide the facts, and too many young women feel shamed when they are on their period.

There is also the issue of cost. In the past few months, I have heard from many families locally how difficult it has been to make ends meet with the £20-a-week cut in universal credit, inflation, loss of work or a cut in hours, rising rents and rising fuel prices. The cost of buying period products for those who need them in the household adds to that—they cannot get away from that cost.

The Government’s period product scheme has a part to play in the awareness of periods, stigma and education. Having those products available, talking about them and advertising them in the school community is part of that and why they are needed. It provides an opportunity to talk about periods among boys and girls, which is important. The main advantage of the scheme, however, is that it can make a significant difference to addressing period poverty.

On the scheme, we welcome the fact that the Government have taken over from the Red Box Project, a charity and a voluntarily run scheme. I want as many schools as possible to sign up for the Government’s scheme. I welcome the latest figures that show that more than 70% of secondary schools have signed up, but 24% have not. The lower sign-up rate of 41% among primary schools is concerning, however. We know that many pupils could be having their first period in primary school: as the years go on, menstruation is starting at an earlier age, so these products are absolutely essential. The higher level of ignorance—if you like—in primary schools makes it even more important to have these products available in those schools, even though only a small percentage of their students need them.

The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Again, to give an example from Northern Ireland, these products are available through school nurses in the schools. Whenever pupils go to ask for them, I think they need to be able to ask someone who understands.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We need to make this easy and accessible, so that everybody knows who they can go to and that they can talk in privacy, because it is not just, “Could I have three pads please, miss?” It is about the staff member being open to having a conversation if needed, particularly with youngsters who have only just started having periods.

The other concern is the regional variations in the uptake of this scheme. From 2020, it appears that the north-east has an uptake of only 44%, compared with 50% in London. Although MPs can and do play a role in encouraging schools to sign up—that is something that we in the all-party parliamentary group do—I appreciate that our powers are not limitless, and we can only go so far in encouraging schools locally to sign up. I have heard feedback that some schools in more affluent areas think that they do not need to sign up to the scheme. Schools with lower numbers of students on the pupil premium were less likely to sign up, but that does not help those students who do need the service, and anyway, this is not just about affordability: there is a shame issue. We still hear of girls being unable to ask their mothers for the money to buy pads or tampons, or not knowing what to do or where to get them, so that is another reason why all schools should have these products available. I urge every school to sign up to this scheme and ensure that all pupils can access free products. We do not deny schools the chance to distribute free condoms on the basis of the school being in an affluent area, so I very much hope that all schools sign up.

What can the Government do to address these uptake levels, in addition to what they have already done? First, they can make it as straightforward and easy as possible for schools to access and operate this scheme. School staff have faced a huge strain from covid-19, and even before the virus hit, they had enough on their plate. If the Government could make it easier by making this scheme an opt-out one, rather than opt-in, that would really help. The other issue is communication: take-up is encouraged through occasional emails from the Department and some pieces on social media, but more could be done, including in those areas where sign-up rates have been lower. The APPG is happy to assist the Department in doing so.

The second issue I want to address is that of the products available in the scheme. Schools can currently order and receive products from Public Health England depending on their budget, and I understand that as some products are more expensive, schools naturally spend their budget on cheaper items if they get a bigger quantity. However, as with nappies, we know that the cheaper the product, the less useful it is. I remember that from my days—I will not go into detail; Members do not want to know. Actually, they do want to know, because they need to know that the cheaper product lasts less long and creates more mess.

We should also consider allowing a greater range of products—such as we had in the original Red Box scheme in Hounslow, based on feedback from young people and teachers—such as tights, pants, deodorants and so on. I would also welcome more use of reusable products, which of course are expensive, such as mooncups and even washable pads. Washable pads are really simple to make, but because they are still a minority product, as it were, they are expensive to buy. If they were available through the scheme, it would save young people the costs of buying single-use products every month, not to mention the environmental impact that single-use products have.

There is also the question of the scheme’s long-term future. Both this year and last, we have had to wait until late in the year to find out if the scheme was going to be continued or if it was going to be scaled down. I am sure it would provide schools and colleges with much-needed certainty if the scheme could be put on a more secure footing, and we did not face this cliff edge every year.

Finally, I hope that the Government do not think of this as a tick-box way of tackling period inequality—that, because of this scheme, the issue is solved. It is much more complex than that. The toxic trio of low awareness, discrimination and cost needs a more ambitious programme. I am proud of the amazing work of Monica Lennon, the Labour MSP in the Scottish Parliament, who fought for so long to see the pioneering Period Products (Free Provision) Scotland Bill pass into law. In the end, it was passed unanimously. It is a global first, as it mandates local authorities to provide free period products, which means that the roll-out will extend beyond schools and into places such as town halls, leisure centres, community settings and other public sites. This is the type of bold and ambitious policy that will make a huge difference to so many young people—and not just young people.

