Period Products (Free Provision) Bill: Second Stage

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 9th November 2021.

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Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:15 pm, 9th November 2021

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill [NIA 39/17-22] be agreed.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated any time limit on the debate.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

As you have stated, Mr Speaker, there is no time limit on the debate, so I will just make my speech. If other Members speak, I will take note and answer them at the end.

Though it may seem that the debate will be a highly directed one on a very specific piece of legislation, the Bill touches on the universal concepts of equality, mutual respect and the right of all citizens to live their lives with dignity. I am proud to advance the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill, but I do so full of the knowledge that it has been a complete team effort. I want to thank the Bill Office team and the drafters for working with me to get the Bill to where I wanted it to be, particularly as they have been inundated with proposals from Members. Their door has always been open, COVID permitting, and they have guided me skilfully through the process. I must also thank my own team, including Ally, for their work on the consultation, and the Bill Office team and Jonny for his research for today, supported by Frank and Christine.

Standing here, I feel the expectations of generations of equality campaigners who have worked tirelessly to get us to this point. I look at the current generation of local campaigners and am in complete awe of their knowledge and determination. People like Katrina McDonnell from the Homeless Period Belfast, Alexa Moore from TransgenderNI, and Grace Boyle, who runs the Northern Ireland Period Poverty Action Group, have given me crucial advice and helped me throughout the process of getting the Bill to this stage. I have no doubt that they will continue to do so as it progresses through the legislative process. I was honoured to stand with some of those campaigners on the steps outside to encourage Members to support the universal provision of period products.

I thank the Chair of the Education Committee, Chris Lyttle, for his guidance and support, and also for bringing the petition for free period product provision to the Assembly to highlight the need for this legislation. I personally will be sorry to see him leave the Assembly. His calm, astute and beneficial contributions will be sorely missed.

At this stage, I must also mention the work of Monica Lennon in bringing a similar Bill through the Scottish Parliament. The influence of her Bill on mine is clear to see, so much so that, if we were to go back to school, I would justifiably be written up for plagiarism. The Bill is in front of the House only because of her groundbreaking work. I am eternally grateful for her support and guidance.

It is important to understand the dramatic impact of period poverty. Every day, across the world, 800 million people have their period, 500 million of whom lack the proper resources to care for their period. In the UK, a survey by Plan International found that one in 10 girls reported that they had been unable to afford period products.

One in seven reported having to borrow products due to cost issues, with one in 10 having to improvise. That is a very blasé way of saying that one in 10 girls reported needing to use things like toilet roll, old clothes or even newspapers because they could not afford their products. Forty per cent of girls in the United Kingdom have used toilet paper because they could not afford period products. Shockingly, it is estimated that 137,000 children in the UK have missed school days due to period poverty. Further research shows that one in five UK women will struggle to access period products at some point in their life.

When speaking with campaign groups, I learnt about the disturbing link between domestic abuse and period poverty. I listened to mothers who told me about using food banks to get products so that their children could eat, and to workers who had to choose between paying for the train to go to work or buying tampons. That cannot be acceptable.

However, as important as it is, the Bill is about more than period poverty. In fact, its main goal is to make the provision of products universal, like any other form of healthcare, and to allow those who menstruate to do so with dignity. That is not radical or extreme. It is the right thing to do. It is about saying that menstruation is normal, and, therefore, free universal access to tampons, pads and reusable options should be normal, too.

The importance of that aspect of the Bill cannot be stressed enough. A survey of over 1,000 UK girls found that half are embarrassed by their period and are afraid to ask for help because of that. YouGov found that 43% of girls have witnessed their peers being bullied or shamed about their period. According to the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) period poverty survey of August 2021, 53% of pupils who menstruate felt embarrassed buying period products, while 56% had to ask to borrow from a friend or teacher. A quarter of the population has their period at any given time. How can we still have that level of stigma around such a normal bodily function?

I will take a moment to talk about the main clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 places a duty on the Department of Health to make sure that period products:

"are obtainable free of charge (in accordance with arrangements established and maintained by the Department) by all persons who need to use them."

That should be read in conjunction with clause 3, which is central to the entire Bill. It states that any arrangements established by the Department must make free period products available in a way that is reasonably accessible and respects dignity; a reasonable range of products should be available; and the scheme must be advertised. The idea is that the Department has discretion in the precise arrangements made.

Members may be aware of the c-card scheme for obtaining condoms, and the Department may be minded to do something similar for period products. However, any such scheme must also take into consideration those who cannot register for a card. Provision in clause 1 allows for products to be obtained by another person on behalf of those who need them and for products to be delivered.

Clause 1(2) allows a person to obtain sufficient products to meet their needs "while in Northern Ireland." For those who live in Northern Ireland, under clause 1(8), that means all their needs, including when abroad on holiday. Anyone visiting Northern Ireland can obtain the products that they require during their stay. The Department must consult on its proposed arrangements, and the consultation results must be published. The location of where the products are available must be published annually.

Clause 2(1) places a separate duty on each Department to specify via regulations which of the public service bodies within their functions must make period products obtainable free of charge in their premises. In addition, regulations must be made to specify the bodies that are listed in clause 2(2) so that free period products are made available from healthcare locations and educational establishments. I wanted there to be as much flexibility as possible, so clause 2(3) allows for the products to be supplied by the public body or a third party. The best location in the premises may also be specified. I highlight the restrictions in the number of products that are available under clause 2(6). It is important to distinguish between the universal scheme that is proposed in clause 1 and the provisions that are set out in clause 2. Clause 1 provides period products to fulfil all of a person's needs, while clause 2 aims to supply products that a person might require at a specific place and time.

The use of the scheme in clause 1 will reduce the need for a person to use the provision in clause 2, but it is very unlikely to eradicate that need. It was, therefore, important to make products available under the provision in clause 2, but also to limit them so as not to overburden public service bodies and not to have extensive over-provision and wastage.

Regulations under clause 2 are subject to the affirmative procedure, which will be approved by resolution of the Assembly. Clause 2(10) allows regulation on public service bodies to take effect on different days. That is to allow a consultation to be carried out and published before the statement is produced.

As I said earlier, clause 3 requires the Department of Health and specific public service bodies to ensure reasonably easy access to products, to respect dignity, to make a reasonable choice of types of products obtainable, and to publicise their availability. Clause 3(2) provides that arrangements that are established and maintained by specific public service bodies:

"must provide for period products to be obtainable at all times when the ... public service body’s premises are in use, whether or not in use by the public."

Clause 4 requires each Department to issue guidance to public service bodies to support them in the exercise of their duties under clauses 2 and 5. That guidance must be fully consulted on. Clause 5 requires public service bodies to publish a written statement describing how they have developed their arrangements for the provision of free period products with regards to the guidance from the Department.

Clause 6 requires each Department, individually or jointly with another Department, to publish information about the location where free period products would be available from public bodies. The Departments may choose how best to do so. That is a distinct and separate duty from that which is imposed by clause 3, which requires the Department of Health and public service bodies to publicise the locations at which products must be available under the arrangements that are set out in clauses 1 and 2.

Clause 7 provides definitions for three key terms that are used throughout the Bill, namely "period products", "types of period products", and "references to a person's needs". Sustainable options are explicitly allowed for under clause 7(b).

