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Women and Equalities Committee

Volume 719: debated on Thursday 8 September 2022

Select Committee statement

Before we start, I would like to repeat the statement made by Mr Speaker in the House of Commons, who sent his best wishes on behalf of everyone to Her Majesty the Queen and the royal family, who are in our thoughts and prayers at this moment.

Caroline Nokes will speak on the publication of the first report of the Women and Equalities Committee, “Menopause and the Workplace”, for up to 10 minutes, during which I cannot allow any interventions. At the conclusion of the statement, I will call Members who wish to ask questions on the subject of the statement, and call Caroline Nokes to respond. I must remind everyone that questions should be brief. I call the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Caroline Nokes.

Thank you, Mr Robertson, and I associate myself with the comments made by yourself and by Mr Speaker.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting me time in this Chamber and the opportunity to make this statement. I pass on my thanks to the Clerks to the Women and Equalities Committee and to the entire Committee for their incredibly hard work. It is now over a year since we launched the inquiry, a year in which we have seen menopause and its health and workplace issues rise to prominence. I think it is fair to say that there was a time, not that long ago, when nobody in this place would have wanted to talk about the menopause, and women of a certain age—that is, my age—would have been very anxious about talking about it publicly for fear of the stigma and taboo that is sometimes associated with menopause.

There has been a massive sea change in recent years. We have seen debates, both in this Chamber and on the Floor of the House, where Members—both male and female—have been very happy to talk about their own experiences and champion the change that we wish to see for our constituents. It was really encouraging to see the large number of Members who took part in the debate on World Menopause Month last year. I am sure that the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and I will be applying for another debate this year. We have had long discussions about the menopause workplace pledge, menopause workplace policies, and the importance of employers and businesses, whether large or small, adopting menopause-friendly policies. Indeed, we saw Mr Speaker sign the menopause workplace pledge on behalf of the House of Commons and the civil service, and we have also seen private companies such as John Lewis and Royal Mail sign that pledge.

What matters to me and my Committee, however, is not just a commitment from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to work hand in hand with businesses signing up to those sorts of pledges and introducing policies, but that those policies are implemented and acted on. When we launched the inquiry, we discovered that, although things have improved, this is no time to be complacent. In 2019, Bupa published research showing that almost 1 million women had left their jobs due to menopause symptoms, and that many women are still facing stigma in society and at work and are struggling to get diagnosis and treatment.

We launched the inquiry because menopause is an inevitable and natural part of growing older, but stigma, poor medical treatment and feeling compelled to give up work or to not take on promotions at the peak of one’s career should never be considered inevitable or normal. We took evidence from academics, lawyers, doctors, experts in business and people with lived experience, and they all said the same thing: yes, things are getting better, but there is still a long way to go.

We also looked at menopause as a health issue—the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East on hormone replacement therapy is very well known. On health, we found that stigma around menopause is still a significant problem for all women, but it is magnified for certain groups, such as minority ethnic women. I pay particular tribute to Karen Arthur, who came and gave evidence on behalf of black women going through the menopause. Certainly, younger women and LGBT+ people who have faced premature menopause and surgical menopause have faced particular challenges because it is not seen as a problem for them.

We have welcomed the inclusion of menopause on the relationships, health and sex education curriculum, but we want to see a really inclusive and high-profile public health and education campaign on menopause. There is some great work being carried out by organisations such as Pausitivity. Indeed, in my own county of Hampshire, great campaigners such as Jo Ibbott and Claire Hattrick have worked so hard on this issue. However, what we really want to see from the Department of Health and Social Care is an inclusive and high-profile public health campaign.

We heard that far too many women struggle to get an accurate diagnosis and that access to specialist services is limited. Women told us horrendous stories of being dismissed and ignored and having to really fight to explain what was going wrong with them to their GPs in order to get the appropriate prescriptions. The issues of access to HRT and the cost of prescriptions have been raised many times in this Chamber, but they are worth reiterating. Although we were pleased to see the appointment of the HRT tsar, we are worried that she is now headed back to her previous role as head of the vaccine taskforce while there are still shortages and protocols around 12 of the 13 HRT medicines.

At this point, I would like to pay particular tribute to the work of the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who did fantastic work on this in her previous post. We are sorry to see her go. It is poignant that today is the first day that over-the-counter HRT medicines have been available—I pay tribute to her for making that possible.

Women are staying in work for longer. Women over 50 are the fastest growing demographic in the workplace. However, despite being among the most experienced and skilled workers, and, indeed, role models to younger workers, some women are leaving their jobs, being forced out or forced to cut back their hours.

