Free Sanitary Products in Schools

– in the House of Commons at 4:48 pm on 17th December 2020.

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

5.1 pm

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

It is my honour to have what might be the last debate in this parliamentary year, and I thank Mr Speaker for granting it.

Over half the population expect to have periods most months from roughly their early teens until some point in their 40s or 50s. If you are lucky, you know when to expect your period and what it will be like. You can have the pads, tampons or whatever you use ready to hand. If you are lucky, you can afford to buy supplies or have supportive parents to ensure that you do. If you are lucky as a young person, particularly when you have your first period, you will have someone supportive who you can trust to go to with all your questions.

But that is not true for everyone, particularly for too many school students, and this debate is about them. They need to have access to free menstrual supplies that are easily accessible when they need them, so that they do not miss school either through embarrassment or because they are not prepared to spend the rest of their day relying on toilet paper in their underpants.

I would like to start by thanking Members who attended the inaugural meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on period equality on 1 December. I was pleased to be elected as chair, and I thank the Father of the House, Sir Peter Bottomley, as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), who all agreed to be officers of the APPG.

I pay tribute to the amazing work done in this place on the issue of period poverty by my friend, the former Member for Dewsbury, Paula Sherriff. In considering the Government’s free period products scheme, I would like to pay tribute to those who have got us and the Government to where we are. There have there been so many activists, but I pay particular tribute to the charity Free Periods, including its founder, Amika George, and Gemma and Hannah, who have been campaigning tirelessly on this issue. I would also like to thank all the other groups across the country, often local and community-based groups. Yeliz Kazim, the lead volunteer with Hounslow Red Box project, worked tirelessly to ensure that schools and others local centres across the borough of Hounslow had access to period products from 2017 until last year when the Government scheme came in.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate. Several campaigns were started some years ago, before the schemes from the Governments in Scotland and Wales, and indeed the UK Government, came in, and they included one called Wings Cymru in my constituency, which was led by several of my constituents. One who springs to mind is Ceri Reeves, who collected sanitary products and distributed them around schools. Wings Cymru became such a large organisation that it started to distribute them around the further education colleges as well. Those community campaigns—in Wings Cymru’s case, all women—have been out there collecting, delivering and ensuring that young women and girls have that security to be able to carry on their education, and it is those organisations and people who have made the difference, and who have made Ministers listen and ensured that we have the funding to support them.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

My hon. Friend gives a brilliant description of a project in his constituency, and I know there are many others across the UK that, like the Hounslow Red Box scheme and Wings Cymru, are run by volunteers. They raise money, buy period products and deliver them in their distinctive red boxes, often with valuable and informative health leaflets. Hounslow Red Box also included clean new pants, tights and deodorant.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing forward the debate. I have supported the campaign in my own constituency by making sure that Ards and North Down Borough Council is bringing in the procedures that it needs to. It might be of some help to her, and hopefully to the Minister, to know that my colleague, the Northern Ireland Assembly Education Minister, Peter Weir, will shortly be submitting a document on provision for tackling period poverty in schools to the Northern Ireland Executive, and is looking forward to its roll-out in 2021. Does the hon. Lady not agree that more Departments should assess their role in combating period poverty, and that perhaps even here on the mainland we should have the same thing as we are going to have in Northern Ireland very shortly?

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. This is about more than just schools and more than just one part of the UK.

My focus today is on education, but this issue has much wider implications. It is vital that free period products are available in all sorts of venues and facilities, from leisure centres and community spaces to workplaces and further education colleges—in fact, anywhere where there are likely to be people on low incomes who might be caught short and need access.

Scotland led the way last month by passing a Bill that will ensure that free period products are available in all public places. It was moved by Labour’s Monica Lennon MSP, but supported by all parties and passed with no opposition. In Monica’s recent speech in the Scottish Parliament, she was absolutely right to say that the passage of that Bill showed that Parliament could be a force for good. She said:

“Our prize is the opportunity to consign period poverty to history. In these dark times, we can bring light and hope to the world”.—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 24 November 2020; c. 76.]