Regarding the use of gender-neutral language in the Bill, the Equality Commission and the Bill Office made it clear to me that all legislation requires such language. I spoke with many women's groups, all of which told me very clearly that the use of gender-neutral language did not take away from the impact of the Bill for them or the importance of the Bill for women. They said that they did not want to see a Bill that did not provide for all people who have periods. There is no doubt about the impact that the Bill's provisions will have on women and girls. There is a need for more women's voices to be heard on all issues and for more women to be represented in the Chamber. It is my hope that the Bill represents a small step towards rectifying the situation.

Clause 8 provides definitions for other terms that are used in the Bill, using existing statutory definitions as far as possible. Clause 9 allows for different clauses to commence on different dates. That allows time for a full consultation and for guidance to be published. The Executive Office can then appoint, by regulation, commencement dates for the key clauses, but it must do so within two years of Royal Assent.

I have sent the Bill to all my original consultees, including the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission. I have also opened up dialogue with members of the Health and Education Committees and with all parties and independent Members in the Assembly. I do not suggest for one minute that I am perfect when it comes to creating legislation, so I am open to any and all discussions on how the Bill can be improved. I ask that we improve it as best as we can.

To conclude, the Bill is about equality, dignity and the Northern Ireland that we want to see. Period products are essential healthcare products for all those who menstruate, not luxury products. We recognise the complex needs of those who menstruate. That includes not only includes women but trans men and those who are intersex. The Bill aims to be inclusive for all who have faced period poverty. We must break down the barriers of period stigma and provide inclusive education in raising awareness of period dignity. Nobody should feel ashamed about their period, and nobody should have to experience period poverty in today's society. I hope that the general principles and aims of the Bill will be accepted by all in the Chamber.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance 3:30 pm, 9th November 2021

I commend the Bill's sponsor, Pat Catney MLA, for the work that has gone into the Bill and, in a personal capacity, thank him for his very kind words to me.

I support the general objective of the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill and its passage to Committee Stage. However, as acknowledged by the Bill's sponsor, significant work on it will be required by a number of Assembly Committees, including Education, Health, Economy and perhaps even Finance, together with the Bill's sponsor, to ensure that fit-for-purpose legislation can be enacted on this important matter. The Education Committee has agreed in principle to act as the lead Committee for the Committee Stage of the Bill, but we will need the partnership of other relevant Committees for the timely completion of our work.

The work to address period poverty and ensure period dignity has made significant progress in recent years. The Assembly Education Committee has worked for some time in support of free period products in schools in Northern Ireland. It was my privilege to invite the charity, the Homeless Period Belfast, to give evidence to the Education Committee and to present a petition to the Assembly in December 2020 for free period products in schools on behalf of over 5,000 people. The campaign for that provision was led by the Homeless Period Belfast. That volunteer-led initiative, which was founded and is managed by Katrina McDonnell, works to alleviate period poverty by providing period packs and campaigning for universal access to free period products, like a number of other organisations such as Red Box and EqualityPeriod. The Homeless Period Belfast's Menstruation Matters campaign called on the Education Minister to bring Northern Ireland into line with other parts of the UK by providing free period products in all schools. The Menstruation Matters campaign argued persuasively that we would never accept children having to bring essential items like toilet roll, hand soap and hand towels to school and that period products should be no different.

The Homeless Period Belfast conducted a survey of 200 girls in Northern Ireland that found that 74% left school early or missed school because of a lack of period products. Some 87% said that a lack of period products negatively impacted on their attention in class, and 91% had used toilet roll as a temporary measure due to a lack of access to period products. In a Homeless Period Belfast survey of 100 teachers in Northern Ireland, 60% had bought period products for use in their school. The survey also asked pupils how access to free period products would impact on their experience at school. One girl said:

"I wouldn’t miss as much class time and I would feel a lot happier knowing the products are in toilets, so I don’t have to feel embarrassed approaching the school nurse or my teachers."

Another girl said:

"I dread getting my period in school. I have to make up that I am sick so I can go home because I’m too embarrassed to tell my friends that I don’t have any money for pads and I can’t ask my mummy because she’s just lost her job and she’s already struggling to do a food shop for me and my younger brother. I use toilet roll instead and I’d much rather use that at home and risk leaking in my own house than in school where everyone could see."

No young person should have their education disrupted by a bodily function as natural as their period. Free period products in schools ensure that every child has equal opportunity to learn and achieve their potential.

The Education Committee also wrote to the Education Department expressing its support for free period products in schools and welcomed Executive funding for the free period products in schools pilot launched by former Education Minister Weir. It is my understanding that it was also launched in higher education institutions by former Economy Minister Dodds. However, I agree with the Bill's sponsor that it is clear that more needs to be done.

It seems to me that the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill seeks to achieve that aim and to enact provision in Northern Ireland that is similar to legislation seeking to eradicate period poverty in the rest of the UK. In the rest of the UK, the objective is to provide free period products in schools, colleges and universities. Scotland has the potential to extend that provision to include public buildings. I support the ambition to deliver a similar model in Northern Ireland.

It is time to address the clear call for action on the matter. It will require significant work, and I know that the Bill's sponsor is up for that work. The Bill has the potential to be another important step forward for the campaign to destigmatise menstruation, eradicate period poverty and deliver equal opportunity and dignity for people who menstruate in our community.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP 3:45 pm, 9th November 2021

I thank the Chair and members of the Education Committee for agreeing to take on the Committee Stage of the Bill. With the heavy legislative workload of the Health Committee and given the cross-cutting nature of the Bill, that will ensure that the Bill receives the necessary scrutiny at Committee Stage. The Health Committee will support the Education Committee in whatever way it can to progress the Bill should it pass Second Stage.

I will now comment as a DUP MLA. I support the Bill, and I commend Mr Catney for the constructive way that he has gone about the issue of provision of free period products and for his passion and determination in advancing the matter.

It is often the way in Northern Ireland that certain issues are almost taboo. They are not talked about and are kept to the privacy of a room. Those needing help are left on their own to undertake a very personal and difficult journey or life episode. It is a welcome development that we in Northern Ireland are now much more open to conversations. In the context of the Bill and the whole issue, it is important that we enable women and girls to be open about talking about menstruation.

It is equally important, however, to ensure that no woman or girl lives in period poverty. I am pleased that my colleague the former Education Minister and Member for Strangford Peter Weir received Executive approval to provide free period products to all schools in Northern Ireland. That was due to commence in September 2021.

Likewise, my friend and colleague from Upper Bann Diane Dodds, as Economy Minister, introduced a one-year pilot project with Northern Ireland's higher education institutions to address period poverty. Period products will be provided free of charge during the academic year for students attending Ulster University, Queen's University Belfast, Stranmillis University College and St Mary's University College.

My party has led the way in addressing the issue, and we welcome the three broad policy objectives in the Bill to further address period poverty in society. Some areas of those objectives need clarity, and I will seek to address some of them in my comments. A question that must be asked about any Bill is, of course, what the cost implications will be. Rolling on from that question is the need to ask how universal provision will be made a reality. How will this work? How will people in need be guaranteed the provision of period products that we want them to avail themselves of?

We need to look at how similar provisions are made in Scotland, for example, and learn lessons from the elements of that scheme that work and from those areas that need improvement and in which we can do better in Northern Ireland for local women and girls.

