Period Poverty - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 7 May 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Conservative 2:45, 7 May 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the scale of period poverty.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

My Lords, the Government do not have specific data on period poverty, but we understand that women and girls are impacted by the cost of period products. That is why we abolished the so-called tampon tax and ensured that period underwear receives the same zero rate of VAT. We have a scheme for schools and colleges, with free products available for all who need them so that periods are not a barrier to education. All hospital patients can also receive free products.

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Conservative

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register, as chair of Empower and of UN Women UK. I thank my noble friend the Minister for the scheme that she mentioned. Will she confirm that it will continue post election in a new Government? It is critical that young females get access to sanitary products throughout their school life. Secondly, what discussions are taking place with retailers on reducing the cost of sanitary products, particularly for low-income households where there may be multiple female house- holders?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

With regard to the first part of my noble friend’s question, we are aware of how important the scheme is in schools, with 99% of secondary schools having placed an order since it began. The current formulation of the scheme is planned up to summer 2024, but I know that the department is in the process of confirming plans for its future. On our work with retailers, we were concerned when we abolished the tampon tax on sanitary products that not all of that benefit was passed on to consumers. That is why we are monitoring the impact on reusable period underwear, which is also now zero-rated for VAT, and making sure that that is passed on.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the Minister and the Government for the scheme in our secondary schools; we have 99% take-up, so we can safely say that it is important and welcome. However, period poverty affects one in five women across the UK. Given the cost of living and the rise in prices, it is a health and gender-based injustice, with increasing numbers struggling to afford what is an essential healthcare product. The Government agreed to work collaboratively with a range of organisations to create a period poverty taskforce in 2019, but the group has not met since the pandemic. Does it intend to resume, and if so, when? Secondly, how does the programme for secondary schools deal with school holidays?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

I am more than happy to follow up with the department on the noble Baroness’s first point, and I will respond to her in writing about our plans to meet the group she referred to. With regard to school holidays, the House will be aware of the Government’s enormous support for people on lower incomes, which is, obviously, available to all families during the holidays.

Photo of Lord Ranger of Northwood Lord Ranger of Northwood Conservative

My Lords, on this day I am sure that the House will remember the tireless campaigner, Kris Hallenga, who had breast cancer and passed away recently. She set up the charity, CoppaFeel!, which reached out to millions using her creativity, sense of fun and ingenuity to ensure that young women were made aware of and took on the challenges of breast cancer. She was diagnosed at the age of 23 and given a life expectancy of two years, but survived cancer for 15 years. Could we take a leaf out of Kris’s book in looking to engage young women on the issue of period poverty, using social media and channels that can reach them so that we help them engage and listen to them?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

My noble friend makes a good and poignant point about talking to young people in their own language and on their own terms and, as he says, using social media to reach them. We know that part of the issue with period poverty and wider women’s health matters may be a financial one that is a barrier to accessing products, but equally if not more important is the stigma associated with raising issues like this, which we need to try to remove as quickly as possible.

Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat

My Lords, according to the pressure group Bloody Good Period, in the workplace, two-thirds of people who menstruate do not have access to the basic essentials they need, costing British industry £3.3 billion in lost workdays. We often feel a bit squeamish talking about these matters, but what will the Government do to make employers aware of the inequality that so many of their employees face, and of how easily and cheaply productivity could be increased?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

The department is well aware that women in the workplace miss extra days of work, suffer pain and stay in the workplace in considerable discomfort. Our experience is that employers often want to help but are not always very confident about how to do so, be it period-related or menopause-related issues. We are working with a range of businesses and professional membership bodies to identify how employers can best support women’s wider reproductive health and share their good practice.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Llanfaes Baroness Smith of Llanfaes Plaid Cymru

My Lords, we should be steering away from the idea that we need to address only period poverty, but instead provide period dignity for all, which would also address period poverty. What I mean by period dignity is achieving parity with toilet paper: wherever toilet paper is provided by the public or private sector, period products should also be provided in the cubicle. Have the Government carried out any research on best practice in other countries on how to provide period dignity for all?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

I am not aware that we have done international research in this area, but I am aware, as I mentioned in my initial Answer, that in schools, hospitals and prisons now there is free access to period products. Many workplaces offer that also.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I am not often given to commending the Scottish Government, but as your Lordships may be aware, particularly the ladies present, they have introduced a universal system to try to address both period poverty and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, rightly says, period dignity. I wonder if there would be any benefit in a constructive engagement with the Scottish Government to understand how their scheme works, what it costs and if there are any lessons to be learned.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

The department works regularly with the devolved Administrations, and we are always happy to learn from others.

Photo of Baroness Owen of Alderley Edge Baroness Owen of Alderley Edge Conservative

My Lords, 16.7 million sick days are taken annually due to period-related symptoms. What are the Government doing to encourage more scientific research in this area, in order to help the 47% of women who suffer from severe period pain every month?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

Last month, the National Institute for Health and Care Research announced more than £100 million of funding to 20 policy research units, including a new unit dedicated to reproductive health. This will undertake research on a number of areas, including menstrual health, gynaecological conditions and the menopause. In addition, the Office for National Statistics is also planning to investigate the impact of period problems and endometriosis on women’s participation and progress at work.

Photo of Lord Cashman Lord Cashman Non-affiliated

My Lords, may I ask the Government to undertake an educational programme for young men and boys—and, indeed, older men—on period pain and period poverty?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

We already have a programme, called RSHE, which every child will follow and that absolutely speaks to the noble Lord’s point. The current statutory guidance makes it clear that all pupils should be taught the facts about the menstrual cycle, and we have developed a series of teacher training modules to support schools in delivering this.