We know that period inequality does not just impact pupils. The poverty issue affects migrants, refugees and many marginalised people. Whenever I buy something for a food box or donate things to asylum seekers living on £8 a week, I always include period products. The scheme is a welcome and much-needed step to ensure that all of society is tackling period poverty. I have some questions for the Minister—I can give him my sheet of paper if it helps. Will the Government look at making this an opt-out rather than an opt-in scheme for schools? Will the Minister tell us what is being done to improve the take-up rate generally and in certain regions? Will the Government improve communications with schools about the scheme? Will they look at the products available in the scheme, so that they can be expanded to include pants, tights and other multi-use products? Will they look at putting the scheme on a more permanent or long-term footing? Will the Minister look at adjusting the scheme so that regional and local inequalities are addressed, such as by using pupil premium numbers? Will the Government look at the Act in Scotland and consider what more can be done to tackle period inequality?

Parliament and Government have become much better at talking about, and raising awareness of, menstrual health, and we are making progress. None the less, the figures over the past year show that period poverty is getting worse and that the impact on schooling is getting greater. We cannot afford to continue with a business-as-usual model. We need a bigger and better approach to ensure that no student misses school because of period inequality.

It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, especially as it is my first Westminster Hall debate as a Minister for the Department for Education.

First, let me congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing this very important debate. She has been a passionate campaigner on this issue for a long time. She articulated the case very eloquently—far better than I ever could—for this scheme and the need for it. I will try to cover as many of the points and questions that she raises but, as ever, I am happy to meet her at a later date to discuss the scheme in detail.

Let me begin with the point that she made at the beginning of her speech about stigma and taboo, because it is very important. We all have a part to play in this, and I will come on to it later in my contribution. The first thing to say is that we are committed to providing a world-class education, training and care for everyone. No young person in our country should be held back from reaching their potential because of their gender or background. There may be people listening and watching this debate thinking, “What does this middle-aged bloke know or care about period products?” But I do care passionately about this issue. I am passionate about ensuring that women and girls are supported in education and beyond.

The hon. Lady may not know this, but I was one of the architects of the tampon tax fund. Some £90 million has gone to women’s health charities as a result of that scheme, and now VAT has been removed from products. I am also the father of two young girls, one of whom will soon—very soon, I think—be in this position, so I have a personal interest, too. I want my girls and every girl in this country never to have to worry about period products being available in their school, and I want them to feel comfortable speaking about that with their teachers, peers and, I hope, their parents, and indeed their father.

As the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, we launched the period product scheme in January 2020, and I am delighted that we are extending it until August 2022, the end of the summer term. She made this point clearly, but I emphasise that the scheme has significant benefits. Schools and colleges can continue to use the scheme, and all will receive new spend cap allocations for the remainder of the academic year. That will be announced on 4 January. The hon. Lady pushes me to announce a further extension. All I can say at this stage is that any further extensions or new contracts will be announced in due course. I want to ensure—I think the hon. Lady knows how passionate I am about this subject and how committed the Government are to it—that schools and colleges are given as much notice as possible in order that they can place orders.

The Minister will be aware that Northern Ireland Education Minister Michelle McIlveen said:

“No-one should miss out on their education because they cannot afford or access these essential products. Providing free products will help pupils manage their periods confidently at school, reduce anxiety and stress and enable students to focus on their learning.”

Northern Ireland’s three-year, £2.6 million scheme will also tackle the lack of understanding and the stigma to which hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) referred. That might be an incentive for the Minister to try to follow Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman is right, and all the points he raises are fair and accurate. We work closely, particularly at official level, with devolved Administrations to develop schemes of this nature, to make sure that, as much as possible, there is some synergy. In September this year, Northern Ireland launched a three-year pilot scheme to address period poverty in schools, which we very much welcome. I suppose it is telling that all Governments across our United Kingdom are aligned on this issue. We recognise this need. I have to pay credit to the hon. Lady and the APPG for driving this agenda.