On access points for products, we need to be bold and do better. Schools and other learning institutions are natural places to provide the products, but so, too, are GP surgeries and community pharmacies. As we have seen throughout the pandemic, community pharmacies are increasingly the first port of call for a readily accessible local resource not only for prescriptions but for professional advice on dealing with many ailments.

We must engage our women and young girls in the conversations and let them tell us where the products should be made available and what shape the roll-out should take. Their feedback is vital. We in the House should not decide for them. Consultation is, as always, key to ensuring the most effective scheme possible.

This is about providing much-needed support for women and girls. To be clear, the scheme ought to apply to "women" and "girls". In the interests of making good law, that should be clarified in the final version of the Bill.

The Assembly is often criticised for not making a difference or for getting bogged down in irrelevance and not dealing with the issues that impact most on our constituents. Maybe that is a fair criticism — not always but sometimes — but, with this Bill, we can make a difference to the lives of thousands of women and girls across Northern Ireland. I support the Bill and look forward to seeing it deliver benefit for the women of South Antrim and all Northern Ireland.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The topic is important, as is the legislation, which has gone a long way towards shining a light on the issue, removing the shame and embarrassment around periods and giving us an opportunity to ensure that nobody in the North suffers from period poverty. I congratulate the Bill sponsor, Pat Catney, and I thank him for bringing the Bill to the Floor.

The facts in support of the Bill speak for themselves. One in 10 of those in need of period products is unable to afford them at some time in their life. One in seven reports struggling to afford period products. Research among girls found that 49% had missed a day of school because of their period. Others have spoken about the difficulties of accessing products and managing menstruation where facilities do not match their need.

A number of international obligations also underpin support for the Bill. Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), there should be no barriers to accessing education, and girls should have access to appropriate and sufficient products to manage their periods as well as the right to manage their periods with dignity.

As party spokesperson on children and young people, I am particularly concerned about the impact of period poverty on attendance at school, as outlined by the Chairperson of the Education Committee. Along with poverty, attendance levels are a factor known to drive the educational gap between our most and least advantaged children and young people. All affected by this issue need access to period products.

Equality and human rights demand that those needs be recognised and met.

In the past, for women and girls, menstruation was one of many aspects of their lives that was shrouded in secrecy and even shame. That was not an accident; it was part of a wider system of control and marginalisation. Secrecy and shame underpinned the mistreatment of women in mother-and-baby homes, and they often underpin violence against women and girls. Against that backdrop, the provision of period products might seem like a small step. Even if it is a small step, it is a vital step.

Recognition of menstruation is a public as well as a private matter. It challenges misogynistic attitudes that view women as "other" and women's business as "outside". The cycle of women's lives from menstruation to menopause must be mainstreamed and recognised as part of the whole human experience. I support the Bill, and I hope that it makes it through to Committee Stage so that the Education Committee can go into greater detail.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the debate this afternoon. I thank Mr Catney for bringing the Bill to the House for debate.

As we all know, period poverty is the lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints. In the UK, sanitary products are taxed at 5%, a levy that is blamed on the EU, which sets tax rates on certain products. Period products are not and should not be classed as luxury items. They are essential items that cost the average woman £5,000 over a lifetime, and that figure is rising as the cost of living increases.

It is estimated that over 137,000 children across the UK have missed days at school because of period poverty. We need to recognise the huge significance that that has for our children's futures. We need to realise that it is an issue throughout our society and that we must do what we can for all the women and girls who constantly struggle with their rising general day-to-day expenditure and other essential products becoming more expensive all the time.

It is unacceptable that some women are forced to do without sanitary products simply because they are unaffordable. In Northern Ireland, one in seven girls struggles to afford sanitary wear. The embarrassment that that causes is immense, and it directly relates to the rise in mental health issues. Evidence has shown that children are all too aware of money problems in their home, and some may not wish to burden their parents further by asking for money that simply is not there in the first place.

Periods carry a stigma and an embarrassment. That is because the subject is not openly discussed. The ongoing discrimination against 50% of our population needs to change immediately. Periods are a natural process that we all go through. We cannot choose when we start having them and when we stop, and we cannot prevent them. Consequently, we should not be penalised for requiring those essential items.

It is long past the time for talking and discussions. I find it incredible that, in the 21st century, we are discussing such a taboo subject as women's intimate health or the lack of provision for it. My firm belief is that steps need to be taken to rectify the injustices that so many still face. Ultimately, the elimination of period poverty must be prioritised. The disadvantages faced by so many women and girls must be challenged, and the stigma and taboo associated with periods and period poverty must be brought to an end. In November 2020, Scotland became the first nation in the world to take such a step against period poverty by making sanitary products free for all women. We need to follow that example.

Photo of Órlaithí Flynn Órlaithí Flynn Sinn Féin 4:00 pm, 9th November 2021

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill as an MLA, as a member of the Health Committee and as a woman. Rosemary has just mentioned the fact that period products are not luxury items; they are essential items in the life of every girl and woman. We all need them. They are also costly, particularly when income is limited. Period care is essential healthcare, and monthly menstruation is a natural biological process that is out of our control and to which we need to attend. Period poverty means that financially struggling families face the additional stress every month of trying to find money to have those basic essential items at hand and in their home. It is unimaginable that anyone should dread the arrival of her period each month because she cannot afford the products that she needs.

Nicola covered the fact that period poverty affects attendance at school and can and does have an effect on the academic achievement of many girls, particularly those from the most deprived communities. The example that was used by the Chair of the Education Committee, Mr Lyttle, was powerful. The experience of that young girl who was worried about going home and letting her mother know that she needed period products, because she was fearful that her mummy could not afford them, is the experience of many other children and young girls.

Stats have been quoted that show that one in seven girls and women have said that they struggle to afford their sanitary products and that one in 10 have, at some point, been unable to afford them. We know that period poverty affects people in a variety of ways. One of the most awful things is that it can make women feel embarrassed or ashamed of their periods. That is wrong, because they are a fact of life. Of course, when people feel that shame and it is mixed in with the stigma that already exists and has existed for too long, it prevents people from talking about period poverty and the shame and embarrassment.

Period poverty causes physical, mental and emotional challenges. From what I have just said about the mixture of embarrassment, shame and stigma, Members will understand why it also presents a mental and emotional challenge for many people. The Bill will, hopefully, go a long way to easing some of those challenges. I am glad that the Bill sponsor is a male. It is a subject that is usually taboo and is seen as a female issue, so I am delighted to see that.

Some figures have been quoted. The sponsor of the Bill said that 800 million people are having periods every day and that, globally, an estimated 500 million people have their period but lack access to the products and hygiene facilities that they need during their cycle. That figure cannot be overstated.

Although period poverty is a widespread problem, there is still a lack of research on the topic, as, I am sure, many of you will have found out before the debate. In 2019, experts from academic institutions, NGOs, Governments, UN organisations and elsewhere came together to form the Global Menstrual Collective to try to solve the issue. The Global Menstrual Collective defines menstrual health as:

"a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease" or problems. Women need to have holistic care, treatment and support as they go through their monthly cycle. The Global Menstrual Collective also states that people should have access to information about menstruation, life changes and hygiene practices; the ability to care for themselves during menstruation; access to water, sanitation and hygiene services; the ability to receive a diagnosis for menstrual cycle disorders and access to healthcare to help with those; and a positive, supportive environment in which to make informed decisions, including decisions on participating in daily activities, such as going to work or school. Even when you take into account only that small number of recommendations made by the Global Menstrual Collective, you can see that we have a lot more to do to give menstrual support to those who need it. The Bill's introduction of free period products will go a long way, and seeing that progress is a great first step. It needs to be welcomed.