We heard about the many ways in which menopause can affect work, such as through problematic symptoms. Some 99% of respondents to a survey we ran outlined that they had at least one problematic symptom. In a modern society, it cannot be right that women are being discriminated against and that the menopause is contributing to women reducing their hours or leaving work altogether. We are losing skills, future generations are losing the benefit of their wisdom, and the economy is haemorrhaging talent.

The positive benefits of being menopause-friendly are obvious. They include not only strong reputational benefits, but the ability to retain the best and most experienced staff and to help women to thrive in the workplace. All of this will help to reduce the gender pay and pension gap. We heard that supporting menopausal employees need not be resource-intensive or costly. We heard of some fantastic schemes about menopause workplace champions. When employers ask, “What is the one thing we can do to support our female employees going through the menopause?”, the answer that invariably comes back is, “Give them space to talk and someone that they can trust to take their issues to.” Some of the organisations we spoke to had fantastic “Ask me” T-shirts, encouraging women to speak up and speak out.

We were shocked, however, to find how little awareness and guidance there is that the menopause can be both a health and safety at work issue and an equality issue. We have called on both the Health and Safety Executive and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to urgently issue menopause-specific guidance.

The current law makes it extremely difficult for women to bring a claim. I regard bringing a claim to a tribunal as a failure of workplace policies, but it does happen, and we have to ensure that it is easier for women to bring a menopause-specific claim. Both sex discrimination and age discrimination require a comparator—I know that hon. Members will immediately see the problem with a menopausal woman having to compare herself to a sick man in order to get redress. Too many women have been forced to resort to disability discrimination legislation in order to bring a claim. We considered whether any measure short of legal reform would help, but concluded that the Government needed to enact section 14 of the Equality Act 2010 to allow women to bring claims based on dual discrimination and to consult on making menopause a protected characteristic.

In conclusion, I hope that this important report will continue to drive social change and further encourage cross-Government action. It is imperative that all Government Departments are involved, including the Department of Health and Social Care, BEIS and the Departments for Education and for Work and Pensions. We need to improve the diagnosis and treatment of women and keep those many menopausal women who should be thriving at work in work. While we heard of many terrible experiences for women, we also heard from some utterly inspirational women and organisations. Let us continue the hard work that we have started, and find the ability to celebrate menopausal women’s contributions to society and the economy. I hope that the Minister will look at the work of the women’s health strategy, where menopause has been a priority—and the recently appointed women’s health ambassador, Dame Lesley Regan, is already doing great work—and make sure that women’s health, particularly menopausal women’s health, remains a priority.

I thank the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee and the entire Committee for this important report. It rightly brings attention to the additional discrimination in the workplace and stigma that women from ethnic minorities go through during the menopause phase, which is often neglected in the wider conversation. Disappointingly, however, these problems were not mentioned in the relevant section of the Government’s women’s health strategy. Does the right hon. Lady agree that the Government should give consideration to the specific issues faced by ethnic minority women?

I thank the hon. Member for her question. She makes an important point. Not all women will experience the menopause in the same way, and not all cultures will address it in the same way. One of my biggest challenges as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee is to make sure that we address the intersectional issues. Fifty-one per cent. of our population are women, and the Committee will always be champions for them, but we must also address the different ways in which people of different ethnicities and ages and those with different disabilities will encounter various challenges relating to not just the menopause but health and workplace issues. It is imperative that we keep emphasising that, and that we do not take a one-size-fits-all approach to the issue of equalities, because it is simply not appropriate.

As well as making up over 50% of the population, women are the fastest growing group in the workplace and are staying in work longer than ever before. Does the right hon. Lady therefore agree that it is vital that the Government appoint a menopause ambassador to champion good practice, and that they commence section 14 of the Equality Act 2010 to allow dual discrimination claims? And a fellow member of the Women and Equalities Committee, does she agree that, despite the fact that the word “women” has this week been dropped from departmental and ministerial titles relating to women and equalities, women, as well as equalities, will always remain at the top of the Committee’s agenda?

I thank my fellow Committee member for her question. It is important that we have a menopause ambassador. The hon. Member is right to point out that the largest growing demographic in the workplace is women over 50. I would like to see much more effort go into championing—I hate to have to say this, but I declare an interest—women over 50. We potentially have ahead of us the best part of 20 years of further contribution to make to the workforce before hitting retirement age. It is imperative that we champion—I hate to use this word—older women, women with experience, and women who can act as role models. It is crucial that we do so. A menopause ambassador would be a good step, and I would like them to have a cross-cutting remit so that they can consider what can be done at DWP and the Department of Health and Social Care, and how menopausal issues can be championed in education and, of course, at BEIS. That would be a wide remit, and I am absolutely fixated on this. We should be looking at ways in which we can ensure that there are opportunities for women to retrain and to access finance to establish and grow their own businesses. There would be a massive boost to the economy if women were starting and scaling up businesses at the same rate as men.