We are absolutely clear that organisations should have products available should learners need them. Many schools and colleges have benefited from charities over recent years, as the hon. Lady rightly points out, and we very much thank those charities for their support. Schools and colleges do not have to use the national scheme to purchase products. If they prefer to use an alternative route, they can of course do so, although costs are only met through the use of the Department’s scheme. With that in mind, our supplier, phs, will proactively contact organisations that have accessed the scheme so far. Organisations that have already ordered products should continue to use their existing account and log-in details. Schools will potentially be listening to the debate, so I refer them to phs’s contact details and more information about the scheme being clearly set out in guidance on

The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth rightly referenced take-up. Since the period product scheme launched in January 2020, it has been fantastic to see how many schools and colleges have used it. Importantly, the scheme remained in operation throughout the partial school and college closures as a result of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. We had fantastic examples of organisations ensuring that young people continued to receive that support, even when they were learning from home. The hon. Lady referenced these figures, and it is really encouraging that 76% of secondary schools and 79% of colleges ordered products from the scheme during 2020. We continue to encourage those who have not yet accessed the scheme to do so. It is really important that they do, and that they recognise that that support is there. We intend to publish updated statistics from the scheme early next year. Although I cannot say much about that, I hope, I think and am confident and optimistic that the hon. Lady will be pleased when those new figures are published. She rightly raises the take-up of primary schools. I take up her offer to meet at a later date to discuss some of her ideas to improve that.

The hon. Lady also rightly referenced the environment. We continually monitor the ways in which we can make our scheme and others like it more environmentally friendly, such as by setting a minimum order value based on the organisation’s budget—for an average secondary school, that is about £1,500—in order to limit deliveries and reduce traffic and all those things. Importantly, we continue to include a range of sustainable and environmentally friendly products for schools and colleges to select, as I think the hon. Lady would hope. Our supplier reports that, over the past few months—I suspect driven in part by COP26—orders for environmentally friendly products increased significantly in the weeks up to and after COP26.

The hon. Lady rightly pushed me on range. Range is important, and she has raised the issue with me in private. I am looking very closely at additional period products, such as period pants, that we could potentially include in the product range for 2022. There are limitations as to exactly what we can include in the current contract, but I certainly commit to the hon. Lady that I will take this issue away and explore what further products we could include in the scheme.

Many of the reusable products, such as period pants and period pads, are made by very small SMEs. That is a different kettle of fish for the Department from having a single big contract with a major supplier. I hope the Minister will consider that opportunity, even though it might be an administrative burden of a different type for the Department.

I certainly will do that. One advantage of working with phs is that it has that capability and national reach, as well as the ability to procure at a local level.

The hon. Lady rightly touched on stigma and taboo, which I mentioned earlier. I think we do need to talk about periods. A vital element of the scheme’s success is ensuring that learners are aware that period products are available when they need them in their school or college. It can be challenging for some schools and colleges to communicate about this, especially if teachers and students find it difficult to talk openly about periods. Periods are a natural process, but too often they are treated as a taboo subject. I remember what it was like when I was a pupil at school: they were very much something that was not talked about.

We are taking action to tackle that through the new health education curriculum, which became compulsory for state-funded schools in England in 2020. Our statutory guidance insists that both boys and girls should be taught the key facts about the menstrual cycle, including what is an average period, the range of period products, and the implications for emotional and physical health. We have developed a “changing adolescent body” teacher training module, which will very much help in that regard. I desperately want teachers to feel confident in talking to students about this issue to tackle the stigma around menstruation.

Beyond the health education curriculum content, we have statutory guidance that directs schools to make adequate and sensitive arrangements to help ensure that girls prepare for and manage periods, including through requests for period products. I think that will make a real difference. Our user insight shows that even small changes, such as using the term “period products”—I have been very careful to use it, as did the hon. Lady—as opposed to “sanitary products”, help to shift the conversation away from any suggestion that periods are in some way unhygienic, which of course they are not; they are an entirely natural process.

I will touch briefly on ordering and distribution. This is a matter that mostly affects girls. Fundamentally, no girls should miss out on their education because of their period. Our scheme helps young people to go about their daily lives without getting caught out. It is not just about period poverty; it is about not being caught out. That is not just about pupils; it is also about teachers, who sometimes come on their periods unexpectedly, forget to bring products in with them or cannot afford the products they need. We have the online portal, but I am keen to work with the hon. Lady on how we can improve the process and ensure that more schools access this provision.

I am conscious that there are lots more questions and I would like to answer them. I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady at a later date to do so. This issue mostly affects women and girls, but it is important that we are all comfortable discussing it. I want more people in this House and in schools and colleges up and down the country to discuss this issue, so that it is not a taboo and so that we take the stigma out of it. My message to girls and young women up and down the country is this: please do not ever miss out on your education because of your period. Make sure your school or college signs up to our period products scheme, and that you are able to make the most of the continuation of this fantastic scheme. I conclude by thanking the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for their contributions, and wishing all within the House a very merry Christmas.

Sitting adjourned.