We know that being unable to manage a period with appropriate menstrual products can make people feel upset, distressed and uncomfortable. The limited research that has been done has found that the impact of that can affect people's mental health. While the Bill is welcome, it is important to recognise the broader issues around poverty, not just period poverty. Some of that has been touched on, but, in aiming to deal with this issue, we need to view period poverty as part of the wider issue of poverty. We know that poverty, never mind period poverty, disproportionately impacts on women and girls as it is. The Bill is welcome, but we need to look at all of those things in the whole.

Mr Catney outlined the Bill's objectives, and I am happy to support each of those individually, because we need to work towards improving access so that people have the products that they need. As I said, it is not good enough or right that so many people cannot afford access to the products and, as a result, suffer unfairly and mentally. We need to change that. I commend the Member for introducing the Bill, and I am happy to support it at Second Stage.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I support the Second Reading of the Bill in principle, although, as the Bill sponsor acknowledged, there are issues in the Bill that need to be addressed. I look forward to engaging with the Bill sponsor at Committee Stage.

At the outset, let me say that I support any step that the House takes to provide period products to women and girls who need them. A survey by Plan International UK found that, in the UK, one in 10 young women between the ages of 14 and 21 cannot afford to buy sanitary products and that one in seven struggle to afford them. That is a very concerning situation. It impacts on a person's dignity but also on their ability to get ahead in their education and career. For many women, success in careers and life chances has been hard-won, and missing out on those life chances because of period poverty is a dreadful thought.

The Bill comes on the back of steps that have been taken during this Assembly term to address the issue. I am glad that we are not only taking steps to address the issue but talking about it and addressing it in an open session of the Assembly. It is important. During my time as Economy Minister, I launched a pilot scheme to address period poverty in higher education institutions, and that scheme provides period products for students attending Ulster University, Queen's, Stranmillis and St Mary's. The scheme was launched in September, and I understand from Department for the Economy officials that there is a strong uptake of the scheme, perhaps reflecting the need for such a scheme. We cannot and should not countenance a situation where young people attending those institutions might miss out on attendance at class, work placements or, indeed, examinations owing to the inability to access products. The Education Minister has just announced £2·6 million of funding to cover period products in schools and youth facilities. Those are all positive and welcome steps in addressing the issue, but we always want to see more being done to ensure that women and girls have their rightful place in education and the workplace.

While I support the principle of the Bill at Second Stage, there are issues with it that we need to talk about. One of those is the language of the Bill. We have to be open and honest and address the issue in the context of women and girls. I would like to see the language of the Bill reflecting that by its Final Stage.

The Bill sponsor, when he was going through —.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

Will the Member take an intervention?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

No. I want to continue.

The Bill sponsor, when he was going through the Bill, made much of the reference in clause 1 to products being available to people while they are in or visiting Northern Ireland. That brings me to an important issue with any legislation that we should and need to explore much further, and that is the cost involved. The explanatory and financial memorandum indicates that the Bill sponsor believes that the cost for schools would be around £2m per annum and less than £1m per annum as it becomes embedded and that the universal scheme should not cost more than around £3m per annum. I am not sure where those figures came from and how they were estimated. Certainly, we need to address that and have much more substantial information on the cost and, in particular, on that clause where — I apologise: I cannot find it at the moment — the Bill sponsor talks about people who are visiting Northern Ireland.

Clause 3 is important. Preserving someone's dignity when they access period products is hugely important, and there should be a reasonable way of doing that. That is an extremely important element of the Bill. The Bill puts an onus on the Minister of Health, making it a responsibility to ensure that product is available. As many others across the Chamber have said, access to period products is about eradicating poverty and providing opportunity, and it is about education and employment. I would like to see a more cross-cutting element in the Bill, because it will touch on many areas across the Executive. It will touch on Health, Education, Economy and Communities. It is about equality for women and girls and equality of opportunity.

In principle, I support the Bill. I have outlined reasonably, I hope, some of the things in the Bill that we need to address and some of the issues on which we need a greater depth of information before it can progress. I look forward to engaging with you at Committee Stage.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I also support this important Bill, and I commend Mr Catney for introducing it. It is particularly timely, given the conversation that we are having at the minute about the rising cost of living and the household bills that have skyrocketed this year in particular. The Bill will address an inequality that is intersectional, removing a pressure point specific to people living in poverty who also menstruate.

The mental and emotional stress that those living in deprivation bear on a daily basis cannot be overstated. It is a failure on all our parts, as a society, that there are families across the North for whom Christmas is a cause of dread instead of excitement.

It is shameful that, in 2021, children are going to school hungry and that many of our elderly have to choose between eating or heating their homes. For those who cannot afford to put food on the table and who physically cannot pay all their bills, every necessity causes a strain. For those who menstruate, period products cannot be done without and, therefore, cause a strain.

As has been said, this issue affects 500 million people across the world. That is, frankly, a frightening statistic. When we think of the emotional strain that is often connected to menstruation and the impact that monthly hormonal fluctuations can have on a person's mood, it is not hard to imagine how both stressors would coalesce and negatively impact a person's mental well-being.

The practicalities of a lack of hygiene products at that time of the month would make many daily tasks impossible. You can see how anyone who is expected to work in public whilst in that position would struggle. In addition to that, the risk of toxic shock syndrome is heightened in a situation where products cannot be replaced regularly. There is an obvious health risk that can be fatal.

As someone who grew up with privilege in a safe and happy home, with access to everything that I ever needed, I cannot imagine the pressure and strain that that causes. For parents with young girls who are going through puberty, being unable to provide those items is bound to be soul-destroying. To be a young person worrying about that change in your life, with this sudden burden that announces the dawn of adulthood and can cause side effects ranging from digestion issues to unexplained emotional outbursts, is hard enough. To have to do it without access to tampons and towels is cruel.

I know that, as an adult, just as you sometimes only realise that you have run out of milk when the tea is wet, it is easy to sometimes forget to stock up on period products or to come to work without a supply. I cannot be the only one who has fought with dispenser machines that, for some reason, are not taking the coin that they are supposed to. If Building Services are watching, I had nothing to do with one of the machines almost hanging off the wall in the ground floor bathroom beside us. Nevertheless, the stress and paranoia that that causes is unbelievable.

It sometimes feels as if women's healthcare issues have always played second fiddle. The level of ignorance and misinformation that women and girls often experience when presenting with what should be a simple problem is a huge cause of concern. Our periods are just one example of a normal part of the female experience that is still shrouded in mystery for many and, if we are honest, is still taboo across the world. The fact that the advertising of those products is itself a cause of controversy and that the weird blue substance that is synonymous with maxi pads is something that we can all conjure up in our minds is a testament to that.

I have a friend who, as a teenager, went to her GP because of painful periods that confined her to bed for days at a time and meant absence from school. She was told by a male doctor, "That's what a period is", before being offered the contraceptive pill. I had irregularities as a teenager, with inexplicable months of missed periods that caused me serious anxiety. Again, I was offered no explanation but the pill to regulate. Women and girls are self-medicating with boxes of Nurofen — another cost from their teenage years — shutting up and putting up, experiencing mood swings, severe cramps and abdominal pain and are being told that there is nothing wrong with them, often then to be offered a hysterectomy in their 30s without any proper investigation. It takes years to get a diagnosis for polycystic ovaries or endometriosis, if you ever get one at all. Problems with vaginal mesh implants are dismissed, and the waiting list for removal is scary. Years and years on hormonal contraception can have unthinkable consequences for a woman's body, which is something that is rarely communicated at the initial point of prescription.

