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Schools: Free Sanitary Products

Volume 797: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the remarks by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 13 March (HC Deb, col 352), what steps they are taking to ensure that free sanitary products will be available in secondary schools and colleges in England from the next school year.

My Lords, since announcing provision in secondary schools and colleges, the Department for Education has secured funding to extend the scheme to primary schools. The department is currently consulting with stakeholders and the public, private and third sectors to ensure that the scheme best meets the needs of all learners. Given the scale of the operational task and the procurement steps required, national rollout will take place on the earliest feasible date in early 2020.

My Lords, I am a little disappointed by that Answer. This is supposed to be implemented from the beginning of September, which is what the Chancellor promised. The hundreds of campaigners and tens of thousands of people who signed petitions were delighted by the Chancellor’s Spring Statement, which promised free hygiene products for girls in secondary schools from this September. I have two questions for the Minister. First, will the Government please consider extending the scheme to primary schools, where many girls begin their periods? Secondly, who will be held personally to account if and when the system is not up and running by the second date mentioned by the Minister?

The noble Baroness asks contradictory questions: she first asks why it is not happening sooner, and secondly, she assumes that it will overrun, but early 2020 is a realistic date when we can get the procurement up and running and rolled out. She also asked about primary schools, which I think I answered in my initial Answer. I know that on 16 April, the Minister for Children and Families, Nadhim Zahawi, announced the rollout of the programme for primary school children as well.

My Lords, I welcome the action the Government are taking in both secondary and primary schools, in hospitals and, in the future, within police settings. Can my noble friend say what DfID is doing about the young girls and women who have to use home-made products such as rags, plastic and paper when they are menstruating? It would be helpful to know what contribution the Government are making in this area.

I thank my noble friend for that question. In her prior role as Secretary of State for International Development, the Minister for Women and Equalities placed great emphasis on this issue, recognising the awful situations my noble friend describes, and moved to lead a global action campaign to end period poverty by 2030 in line with the global goals. It kick-started an allocation of up to £2 million for small and medium-sized charities working on period poverty in DfID’s priority countries. It also builds on the proud record of the UK’s work that is already under way to tackle period poverty globally, and the range of initiatives that different organisations are leading here at home.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that puberty is a particularly sensitive time in the lives of most young people, particularly young women, and that it will be very important that this scheme is administered consistently in a sensitive way so that it does not become another layer of embarrassment for young women to have to deal with?

I totally agree. Puberty brings with it all sorts of embarrassments and sensitivities. This scheme is an excellent way to avoid any of that. It does not matter where you come from or what your parents’ income is: you will have access to the products you need so that your education will not be held back.

It is awful if a family cannot afford to buy these products. In relation to the previous question, asked by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, there are all sorts of issues around puberty and access to products. This scheme cuts across all those issues. Nobody has to be embarrassed because their parents cannot afford to pay—or, indeed, be too embarrassed to ask their parents to buy the products in the first place.

My Lords, is it not an absolute disgrace that many young girls do not come to school because they are too embarrassed as they cannot afford proper equipment? Is there not a case for introducing something earlier to provide resources for those young girls who come from poor families, cannot afford the equipment and are so embarrassed that they do not come to school as a result?

I have tried to relay that issue; I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, asked her Question in the first place precisely to addresses these issues too. These girls are embarrassed and some of them do not come to school because they cannot access these products.

Will the guidance given to educational establishments on procuring sanitary towels, and possibly tampons, include some guidance about the ecological effect of disposal? Will it make sure that, rather than simply going for the cheapest option, girls also go for the least harmful products in terms of environmental destruction?

I am glad that the noble Baroness has raised that point because one of the concerns that will be addressed in the procurement exercise is to see whether there are organisations which can in fact provide the sustainable products she has talked about on a large scale.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s initiative for ending period poverty in primary and secondary schools and, I believe, in colleges as well. Does the Minister agree that this is long overdue? It should end the problem of girls missing school while at the same time giving them a sense of dignity. Can she say whether the expert task force announced by the Department for Education is now up and running and will it report on the proposals for ending period poverty in England? Can she also say what the overall cost will be? Can she give a guarantee that the funding will be protected for the long term?

Obviously, I cannot speak from one spending review to the next but I know that it will be a ring-fenced fund. I can tell the noble Baroness that the task force will receive £250,000 of seed funding to take forward its work on accessing period products, particularly for vulnerable groups.