Period Products (Free Provision) Bill: Final Stage

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:45 pm on 24th March 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:45 pm, 24th March 2022

I beg to move

That the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill [NIA 39/17-22] do now pass.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is a great day for me. It is very fitting that my last speech of the mandate is to introduce the Final Stage of my private Member's Bill.

Passing the Bill sends a strong message that, as my friends in Homeless Period Belfast state, "Menstruation matters". Those are powerful words, and they should ring out as we try to pass the legislation. Menstruation matters to us all — to all girls and women. It tells people that no one should feel ashamed or embarrassed by their period. It makes it clear that menstruation is normal and that access to period products should be universal.

I have so many people to thank. It is right that I mention Monica Lennon, Member of the Scottish Parliament, who has been very helpful to me. She came up with the legislative framework to allow for the provision of free products. I am so grateful for her guidance and support. If we pass the Bill today, we will become the second jurisdiction in the world to allow for universal free provision of period products.

When I was elected five years ago, some of my greatest strength and support came from my wife, Rosemary, and my three daughters, Katherine, Sarah and Emma, not to forget my son, Patrick Jr. My daughters encouraged me to take on this fight, and their support has meant the world to me.

Thanks must be given to those from my team who have worked on the Bill for coming on two years: to Ally for her work at the start, as the Bill was coming about, and to Johnny in my office, who has given me unrelenting support and the time that was required. I thank Emma and Frank for guiding the Bill skilfully through each legislative stage and for keeping me on the level throughout the process. Thanks to those across the Assembly who helped. Thanks to James and Gerry and to BDB Pitmans LLP for the skilful drafting of the Bill. I had a lot of back and forth with them, and I am thankful that they helped to get the Bill to where it is today.

As I stated earlier, some of the Bill has drafting from Scotland. Later, I will thank the Minister for Communities. Some of the departmental amendments were changes from the way in which the Scottish legislation is worded to how we word it in Northern Ireland.

I thank Caroline Perry and Denise Morgan. I feel like I should table a final amendment to give those two people and, in fact, most of those who worked with me in the Bill Office a pay rise. They have been at the end of the phone and have taken time at all hours of the day and night. They have been so patient in explaining the process, explaining amendments and in helping me with all the changes to the Bill.

I thank the Minister for Communities and the team from her Department: Gerry, Martina, Beverley and Dianne. The amendments that they developed will make the Bill more workable and improve the programmes that come from it. There was a bit of toing and froing, and I did not know which Department was going to lift the Bill and take up the chalice, which some people may have thought was a poisoned chalice. I thank the Minister, Deirdre, for taking that chalice. It was brave and correct to do that. You know that it was the right thing to do, Minister, and I am delighted that you came on board.

Thanks must be given to all the political parties for their support and to some key Members across the political spectrum who helped the Bill to move at pace in order to make sure that it passed before the end of the mandate. I give thanks to the Chair of the Education Committee, Chris Lyttle, for his unwavering support, and to the members of the Education Committee for their diligent and clear scrutiny of the Bill.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I will take a moment to wish Chris Lyttle MLA all the best as he moves forward, as I know that he will not run for the next mandate. He will be missed. I am honoured, as an older man, to call Chris a friend; I have made a great friendship with him.

Some of the scrutiny was tough; in fact, if I am lucky enough to introduce another private Member's Bill, my list of consultees may be extended to include statutory interested parties. Top of that list would be Diane Dodds from the DUP.

[Laughter.]

I can tell you that Diane went over every detail, but that is great. That is what we are here for. We are here for scrutiny, and we try to make legislation better. I thank her and all members of the Education Committee.

I thank Aoibhinn Treanor and Frank Geddis. I give a big "Thank you" to them for all the help that they gave in explaining things to me, as did the Bill Office, and for their support and patience throughout all our work together.

I ran out of time this morning. I meant to buy the little round doughnuts that are a bit a tradition in the Bill team. They will come; I will get them down next week, eventually.