One Bill is not going to eradicate all those stressors on people who menstruate or, indeed, for their families and loved ones who are no doubt impacted. However, it does go some way. I congratulate the Bill sponsor and its writers for ensuring that the provision of those products free of charge must be done in a way that maintains the service user's dignity and, I hope, in a confidential and discreet manner. I also encourage the Bill writers to consider whether those provisions could be widened to, perhaps, cover additional public spaces, including facilities such as homeless shelters, hostels and domestic violence shelters.

I look forward to the Bill's progress through Committee Stage. I applaud its inclusive nature to provide for all people who menstruate. I thank the Bill sponsor.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP 4:15 pm, 9th November 2021

I thank Mr Catney for sponsoring the Bill. I support its general aim, which is to ensure the free provision of period products to all women throughout Northern Ireland. Its aim should be rather straightforward. However, having listened to the airwaves today and some of the language that was used, I feel that it is being hijacked by some ridiculous politicking. I regret that that, sadly, has taken away from what is a very important and valuable piece of legislation.

Like my colleagues, I want to ensure that women and girls are reflected in the Bill. At its heart are young girls and women, who have to choose between attending and not attending school or work because of the shame that they may feel at not having adequate sanitary provision. Women and girls are in period poverty, and they deserve to be supported. Making a difference in that regard would signify a huge generational change, as, for young teenagers, forgetting to take period products to school would no longer be a cause for concern. That would be hugely significant. We also have to remember those who live with conditions, such as endometriosis, that mean that their periods are heavier. Access to period products in public spaces would really help those women to lead normal lives.

During the COVID pandemic, some relied on public spaces to access period products. That support has now gone and the distress that that caused to women and girls was huge. The health risks from being unable to change period products regularly have been mentioned in the Chamber today. That is having a detrimental impact on our economy and on ensuring that women have the skills to go forward in society. Women should be able to break the glass ceiling in every walk of life. Any blockage that is in the way should be removed. That includes access to period products.

I would welcome the continuation of the efforts that were first initiated by our previous Education Minister, Peter Weir MLA, who brought a proposal to the Executive to ensure the provision of free period products in schools in Northern Ireland. I welcome that that initiative began in September. I must also praise the efforts of my colleague and friend the former Economy Minister, who introduced a one-year pilot project to ensure the free provision of period products during the academic year to students who are attending university.

As the Bill progresses, the first priority should be to ensure that access points are widely available to all women who are seeking to avail themselves of free period products. That would be through facilities such as health centres and pharmacies, as well as our schools and university campuses, so that young girls and women can access those products. I strongly encourage that the feedback that was gathered from the existing schemes that I talked about is studied and fed into the Bill to ensure that the most effective means of distribution of those free period products is achieved.

Many of those who suffer from period poverty, and who will avail themselves of those products, may have wider issues and be dependent on other supports, such as food banks. Therefore, as the Bill progresses, the Assembly should also focus on how to tie it into a larger strategy to ensure that those who are suffering in poverty can receive better strategic support to assist them and their families.

It is important that young women and girls do not feel any shame in accessing period products.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the Bill, and I thank my good friend and colleague Pat Catney for sponsoring it.

Before I begin my speech, I want to say that I am genuinely thankful to all the Members who have contributed to the debate thus far. It has been a very respectful discussion and, at its heart, it is clear that people are concerned about all those who are living with period poverty. It is welcome that the House has united in that common cause while others outside have maybe tried to create moot points. On that basis, I genuinely believe that the Bill is a call to positive action and has already been a catalyst for positive action by others. I thank Chris Lyttle for his work and the Education Committee for agreeing to take the Bill forward. As we know, every Bill has to go through a process, and that requires engagement from all. That is happening, and I welcome that.

The principle of the Bill is to reach all those who are suffering, very often in silence, from period poverty. It serves to correct a basic wrong that has endured for far too long. Period poverty is a social wrong that is desperately in need of correction. The Bill is an attempt to do that.

When I researched the detail and the stories, there were many harrowing stories of young girls and women who suffered directly an educational or economic disadvantage due to the fact that they could not access period products. Their personal development is affected because there is an absolute loss of confidence when somebody is silently trying to manage that situation. I am really thankful that the Bill speaks to that. It reaches out to empower people who otherwise are feeling disempowered by a very natural life event. Period poverty creates barriers to living the normal life that you should expect to be able to live and to being able to engage with others. For people to self-isolate because they do not have period products and to remove themselves from society is a real indictment on us if we cannot find a way to reach all those people.

I sit on the Justice Committee. During our deliberations on the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill, it became apparent how many women are the subject of coercive control and are caught up in domestic violence. One of the tools and levers used against them is access to money and being able to go out and spend money as they need. An obvious thing in that situation would be to access period products. This subject can lie in dark places in society, and these people are desperately in need of our help. Therefore, I am genuinely thankful to Pat Catney for sponsoring the Bill.

The House is under a lot of pressure, Mr Speaker, as you are aware, in terms of the legislative ambition for the remainder of the mandate, but this is certainly one Bill that I hope will cross the line. I go back to my point about how respectful the debate has been. This is the Second Stage, and I have yet to stand in the House at the Second Stage of any Bill and say that it is tickety-boo and nothing needs to be fixed or amended. People have made valuable and valued comments in a respectful way. I take great comfort from meeting the sponsor of the Bill, Pat Catney, in that he is very much open to discussion about how the Bill could look at its Final Stage. I encourage all Members to get engaged in that and to bring through the Committee, directly to the Member or as an MLA their own mark to the Bill and add value to it. There were examples today of how value could be added to the Bill, and I encourage that.

That the Bill is being sponsored by a man, which I welcome and was mentioned, is a good way to break any taboo that may exist. This issue affects society at large. Whilst we are right to focus on the woman or girl who is hoping not just that there is toilet paper but that it is of a decent quality, or is thinking about whether she spends her lunch or bus money on period products, no woman or girl should be left with that question. Society has to support all people who are having a period, and nobody should be forced into poverty because their period is due or they are living in fear of it arriving.

I genuinely welcome the tone of the debate. I welcome everything that has been said and particularly take note of those added-value pieces with which I will be happy to engage. The SDLP door is certainly open. Once again, I thank Pat Catney for the Bill, and I urge you, Mr Speaker, to use any influence that you have to make sure that it crosses the line.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance 4:30 pm, 9th November 2021

I support the Bill and thank the Bill sponsor, Mr Catney, for bringing it forward. It is very refreshing to see a male engaging in what has been a taboo subject for far too long. I also thank all the women's groups, in particular the Homeless Period Belfast and, in my constituency, Belfast South Community Resources, which do a lot of really good work at a grassroots level on the issue.

I will not speak for long, and I concur with much of what has been said. However, I want to address the issue of the word "person". As a woman, I take no offence at that, but the word "person" is inclusive, and it gives position and respect to those in the trans community who may need to avail themselves of period products, now or in the future.