As chair of the APPG, I am looking forward to having Monica speak at our next meeting and seeing how something similar could be brought in in England.

In England, following the success of the Red Box schemes and campaigners, the Government finally brought in a scheme to introduce free period products to schools, which was rolled out in January. The schools have to ask to get access to the scheme. Our concern was that if there was insufficient take-up by schools, the funding would be pulled and the scheme would end, so we have been encouraging Members to contact their schools about this. It is not often I say that I am pleased with this Government lately, but I am really pleased that, last night, they announced that the scheme would be extended through the full 2021 calendar year. That is very welcome.

As I said, the scheme is being taken up by schools across the country, including many in my constituency. I know from speaking to young people that it has made a huge difference and they really appreciate it. There are fundamental reasons why the scheme is so important. We know what it is like to be in a toilet where there is no paper. Having no pad or tampon to hand when your period arrives is the same feeling. Of course, it is far worse for young people without the cash to buy them.

We need to ensure that any such free period product scheme has three key attributes: we need to remove the stigma around period products; we need to remove the postcode lottery that has meant that people have relied on charities and even teaching staff to provide free products—they should be available in all schools; and, most importantly, we need to ensure that no student misses out on time in the classroom because they have their period but no menstrual protection.

A 2019 report found that half of those who said they had missed schooling because of their period had done so because they could not afford to pay for period products. I am concerned that the coronavirus is fuelling this inequality even further. The problem might now be even greater, as the new figures coming in show that the pandemic has plunged more families into poverty. We know that we have a serious problem in this country when UNICEF is funding work here.

An important part of the scheme—and, indeed, of this whole debate—is tackling stigma and making it not only okay but perfectly acceptable and normal to discuss issues relating to periods. I am glad that this place has got much better in recent years, although I found out that the words “tampon” or “sanitary towel” were not used here until May 1987—and that was in relation airport security. Despite the title of this debate, Paula Sherriff reminded me today that we should not be using the word “sanitary”. Let us get away from the idea that menstrual products and menstruation implies uncleanliness; having a period is not dirty or unsanitary, although without protection it is messy.

Let me address the uptake of the Government’s free period products scheme in schools. The figures show us that by August only 40% of schools had signed up; will the Minister tell us the current level of take-up? In response to a written question, the Minister said,

“we are continuing to monitor orders closely”,

so I hope she will be able to provide further information. It is so important that schools sign up, which they can do so easily by going to the Free Periods website, which has a useful guide and toolkit to help schools. It also offers help on how to lobby MPs and on how MPs can encourage their local schools to take up the scheme. I have been working hard to make the scheme available in local schools, as have my colleagues, but MPs can do so much more.

Funding into next year would be much appreciated, but I have some other requests of the Government. It should not be left to charities such as Free Periods to do the heavy lifting in promoting the scheme when the Department for Education has a much louder megaphone to use. I know that the Department says:

“We intend to publish positive stories from organisations that have benefitted from the scheme”,

but I would like to know what the Government have been doing beyond that. What urgent work has been and is being done to promote the scheme directly in schools?

It has been such a tough year for schools and staff, and heads have had more than enough to deal with, so the easier take-up is made, the better. When I met one local headteacher, she told me about the difficulty they had in understanding the reams of directives that arrive every week; let us make it easier so that this is not yet another hurdle they have to jump. I hope the Minister will take that back to the Department.

As we end this year, I wish to speak about the future of the scheme. I hope the Minister will outline in further detail the plans for next year. Will the same amount of funding be available as was available for this past year? If schools do not use all their allocated funding by the end of the year, will they be able to roll it over and use it in future? The success of the scheme rests on as many schools as possible signing up to it. When the scheme was launched, the Minister responsible at the time, Michelle Donelan, who is now the Minister for Universities, said that the Government would consider making the scheme mandatory if take-up was not high enough. What level of take-up does the Minister think is acceptable? Does the Department have any plans to make it an opt-out rather than opt-in scheme?