I also thank the Speaker and all those in his office and the Business Office for the quick approval and turnaround of the Bill. I thank Alex and give him my best wishes for his retirement. Knowing Alex, I know that he will be working and doing something.

Finally, I thank each and every campaigner who pushed for the free provision of period products. I had a great time with some of them this morning. I thank Katrina, Ele, Grace and Alexa in particular, and I thank all the young students from the universities and schools who made it out on to the steps at the front of the Building this morning. They are the people who drove me on and helped me every single moment. When I needed a question answered, they were there. They were the ones who went out on to the streets and delivered period products to the people out there who need them. They go out day and night. I was delighted to have them on the steps here today, because, while the Bill may have my name on it, it belongs to the campaigners and activists who have pushed us all to get here.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

They have not given us an easy ride. Every single one of them went through the Bill with a fine-tooth comb and questioned me on every clause, timescale and duty. However, they have always been supportive and keen to work it through.

Am I time-limited on this?

[Laughter.]

I will not be much longer, folks. I want to say that, as I was coming down this morning, I had the radio on, and I heard about an art project that is going on in Belfast. This may well be my last opportunity to speak about the ring of steel. I operated behind that ring of steel, and the project in Belfast marks its being built 50 years ago. I will be only a second, Mr Deputy Speaker; this is important and relevant, and I will keep moving on it. Sometimes, we forget where we have come from and the harshness of the place that we call home. It is a fantastic to be here today to make this change.

For each person who has filled me full of hope for the future, there are so many more for this fight. I hope that, now, with the backing of legislation, the aspirations of all those young people will be met soon. I am excited for the future. I will go back to the Minister. I have done so twice and will do it again. I do not know how the relationships required by the Bill's cross-cutting nature will go or which Department will hold the powers that the Bill provides to ensure that period products are available as widely as possible. The provision of funding must follow. Whether or not I am re-elected, I will make sure that funding is allocated for period products in the next Budget. That is a promise, and I will be watching to see whether it goes through.

The Bill is a first step — a momentous one, no doubt, but a first step nonetheless. We must now ensure that, backed by the legislation, products are made available as soon as practicably possible so that all citizens can live their lives with dignity.

To finish —

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

The joy that you have brought to this place today, Pat, is something to behold. It was absolutely marvellous to witness and be part of that joy among the campaign group in the Great Hall and on the front steps. We are all very proud of what you have done. Do you agree that, as well as the universal accessibility of period products, an element of the Bill is about destigmatising periods, and there will be knock-on effects and implications of that access for young girls continuing their participation in sport? That will be a crucial impact of the Bill.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member from Armagh for his intervention. I can only agree with him. I may well have been one of those men who was a little bit frightened about speaking about the issue. However, I share offices with and am next door to some of the great women in the SDLP. I can tell you that they pushed me and made sure that I stood up to the mark. That is change. We need change, and the Bill will bring change.

To finish, I welcome the Bill and commend it to the House. I trust and hope that it passes through the Assembly.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Ciara Ferguson Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Final Stage of the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill. I commend all those who have campaigned for the legislation, including the Bill sponsor, Pat Catney, Minister Hargey for taking up stewardship of it and all those who worked so hard to bring its Final Stage before us today.

This is a good-news story, Pat. It is a good-news story for the one in 10 of those who said that they were unable to afford period products at some time in their life. It is good news for the one in seven who said that they regularly struggled to afford period products and for the almost 50% of girls who said that they had missed days off school because of their periods. It is also good news for the hosts of women and community and health organisations in my constituency of Foyle who have campaigned for many years and, in particular, my party colleague Sandra Duffy, whose motion to back the On the Ball campaign to provide free sanitary products in as many public buildings as possible was unanimously backed in Derry City and Strabane District Council back in 2018. That was the first local authority across Ireland to offer free sanitary products in its public buildings, and I know that we have all worked collectively to encourage other public bodies to have that initiative extended to our schools and hospitals.