I also congratulate the Department of Education and the Department for the Economy for their sterling work in bringing forward pilot projects. It is wonderful that that has happened without the need for legislation. In many ways, the Bill builds on that.

A couple of issues jumped off the page at me. The explanatory and financial memorandum states that, in Scotland, expenditure is estimated at £8·7 million. Here, if you read across, it would be £3·08 million. However, the Bill goes further than that, and I wonder how the costs have been worked out. The use of the term "public service body" is not widely used in Northern Ireland, and I seek clarity on the bodies that are included in that term. Are they charities that deliver on public services under contracts or commissioned services? Going wider than that, I coach 11-year-old girls in hockey, and the Bill is valuable for sports settings. Does "public service body" include leisure centres, where girls change their clothes before and after matches?

I very much welcome the clause for those who live with a disability and the potential for period products to be delivered to them. I would like a little more clarity on how that would be achieved. Would it be from community pharmacists, for example? Have they been consulted?

As the mother of an 18-year-old girl, I am passionate about the issue, and I would have loved to see the Bill come through the Health Committee. If there is anything that I can do to support my colleague the Chair of the Education Committee, I will do so. I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with Mr Catney and go through some of the finer details that jumped out at me.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is a delight to speak on the Bill. As a young woman, I think that this is a day of great significance as this important Bill reaches its Second Stage.

We are here not only to discuss the financial cost of these products but the true cost if they are not provided. What does that reality look like for girls across the North? It looks like embarrassment, shame and stigma, and it is happening right now. The Bill is a crucial first step in tackling a societal issue. To this day, many wince, blush and hush at what is an everyday reality for 50% of the world's population. We have a long way to go in tackling period poverty, but I am absolutely delighted that the Member to my right, my friend and colleague, a father of three girls, introduces the Bill without an ounce of embarrassment but with wholehearted and genuine determination to assist those who need these products and to see the Bill through. We thank Pat for that.

The Bill touches on the importance of free provision across the world to ensure that everyone has access to these products, whether single mothers who cannot afford them or those who are now choosing, as we come up to Christmas, whether to heat or eat. Period products may not be within their budget. The average cost of a period for a year is £128, which is roughly £5,000 in a woman's lifetime. However, the true cost is the shame, stigma and taboo that still surrounds periods.

It is a good time to ask ourselves where we are with education about periods. Can we do better? I agree with Mr Lyttle: I think that we can.

Currently, one girl in 10 aged between 14 and 21 cannot afford menstrual products. Today, approximately 16,000 girls across the North fall into that category. Since lockdown last year, that has risen to three girls in 10. What impact does that have on the overall confidence, well-being and academic achievement of our young girls? As previously mentioned, 40% of girls in the UK have had to use toilet paper because they cannot afford period products — that is 40% of girls who deserve dignity. They deserve free products. The North is the only place in the UK where young women do not have access to free period products. The SDLP's Bill asks the House to put the North on an equal footing with other parts of these islands.

Let us be real: when girls do not have sanitary products, their education, work and livelihoods are affected. It has an impact on their professional and personal lives. On average, women menstruate for roughly seven years throughout their lifetime, so I assure Members that the issue will not go away.

I thank all the young activists who have been involved in promoting this key issue and who have worked alongside Pat in crafting the Bill. The SDLP is committed to tackling period poverty. All our constituency offices are stocked with period products. We are part of an initiative called Take What You Need, which provides small bags of diverse products to meet the public's needs. We keep the bags in the bathroom; people can close the door; they can take what they need; no one is looking; and there is no judgement. It is all very discreet. It is a small initiative, but we know that people avail themselves of the bags. People come in and use them, so we are aware that they are vital. The products are needed, so it is crucial that people are provided with them.

I am delighted to say that I strongly support the Bill at this stage. I hope that other Members will also support it and that they will continue to engage with Pat as the Bill goes through its stages.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I speak today on behalf of Green Party NI MLAs to support Mr Catney's Bill at Second Stage. I thank him for bringing the legislation to the House. I do not intend to speak for very long, but I want to raise a number of points that the Committee might consider, including the importance of looking at the Bill through the lens of a child's rights, as well as practical considerations and access points.

As others have said, globally, period poverty intersects with other forms of disadvantage, including poverty and geography. It is an issue of gender inequality and should be considered in the context of the full range of human rights treaties, including CEDAW, the European Convention on Human Rights and the UNCRC, which I will touch on later.

As we have heard, steps have already been taken in Northern Ireland to pilot the provision of period products for those who need them. As we know, however, provision is not universal. This year, we saw the long-awaited launch of the Department for the Economy's pilot scheme for provision in further education institutions for a year, as well as the Department of Education's scheme to provide free products for Northern Irish schools. Many businesses are already taking steps and leading on the issue, including, in the hospitality sector, a number of restaurants and bars — recently, I have seen an increase — that provide free period products. They are alongside the likes of Lidl, which became the first retailer of its kind to provide free products to customers via a coupon scheme that can be used every month.

I will make a few comments about viewing the matter through the lens of a child's rights and how that goes to meet articles in the UNCRC. On World Children's Day a few years ago, in my role as political youth champion, I, alongside a number of other MLAs, attended the children and young people's summit that was organised by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY). On the day, we heard from young people about the issues that they wanted us to consider and take forward, one of whom was Miss O'Donnell, who gave a presentation on period poverty. Her presentation is on NICCY's website. I encourage everybody to look at it, but I will give a brief overview of her comments on that day. It very much stuck with me.

She started by outlining a scenario that I can safely say that I have experienced a number of times. She said, "Picture yourself at work. You're on your way to a very important meeting when you experience a very urgent call of nature. You make haste to the nearest toilets only to find that, in order to get toilet paper, you need to put a pound in the toilet paper vending machine, but you don't have a pound with you. So, what do you do? How do you feel?" She continued, "It's not toilet paper that thousands of girls in Northern Ireland are expected to pay for; it's sanitary products". She asked one simple question, "Why is a difference made between the need for period products and the need for toilet paper?". The answer, of course, is that there is no difference.

Period poverty is unnecessary and unfair, and products should be universally accessible, as they are an essential everyday health product.

As I stated, addressing period poverty can be looked at in the context of human rights. Articles 28 and 29 of the UNCRC stipulate that there should be no barriers to accessing a broad education that encourages:

"The development ... of talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential".

We know that many people who experience poverty miss school and are absent from class. We know that poverty is directly linked to educational underachievement and that it is another way in which poverty disadvantages young women and girls. It is therefore particularly important, as the Bill progresses, that the Committee hear from children and young people who face barriers because of period poverty. Article 31 explicitly asserts the corresponding right:

"to engage in play and recreational activities".

Again, those experiencing period poverty face barriers to play and recreation. Talk to children and young people about where they are playing and where they are taking part in sport. We know that we need to listen to the views of children and young people who are experiencing this now or who have experienced it all before. It is important that their voices be heard and that they be involved with the Department in the design of any scheme developed under clauses 1 and 2, if the Bill passes. It is important that that feedback and information be gained from young people when working out suitable access points.