Will the Government draw on our Red Box experience in Hounslow and consider extending the scheme to include other products, such as pants and tights? They are particularly valuable, because it is one thing to have a clean pad or tampon, but another to have to put back on the same pants and tights. That is certainly what the volunteers in our Red Box scheme put in, because of the feedback from students and schools. I hope that when the Minister gives her response, she will set out what the plans for the scheme are and what changes there will be.

While I congratulate the Government on their decision to continue the scheme, it is certainly not the end of the issue of access to free period products generally, as I have said. As the Scottish example shows, there are other venues and places where people, particularly those with no money or very little money, get help and support, such as food banks, citizens advice bureaux and those who support refugees. I have often visited these sorts of projects and places and they are wonderful people doing wonderful things—they provide food, they often provide razors and they provide toys for children—but sometimes they do not provide period products. I think that that needs to be considered because, as I say, period products are as necessary as food to eat and toilet paper.

Finally, Mr Deputy Speaker, as this is the official end of the parliamentary year, I wish you and your team, all the staff of Parliament, who support us, all our parliamentary staff and other Members here—those who are left—a happy, peaceful and restful Christmas. Here is hoping that 2021 is a happier year.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 5:16 pm, 17th December 2020

I congratulate Ruth Cadbury on securing a debate on such an important topic. We are absolutely committed to providing world-class education, training and care for everyone, and no one—no young person—should be held back from reaching their potential because of their gender or background.

The onset of menstruation can be confusing and even alarming, especially if the child or young person is not adequately prepared. At such a challenging time, it is vital that our students get the help and support that they need to access period products. After all, how can young people engage in their learning if they are worried about being caught out? Two years ago, in Parliament Week, members of the guides from Essex told me that this was happening to girls in my constituency—they were missing school because of their period—and I joined Members from across both sides of the House in campaigning for free period products in schools.

Back in 2019, in the spring statement, I was delighted when the Government committed to making free period products available in education. Last January, we rolled out a scheme so that students in primary schools, secondary schools and colleges across England have been able to access free period products in their place of study when they need them. I am delighted that we are extending that support until next December.

Our period product scheme helps young people to go about their daily lives without getting caught out if they come on their period unexpectedly and have forgotten to bring products with them, or if they cannot afford the products they need. Ordering the products is easy. Schools and colleges can log on to an online portal and order a range of products from our supplier, PHS, as and when they need them. This demonstrates an effective use of public funds and allows us to base spend on demand rather than making assumptions about take-up.

Periods are a very personal experience and young people inevitably have a range of priorities when it comes to selecting the most appropriate product, including whether it is familiar to them, comfortable and environmentally friendly. In research commissioned by the Department, young people felt that the scheme should prioritise the comfort of learners, and therefore we offer a wide range of products. Our product range includes environmentally friendly tampons and pads alongside reusable products such as menstrual cups and reusable pads. Schools and colleges have the freedom to select the most suitable products, considering cost and type of products. Once the products have been delivered free of charge, schools and colleges decide how these are made available to learners.

I encourage all organisations to review our guidance, which was developed through consultation with stakeholders, including campaigns such as the Red Box Project and the Department’s life skills division, alongside commissioned research with learners. It explains the simple steps required to order the products and gives advice on how to ensure that they are effectively distributed.

A vital element of the scheme is ensuring that learners are aware that the products are available when they need them. It can be challenging for some schools and colleges to communicate, especially where teachers and students find it difficult to talk openly about periods. Periods are a natural process, but too often a stigma is associated with menstruation. We are taking action to tackle that through the new health education curriculum, which became compulsory for pupils in all state-funded schools in England from September this year.

Our statutory guidance instructs that both boys and girls should be taught 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 sets out what should be covered in primary and secondary education regarding menstrual health and wellbeing.