The Bill makes specific reference to giving access to free period products in education and health premises. That provides a sound foundation beyond which the full aim of the legislation can be realised, which is to provide universal access to free period products to all those who need them for personal use.

This is an inclusive Bill. It recognises that some people may have difficulties accessing products, so there is provision for collection by another person or for delivery in certain circumstances. It is gender-neutral in order to ensure that women, girls and all those who menstruate have access to period products. I hope that, in its implementation, measures will be taken to include hard-to-reach groups such as homeless people, people from the Travelling community, asylum seekers and refugees, those for whom English is not their first language, as well as those living in more hard-to-reach locations in our rural communities. Make this a good-news story for them too.

Once again, I commend Pat for introducing the Bill and for all his hard work. I call on the Assembly to support the Bill.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call Diane Dodds on to our screens.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I apologise that I cannot be in the Chamber today. I send huge congratulations to Pat Catney for getting the Bill to this stage. I know that he thinks that I asked him some very awkward and difficult questions as the Bill was progressing, but he has always known that I am supportive and will continue to support the premise of the Bill, because it is about inclusivity and equality, and it will change the lives of some young people in Northern Ireland.

As has been mentioned, the Bill is necessary because one in 10 young women find it difficult to buy sanitary products, and one in seven find it a struggle to afford to buy sanitary products. We do not want to see young women and girls who are at school or in education be unable to continue with their education journey because they are unable to buy sanitary products. It is also a Bill about dignity. It is very important to remember that we took some time in the Education Committee to look at that particular aspect of the Bill and added some amendments, which were accepted by the Bill sponsor, in order to look at dignity.

It is important that people can have access to the products in a dignified and confidential way.

The Bill comes on the back of pilots already introduced by the Northern Ireland Assembly. When I was Minister for the Economy, I introduced pilot schemes to provide sanitary products in further and higher education institutions. The Minister of Education, my colleague Michelle McIlveen, has made £2·6 million of funding available to provide free sanitary products in schools. Those were important staging posts for the Bill, and I am glad that we have been able to make progress and show how necessary they are.

I again thank Pat Catney, the Bill sponsor. I reiterate, Pat, that we still need to ensure that the funding and business case are absolutely sound. I trust that the Ministers in each Department will take this work on board and that it will not take too long before the practical effect of the Bill is seen in education, health settings and the wider community. Thank you for all your work, and thank you, as well, to all who presented from community groups and those who advocated on behalf of women and girls.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

As Chairperson of the Committee for Education, I am absolutely delighted to support the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill at Final Stage. I commend the proposer of the Bill, Pat Catney MLA, for the work that he undertook. Also, to echo his words to me, I am delighted to have made such a good friend during my time in the Chamber. I am delighted at the passion that you bring to the Chamber, Pat. Thank you for all those things.

Access to period products should be universally available, as is the case for many other basic hygiene products. Is it inconceivable that it would be otherwise, and I am glad that the Bill will correct the fact that it is not.

The Education Committee worked on period product provision for some time and on period dignity. We made progress in recent years, working with campaigners and activists, on those key issues. The Committee met The Homeless Period Belfast on a number of occasions. It was my privilege to invite the charity to give evidence to the Education Committee and to present a petition, on behalf of 5,000 people, to the Assembly for free period products in schools. Pat has recognised, and it is important that we, too, recognise, the work of the campaigners and activists in The Homeless Period Belfast, a volunteer-led initiative, managed by Katrina McDonnell, and the other organisations that worked on period product provision, such as the Red Box Project and Equality Period.

The current Education Minister and her predecessor worked to support the provision of period products in schools. That is an important start in support of the implementation of the provisions of the Bill.

The Education Committee undertook Committee Stage scrutiny of this cross-cutting Bill — I am proud that we did — on behalf of other relevant subject Committees. We endeavoured to coordinate evidence taking and scrutiny to enable the passage of this important legislation. We drew in feedback from a range of key stakeholders and conducted meaningful consideration of the issues, within a tight time frame, that allowed the Bill to complete its primary legislative stages.