The hon. Member makes an excellent point about dual discrimination, which the report covers in detail. The report does not call for menopause to instantly be made a protected characteristic, but we do say that the Government should consult on that, and I hope that they will have the courage to do so. We also say that section 14 of the Equality Act should be enacted immediately. I apologise for this very long answer, but that would give women the ability to bring a discrimination case on two protected characteristics—namely, age and sex. That would be a really important step forward, because we know that the menopause happens only to natal women and to those women who have transitioned to be legally men, so we must not exclude them and it is crucial that we do not forget about them.

We know that discrimination against LGBT+ people can be more severe than against others. A dual discrimination claim could be enacted swiftly and easily, and it would mean that women would not have to bring claims about the menopause under disability discrimination legislation. The menopause is many things—it is hideous, it is hot, it takes away your ability to concentrate and can leave you unable to sleep—but it is not a disability. Interestingly, many of the cases that have been brought under disability discrimination legislation have been found not proven, because it is not a disability.

The hon. Lady made a final point, one which is core to the work of my Committee, about the inclusion of the word “women” in women and equalities. I am absolutely determined that, in my time as Chair, the Committee will champion the rights of women and the inclusion of women, and will not see women erased.

I commend the right hon. Lady and the Select Committee for the report, and I thank her for her contribution. As hon. Members will know, I have supported this issue the whole way through, primarily because my own wife was going through it, and that gave me experience and understanding.

I understand that there are more women, including those over the age of 50, in employment than there have been for a great number of years, so this report is really important. Has the report been shared with other Administrations? I am very keen to ensure that we in Northern Ireland have the same opportunity to make important changes. Employing six ladies in my office, as I do, I understand that it is important to give space. Let us do that in Northern Ireland as well.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I can think of many an occasion when I have heard him speak in debates on the menopause, and I thank him for his commitment to the issue. He is right to point out that there are more women in employment now than I think at any time previously during my lifetime. That is a huge bonus and benefit that we should celebrate. We must hold up those women over 50 or those menopausal women in employment as role models and champions. They are the vanguard for a younger generation, and can be the menopause workplace champions who can provide the advice and that safe space for talking about this.

This issue absolutely applies across the whole of the United Kingdom, and we have to spread best practice. My Select Committee is tentatively considering a visit to Northern Ireland. I very much hope that we will get consent from the Liaison Committee to go on our first visit to Northern Ireland, and we hope to squeeze in a little trip to Dublin at the same time. People are looking to us as world leaders on this issue. I have been stunned at the number of parliamentarians from overseas who have contacted me about the work that we are doing here in the United Kingdom on the menopause. It is imperative that the work is shared among the devolved Administrations as well.

I am very grateful to the Women and Equalities Committee and am enjoying the outbreak of agreement across this Chamber today—it is not always that way. The right hon. Lady’s comments about why it is so important that we talk about this issue resonate with me. It is not a niche issue. I talked about it with some constituents at the Neilston Menopause Café last week, or the week before—I can’t remember; that might be brain fog. It was an extremely useful opportunity for women at a particular point in their lives to have those conversations. Does the right hon. Lady agree that bringing that opportunity into the workplace context is particularly important, so that people can and do understand that the menopause is absolutely normal?

If I may, I will push my luck a little and ask a second question. The right hon. Lady mentioned prescription charges, which we do not face in Scotland, but does she agree that another issue for women who go through the menopause may be inadequate sick pay, which can exacerbate already troubling issues? Could the Committee focus its attention on that, given its impact on so many women?

The hon. Lady makes a number of important points. She has been to her local Menopause Café. There is a brilliant group in my constituency called What the Fog? I will be doing a seminar with it in a few weeks’ time. It is imperative that we normalise this in the workplace. I have spent the summer talking to organisations and businesses, large and small. I talked to an enormous group of women at Scania in Milton Keynes. It was incredibly. Just giving people the space to share their own experiences was really important to them, and it got the conversation going.

The hon. Lady has absolutely hit the nail on the head about the cost of the menopause. There is a cost to business, to the economy and to individual women. What we call for in the report is a trial, from a large-scale public sector employer, of menopause workplace leave. I would love to see a public sector organisation come forward and volunteer to do that. We understand that it is difficult for some women; they will have horrendous symptoms, but they can get it through it, and maybe leave is the answer.