A practical matter that I raised with Mr Catney and on which I encourage the Committee for Education to engage is the reality of homelessness. As we heard, the Homeless Period does amazing work donating and delivering period products and personal hygiene products to those who face homelessness. As it says, it is particularly difficult and problematic with there being limited or no access to sanitary products, meaning that homeless women are often forced to go without, as well as their having no access to showers. I raise this question in order to get something clarified: if people were trying to access products under the scheme outlined in clauses 1 and 2 and did not have proof of address or had to leave their home address quickly in an emergency and had no ID or card — if it were a card scheme — could they still access products if they needed to? Sinéad Bradley talked about domestic abuse. For somebody fleeing domestic abuse, shelters and support and emergency accommodation could also be looked at as providers.

I previously raised another issue about clause 2, and I know that Mr Catney is considering it. It is about whether the provision of free products in public-sector bodies could be extended to local councils. It is something that I worked on when I was a councillor. Some councils have piloted that scheme, and Derry City and Strabane District Council is one of them. Unfortunately, Ards and North Down Borough Council did not take it forward as a pilot scheme. To be honest, some frankly bizarre conversations were had and bizarre conclusions drawn about whether people were in financial stress and about what that meant, but that is for another time. I would really like to explore whether councils can be included in the Bill.

Related to that, in council, we also dealt with the provision of bins in public areas. The Committee should be mindful of the lack of adequate bin provision in public toilets and in public bodies. Every public toilet should have a suitable period and personal hygiene product waste disposal facility. It is not OK to have one bin in the communal area of a public toilet beside the wash basins for disposing of period products. I do not want to walk out of a toilet having to wrap up a used product in toilet roll. I would like some privacy. As the Bill recognises, we should all expect dignity at every level of government. I encourage the Committee to consider how that provision could be added. It would mean that the likes of our local leisure centres and local government public buildings could also be included in the Bill. That may have to go to the Department for Communities, but, if it can be done, it is worth doing.

Finally, periods are much more than pads, tampons, Mooncups, cramps and pills. The progression of this Bill through the House gives us all an opportunity to look at the unhealthy narrative around the issue and the idea that it is something of a taboo subject. It is not. It is not somehow unclean, it is not something that people should be ashamed about, and it is not funny. Talking about periods should not continue to be stigmatised. It needs to be part of the public conversation, and I know that the Committee will want to consider that.

On the subject of education, how do we educate children and young people about what is happening to them? Why is it not taught in schools in the long term?

In Belfast, we saw that powerful street art dedicated to the campaign to end period poverty and empower women was vandalised. That should never have happened. It was defaced and painted over. We should really look at that and how it reflects the stigma that still exists in society. We need a law on public awareness and public conversation around the Bill.

Many of us here will remember our first conversations about periods, be they with family or friends. I personally found it very uncomfortable and felt like it was a really weird conversation to have. Looking back now, I do not know why that was. It truly goes to the heart of the issue: it is still stigmatised. Perhaps it was just not talked about, but I think there is something in those original, awkward conversations that we all had. Why was it awkward? It is not.

I hope that this Bill goes some way to encourage those conversations in society, in our homes and with our friends and families. I will support the Bill at Second Stage.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 4:45 pm, 9th November 2021

I readily support Mr Catney's laudable intent with regard to the issue of free period products for women and girls, and also his compassion in identifying an issue and acting upon it. It clearly is causing great stress and poverty for a number of young women and girls. Therefore, the addressing of that is a necessary and good thing. In the addressing of it, it is quite clear from a number of the contributions that the Bill would assist in bringing dignity to the issue, and also assist something as fundamental as school attendance for young women and girls. That has to be a communal benefit for the whole of society, so that is good.

It is quite clear to whom the Bill is directed. One has only to look at a couple of its clauses. Clause 1(1) is directed at:

"all persons who need to use them."

Clause 1(2) mentions:

"sufficient products to meet the person's needs while in Northern Ireland."

Clause 2(3) refers to:

"persons in ... premises who need to use them."

Then, if there is any doubt that it is for persons who need to use those products, the key definitions in clause 7 say clearly that:

"references to a person's needs are references to the person's needs for period products arising from menstruation by the person."

It is quite clear that the need is the need of those who menstruate, and they, of course, are women and girls, and no one else. Therefore, I am somewhat saddened that the Bill's sponsor has allowed himself to fall for the Stonewall agenda of trying to attack gender and remove references to gender from legislation, and therefore —

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I will in a moment. Therefore, the perversion of gender by the removal of it from the Bill is a retrograde step. Here is a Bill that addresses an issue for women and girls, and yet those words are not used anywhere in this legislation. That seems to me to be foolish and wrong. I will give way.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I just have a question, really. I do not understand why you would think that it would be offensive to women. In the Chamber, should we not legislate for everyone in society and create laws that are inclusive?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

If we legislate for free period products for those who need them, we are legislating for women and girls; that is everyone who needs them, end of. Men do not need period products. Boys do not have to go through that experience, yet we had the quite —

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

Do you not think that the language that you are using is offensive to members of the transgender community, many of whom suffer from severe mental health issues connected to their gender identity? Do you not think that that is very offensive to them, and that you should modify your tone?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

If the biological reality is that only girls and women menstruate and that boys and men are not in that category, why are we shy about identifying in the legislation the people it will help? Mr Catney, to my surprise, was quoted in the press as saying, "Boys have periods too". Boys do not have periods.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I appreciate the Member's giving way. This is the Second Stage, and Mr Catney has made it very clear that he is open to any conversation on amendments to the Bill. In making his statement, has the Member given any consideration to those people who were born intersex and who may menstruate?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Biologically, if you menstruate, you are a woman. That is it. If you do not, you are a man. Period products are for women, so why are we following an agenda that wants to deliberately and consciously deny gender distinction? That is the agenda that lies behind Stonewall and others that are seeking to involve themselves in a perversion of gender definition and distinction. Whether we like it or not, it is there, and why would legislation want to diminish that distinction and fall into that trap?

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. I do not want to labour this point, because the principle of the Bill is very important, but I do not think it is simply as black and white as that. I would stand with the Member on very many occasions in not wanting to create a society where gender is airbrushed or cast aside because it is offensive to some, but, on this issue and the possibility of somebody being born intersex, there is a certainly a conversation to be had. I do not think that, for those people, it is as simple as saying that they are male or female. A conversation definitely needs to be had about that, and I would welcome working with the Member on it.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I do not want to unduly labour the point either, because the important principle of the Bill is that we will give free products to those who need them, and I am clear that those who need them are women and girls.

I will quote to the Member what Kathleen Stock, former professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, said when she got into a controversy about the issue. Her work focuses on gender. She called this approach "intellectually incoherent nonsense". She went on to say:

"Women and girls are the only people who will ever need period products, and there is nothing wrong with saying that."

Therefore, in my view, there is nothing wrong with the legislation saying that, and its failure to say it has, unfortunately, drawn it into areas of controversy it did not need to be in. Therefore, I say to the Member that, as the Bill proceeds, that issue will need to be addressed.

There are other issues. Cost has rightly been identified. The figures in the explanatory and financial memorandum seem to me to be more modest than what the reality might be. The Scottish experience and others elsewhere suggest that. That needs to be fleshed out. Of course, it is attractive and easy for us, as legislators, to say, "Everything needs to be done", but we also have to have regard to cost, and maybe there comes a point at which there is some delineation because of cost. We need to get the costs right on these issues.