The Department of Education has demonstrated action on this issue with a period dignity pilot scheme and accompanying Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) webinars and other educational resources to present the issue in context. That is important progress on the Bill.

The Department for Communities, councils, the Department for the Economy, further education stakeholders, the Department of Health and the Department of Finance all responded with their perspectives on and experiences of the provision of free period products and with ways in which the Bill's provisions could be coordinated and funded. The Minister for Communities coordinated the Bill's amending stages, which was a welcome intervention that allowed the Bill to progress. The Committee for Education will continue to work to advance the provision of period products as a means of delivering equal opportunity, particularly along the pathway from school to employment.

The Committee is proud of the work and combined efforts of legislators and stakeholders throughout the legislative process of the Bill that Pat Catney sponsored. Society and campaigners emphatically told the Assembly that free period products must be made available for all, and Pat and the Assembly responded. We hope and anticipate that the legislation will improve access to education, work and sport and improve dignity for women, girls and those who menstruate. We trust that it will improve understanding of menstruation and create supportive conversations about periods. I commend Pat for his committed and passionate sponsorship, and I support the passing into law of the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

As a Lagan Valley MLA and someone who served on council with the Member —.

A Member:

[Inaudible.]

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

A good oul sing. I feel like a pop star now.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I appreciate that, and it is good to have that on the record.

[Laughter.]

It was my pleasure to work —.

A Member:

Which one?

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

[Laughter.]

It was my pleasure to work with Pat Catney as a councillor on Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, and, indeed, it has been my pleasure to work with him as an MLA since 2017. As born-and-bred Lisburn men, we are particularly passionate about Lagan Valley.

Sometimes I look at legislation such as that tabled by Mr Catney and other politicians and ask myself, "Why did I not do that?". I am envious of the Bill. It is excellent legislation, and I again commend the Member for introducing it.

I recall his party colleague Cara Hunter, who is sitting behind him, talking about a conversation that they had had in their office at the beginning of these two years about Pat's fear, as a man, of sponsoring a Bill that dealt with menstruation and period products. That he sponsored the Bill is very fitting and a testament to the man who he is. Pat, regardless of what happens in the election, you can be very proud. The Bill will bring about serious changes and improvements to the lives of young girls, women and those who menstruate.

When we legislate, there is always a Bill title and the written text. People will look at that and say, "Yes, it gives universal access and defines the premises where the products will be, and those products will be in the hands of the people who need them". That is the purpose of the Bill. Do you know something, however? The unintended consequences of the legislation that we make are sometimes even better. This Bill is an example of legislation that will reach places and affect people's lives in positive ways that were not even intended.

If you will indulge me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will speak about a few of those. First, the Bill does what it says on the tin, in that it provides universal access to period products for those who need them and defines the places where they will be available. I am proud to have been on the Education Committee when we discussed a number of other issues. Those included the need to determine the quality of products so that they were not bargain-basement-type products and to make sure that the environmental and climate-affecting aspects were picked up on.

Moreover, by meeting different groups and engaging with the Bill sponsor, the Committee identified that one of the barriers to accessing period products is poverty. It was not necessarily its purpose, but the Bill will, in a small way, tackle poverty. It will keep money in the pockets of some people who were not previously able to procure period products because they did not have enough money and who perhaps at the moment are having to choose from heating, eating, period products and all the other essential things in life. In a small way, the Bill has therefore started to chip away at how we deal with poverty.

The thing that probably excited me most when talking to young people in the community groups, and especially to teachers, was the stigma and the dignity that is not there for some people. The fact that people will now be able to go into premises discreetly, without having to ask, and access products is absolutely marvellous. I do not think that that was the intent of the Bill, but it will really bring dignity and raise the profile of talking about menstruation and menstrual items, especially, perhaps, among young men. That is brilliant. The impact on young people that came out of the problem — the lack of dignity, the stigma and the inability to talk about it — fed into the poor mental health of a lot of people. Again, this will help reduce poor mental health among young people.