I want teachers to feel confident in working with their students to tackle the stigma around menstruation. Over the coming year, we will evaluate the uptake of training around the relationship, sex and health education curriculum and ask teachers how they feel about delivering it. Periods can be particularly challenging for some learners, and we will give further consideration as to whether it would be appropriate to provide additional guidance to schools around, for example, endometriosis.

Beyond the health education curriculum content, our statutory guidance directs schools to make adequate and sensitive arrangements to help girls prepare for and manage periods, including requests for period products. Even small changes, such as using the term “period products”, rather than “sanitary products” can help shift the conversation from the suggestion that menstruation is unhygienic.

The great work of the Government in supporting people with menstruation is not limited to schools and colleges. Since 2015, we have awarded £15 million through the tampon tax fund to support vulnerable and excluded women and girls. Projects that are being supported this year include ones that work to support victims of domestic abuse and eating disorder sufferers and offer mentoring for disadvantaged young women.

Last year, the Government launched a cross-sectoral period poverty taskforce to develop sustainable expert solutions to end period poverty and shame in the UK. Alongside that, NHS England has announced that it will offer period products to every hospital patient who needs them, and the Home Office changed the law to ensure that all people in custody are provided with health and hygiene products for free, including period products.

The Department for International Development announced a global campaign of action to end period poverty and shame by 2030, which was kick-started with an allocation of up to £2 million for small and medium charities working on period poverty and shame in our priority countries. From 1 January next year, the Chancellor has made it clear that a zero rate of VAT will apply to period products.

Since our period product scheme launched in January, it has been fantastic to see many schools and colleges using the scheme. It has remained in operation throughout the period of partial closures of schools and colleges. Even with the challenges of the pandemic, in August PHS reported that almost 40% of eligible organisations had ordered products through the scheme. Orders have increased significantly since schools and colleges reopened fully in September, and the Department will publish management information from the period product scheme on 21 January next year, once the scheme has operated for 12 months.

In the light of the benefits I have outlined, I am pleased to confirm that the scheme will continue until next December, with all eligible schools and colleges receiving new spend cap allocations on 4 January next year. We are clear that organisations should have products available should learners need them. We also know that many schools and colleges have benefited from the support of charities over recent years, and I thank those organisations 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, although the costs are only met if they use the Department’s scheme. With that in mind, our supplier PHS will proactively contact those schools and colleges that have not accessed the scheme. Organisations that have already ordered products should continue to use their existing account and login details. The contact details for PHS and more information about the scheme are clearly set out in guidance on gov.uk.

This is an issue that mostly affects women and girls, and as this may be the last debate of the year, I would like to end it by thanking a few of the inspirational women I have been honoured to come across this year. First, I would like to thank Helen Waite, who runs the period product scheme at the Department for Education. She also set up the free school meals voucher scheme during covid, and right now she is working flat out to launch our holiday activity and food schemes across all of England for vulnerable children in the Easter, summer and Christmas holidays next year.

I would like to thank Sarah Lewis, the director at the DFE who is Helen’s line manager and also manages the early years team. She has been an inspirational leader in a difficult year, and today is her last day in the Department as she is going to work on the frontline of education. We will miss her greatly, but I know that the frontline will benefit greatly too. I would also like to thank our new permanent secretary, Susan Acland-Hood, who has made such a big difference in the Department since joining us.

I thank Dame Christine Lenehan from the Council for Disabled Children, and Tina Emery, the co-chair of the National Network of Parent Carer Forums. They do inspirational work to support children and young people with disabilities and have made sure that these very vulnerable children have certainly not been forgotten during this pandemic.

Thank you to Jenny Coles, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services; to Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker; and to social workers all across the country, many of whom are women, for the work that they do, again, to support vulnerable children and their families. Lastly, I would like to thank Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, for her very hard-working years of service. I have no doubt that our preferred candidate to be her successor, Dame Rachel de Souza, will continue that excellent work.

Finally, I say to girls all across the country: this has been a year of huge disruption, but do not miss out on your education because you have your period. Make sure your school or college signs up to our period product scheme. You are our future, and awesome women all across the country are backing you all the way. Merry Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.