Other points have been raised. The Green Party MLA made a very legitimate point about sanitary bins and whether their provision should be added to the Bill. There have been questions about whether the Bill applies to councils. Look at the interpretation section of the Bill. Ms Bradshaw raised a point about what a public service body is. A public service body is defined in clause 8, which states it:

"means a body— (a) constituted by or under an enactment; (b) having functions that consist of or include providing public services or otherwise serving the public interest".

That includes local councils. I am somewhat surprised at the indication that there is doubt about that. A public service body, inevitably, includes a public council as much as it includes a school or a higher education establishment.

There are issues to be fleshed out and addressed. I wish that the Bill had not gone down the road of needlessly invoking controversy on the issue of gender definition. It is quite clear who, and only who, requires the products that it will provide. The principle of the Bill is good. I want to see it refined so that it is not needlessly distracted into other territory.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I proudly support the Bill. It is so positive. I am a bit disappointed in those who have sought to distract from the good work that it seeks to achieve. The inclusive language that is used is to be commended. It does not erase women and girls in any way whatsoever.

The proposal in the Bill is quite simple: make free period products available in schools, colleges and other public buildings. However, this deceptively simple Bill is an opportunity to make a real difference to people's lives. Making free period products readily accessible will help to tackle period poverty, break down the stigma surrounding menstruation and send out a really strong message about health equality. Period products can be expensive, especially for those with heavier flows. As part of the public consultation on the Bill, my colleague Pat Catney found that 45% of respondents struggled to afford period products. He also found that 69% had been forced to use unsuitable alternatives, which is often an utterly degrading and humiliating experience.

There will be those who quote the Tesco Everyday Value price of a pad. First, those are not available in everybody's local shop. They certainly are not available in the coin-operated tampon dispensers that we find in many public toilets. Secondly, such a statement ignores the reality that some people simply cannot afford to spend that amount of money on period products, no matter how relatively small others may consider that amount to be. With the cost of living and other essential products on the rise, we must do what we can to erase the financial burden on those who are struggling.

As I mentioned, the Bill is also about changing attitudes. By making period products more accessible and emphasising their essential importance, we can begin to dismantle the feelings of shame that continue to make periods a taboo subject for many. It is my hope that we will move quickly past the days of having to secretly slide period products up our sleeve as we go into toilets. I have period products on display at the front door of my constituency office, not hidden away, so that grabbing them is just as normal as grabbing a mask, a tissue or whatever. It means that nobody needs to experience any potential feelings of embarrassment when asking whether we have any available and that everyone can get used to seeing it as a basic everyday product, which it is.

The Homeless Period Belfast does amazing work. It has been campaigning tirelessly to bring about change in access and attitudes. As part of its work, it shared a small-minded comment that it received; it went something along the lines of, "Be responsible for your own body". That would make your blood boil. Would we ever consider saying that to anyone when it comes to toilet paper?

Do we expect people to carry toilet paper no matter where they go? I am sure that you will agree that the idea seems totally ludicrous. We recognise toilet roll as the basic necessity that it is, and it is beyond time for period products to be viewed in the same way. This Bill, along with the efforts of countless campaigners, will help to achieve just that.

I pay tribute to my friend and SDLP colleague Pat Catney. I am very proud of Pat for playing his part in helping to break down the stigma around this issue and working to improve lives. I remember my mum slipping my period products behind my father's back and hiding them under the clothes in my wardrobe. Periods were definitely not talked about in front of my brothers — absolutely no way — and the word "period" was mouthed in the same way that "cancer" was once spoken about. My mother used to mouth the word "period" when asking, "Have you got your period?". That is how it was spoken about in the house. I am sure that every woman who grew up then will have a similar experience. Times have changed. My daughters had a tampon box in the bathroom that was replenished by their dad: when supplies got low, he was able to see that we needed to buy another box and did so. That is the world that my daughters grew up in.

Let us remember that just because something does not impact us personally, that should not stop us from fighting for what is fair and right. I ask Members to support this fabulous Bill, which I am proud of. I am proud that we, as an Assembly, have had the space to discuss it today.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 5:00 pm, 9th November 2021

There is no ministerial response, so I call Pat Catney to conclude and wind on the debate.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thanks, everyone, for listening to and helping with the debate. I am a brother of four sisters, I have three daughters and I have three little granddaughters, so it is important to me that no one goes without. This is a small step. I will touch on all the points that were made. I do not want to get too deep, but I say to all Members: I am open to your guidance on making good legislation. This is the Second Reading of the Bill, so we can change it and make it what we want it to be: fit for purpose and good.

I thank all Members who contributed for the way in which the debate was conducted. On far too many occasions, I have been in here and sat through debates in which we have argued about things that may well have been nonsense and where it seemed like the reason that one side had an issue was because the other side were in favour. We are all, collectively, better than that. It has been refreshing to listen to a debate where there has been a good level of consensus and harmony among Members.

As I said at the beginning of the debate, I welcome Chris Lyttle's support and look forward to working with him and the Education Committee to make sure that this is the best piece of legislation possible. I agree with a number of the points raised about the finances and would welcome a deeper discussion on the financial implications of the Bill's provisions, based on information that was provided by the pilot scheme that was proposed by the Department of Education in 2020. The potential cost of period products in schools under the proposed legislation would be around £2 million in the first year and less than £1 million per annum subsequently. That reflects reduced costs as the system of provision becomes embedded. It is estimated that the maximum product cost of a scheme of universal provision of period products is likely to be less than £3 million per annum, accounting for the target group who experience period poverty. Based on an assumption of high uptake, £3·8 million represents the upper range of the possible product cost. I appreciate that that needs to be discussed further. I also agree that more consultation is needed with the Department so that we get a better idea of how universal provision will become a reality.

Members called for clarity on whether the Bill will impact women and girls. It is indisputable that it will, but, as I said, I am not perfect, and I am happy to speak to all Members on how the Bill can be improved. However, I want to be clear: I want provision for women, girls and all those who menstruate, and I will work to find the language in the Bill that best achieves that. Any change must be in agreement with the Equality Commission and campaign groups.

The point has been well made that period products are not a luxury. They are a healthcare necessity, and that is what the Bill seeks to achieve.

I agree that the Bill is cross-cutting, and there was a large amount of discussion at drafting as to where it should sit. I welcome those discussions continuing so that we get this right. More research needs to be done. This is a broader issue than just period poverty, and I look forward to those discussions happening.

I am glad that the Global Menstrual Collective was mentioned. It is a global campaign, and I am glad that I can play my small part in it.

A number of Members raised some good points about particular revisions that could be added to the Bill. Let me reiterate that I would be delighted to be involved in any discussions that will improve the Bill. I hope that we can have those discussions throughout the next stage, and I will commit to giving them proper consideration when it comes to the stages at which amendments can be made. Quite simply, I hope to engage with Ministers and Departments as they are key to the implementation of the Bill. I hope that we can find consensus on where the Bill complements the good work they are already doing and that we can create a legal framework that allows for the best provision for our citizens in the most effective way.

As I said, the Bill is about equality, dignity and the Northern Ireland that we want to see going forward. Good work has been done with pilots by the Department of Education and the Department for the Economy, but they are exactly that folks: they are pilots. The Bill is about creating statutory provision to allow free product provision for all who need it. I commend the Second Stage of the Bill to the House.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for that and thank all Members for their very valuable contributions this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill [NIA 39/17-22] be agreed.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That concludes the Second Stage of the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Committee for Education.

Members, please take your ease for a moment or two.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)

Motion made: That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone).]