Teachers gave evidence in one of the sessions about participation in activities, particularly sports. Justin McNulty will remember this. They found that COVID led to some issues being identified and that the lack of availability of products, for whatever reason, was stopping young women from being able to participate in sports and activities. Therefore, we are actually addressing a fourth item of unintended consequences. I would call this the win-win-win-win Bill, Mr Catney, so well done on that.

I thank the Bill sponsor and his team, and I thank the Minister for Communities for coming in as she did. I also thank the Chamber for supporting the amendment, which I thought was useful. We debated the overall responsibility being in TEO, but, like the Bill sponsor, I thank all the agencies that have been chasing this dream for many years and the young people, teachers and parents who spoke so well to define and design the Bill. Once more, I congratulate my Lagan Valley colleague on this piece of legislation. It is win, win, win and win.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin 1:15 pm, 24th March 2022

I start by echoing the congratulations to Pat, a Member for Lagan Valley, on this important legislation. Mr Catney is one of the characters of the Assembly and is an embodiment of dedication to women's issues, fighting misogyny and being a feminist. I can attest to that. I have received kindness from you. We are not on any of the same Committees, and you do not always have reason to, but you have gone out of your way to show me kindness, and, as a young woman in this place, I appreciate that. I just want to put that on the record. This is a legacy that you will have left in this place, but you live and breathe that every day, so you deserve commendation for that.

This legislation is evidence of the difference that we can make when we all work together. As an institution, this place often receives an awful lot of bad press, but this is a piece of progressive legislation that we have delivered together. It has been sponsored by a Member from the SDLP, driven forward by a Committee Chair from the Alliance Party and implemented by a Sinn Féin Minister, with the support of all parties across the House. We should reflect on that. It is to be welcomed, and it will probably not receive the coverage in the media that other, more negative stories might.

The Bill is another piece of legislation that has been passed during this mandate that starts to unpick the misogyny that we have seen across this state for decades. It is systemic and has been established, and we need to work against it. The Bill complements a lot of other legislation that has been passed or is in the process of being passed, such as the safe access zones Bill from Ms Bailey from South Belfast and the work that has been done on domestic violence, upskirting and downblousing. All those things are progressive and will start to work towards a fairer and more equal society, which is what we need to deliver for all our constituents.

I agree with the Member for Newry and Armagh about the stigma around periods. Half the population goes through periods, but they have been shrouded in secrecy. The idea that a period leaves a blue liquid stain is not reality, but that is what was propagated for decades and was expected. We saw the end of the tampon tax only last year. That is the situation.

Period products are not luxury items, and people cannot decide whether or not they want to buy them. They are not bars of chocolate; they are essential items. We are in a cost-of-living crisis, and we have a real situation to deal with. Members have referred to the percentage of people who have struggled to buy period products during their life and the impact that that has on their mental health. Another Member for Lagan Valley referred to that. We have young people growing up who are terrified to ask their parents for money to buy tampons or sanitary towels because they know that their parents are already struggling to heat the house or put food on the table. That is the situation. The Bill, therefore, is important in giving people an opportunity to get those products for free, when they are in public spaces. It is the beginning. I hope to see Mr Catney back in the next mandate and building on this legislation.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I welcome the passage of the Bill's Final Stage and commend all the campaigners who have pressed so hard for it and the Bill sponsor. For Pat Catney, hearing some of the tributes must be like hearing eulogies at your funeral, without having to go through the indignity of dying, which is always a double advantage. He is to be commended for bringing the legislation forward.

Members across the Chamber have seen and know the problems that are created by period poverty and a lack of period dignity, and we know of the issues around trying to remove the stigma around periods. That has been recognised by all parties — Executive and non-Executive — and, over the past few years, we have seen a positive step change in trying to tackle the issues. Today marks the culmination of those actions. As highlighted by a number of Members, the impact of period poverty, though not confined to it, has been particularly acute in young women's education. We know that the impact can lead to the missing of education and constraints within education, and that it does so in a disproportionate way.

Mention has been made of various campaigners. I want to put on record one person and one group. When I was Education Minister, there was a campaign on period poverty from Ellie Massey and a group of classmates from Strathearn School who pushed hard on the issue. They were able to shine a focus on the issue. I was able to bring a proposal to the Executive to introduce a pilot scheme on period poverty, and that was unanimously and enthusiastically supported by the Executive. Funding was secured for that scheme, and we have been able to take further steps on it. As highlighted by my colleague Diane Dodds, we have seen my successor, the current Minister, be able to implement it at the beginning of September 2021 and funding be made available for it. The then Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, was able to ensure that it was extended to further and higher education. Through the passage of this Bill, in particular, there has been good cooperation across Departments, particularly through the Minister for Communities, in coordinating those efforts.

There has been that important step change, but the Bill takes us a further step forward on at least two grounds. First, the various schemes that were put in place, particularly by Education, are now on a statutory footing. They are now part of the law of the land, rather than being simply down to the good wishes and simple actions of individual Ministers. We all know that, at times, Ministers can change and that, sometimes, opinions and priorities can change, but the Bill enshrines it in legislation, which means that it covers the issues and gives a guarantee into the future.

Secondly and critically, the Bill ensures that all the actions that have been taken, particularly in education, including higher and further education, and in other sectors will be carried out in a comprehensive fashion and applied across the board. No female, irrespective of their location in Northern Ireland or whether they are in full-time education, are older and in employment or are involved in a range of activities, be that sport or whatever else, should be denied the opportunity to reach their full potential because of period poverty or a lack of period dignity.

This is a good legacy of the Assembly. I welcome the Final Stage. I look forward to the Bill receiving Royal Assent and being implemented, and I commend the Member, once again.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

This is a great day for everyone in Northern Ireland. Six really important Bills have reached Final Stage today, and they will improve the lives of everybody in Northern Ireland. I am really delighted that we have managed to get the Bill to its Final Stage in this mandate.

We have heard from people who have missed school or work because they could not access period products. We have heard from people who have been forced to use unsuitable alternatives, including toilet paper, and from those who simply cannot afford the cost of these vital healthcare products. When we carried out the survey last year, 45% of respondents said that they had struggled to afford period products, and 69% said that they had resorted to using period products for longer than advised or had used unsuitable alternatives. As Members have said, the cost-of-living crisis has accelerated significantly since we carried out the survey. Sadly, I expect those statistics to be greatly increased, and no one should face going to school, college or work worried about not being able to afford vital healthcare products to manage their period.

The impact of the Bill should therefore not be underestimated in any way. It will change lives and will ease a financial burden for so many. Gone will be the days of worrying about being caught out without period products or about being able to afford them at all. There will be no more improvising or discomfort, and the stress will start to ease. The issue will no longer burden future generations: what an absolute legacy. I am delighted that young girls will grow up in that new world.

I reiterate how proud I am of the Bill sponsor, Pat Catney, for his unwavering commitment to ensuring that the language in the Bill remained inclusive. Every person who needs to access period products will be included, and equality of access will be ensured: how SDLP of him.

The shame will also start to lift as we break the stigma around talking about periods. It has been incredibly heartening to listen to so many people across the Chamber speaking on a subject that has been discussed in hushed tones for far too long. The conversation should not and will not end today, however. Let us keep the conversation going until we dismantle period stigma entirely. Let us keep the conversation going around other women's health issues that are currently treated as taboo.

I thank all the stakeholders who have advocated on behalf of the Bill and all who have engaged with the Committees and pushed the Bill forward. Thank you again, Pat, for listening and engaging with those campaigners to make the Bill a reality. I thank the Department for Communities and you, Minister, for taking the Bill on and ensuring that it had the opportunity to pass in this mandate.

We will finally have real measures in place to end period poverty once and for all. That is positive politics in practice, and I am proud of what my friend and party colleague has done. I am also proud of Members throughout the Chamber who worked collectively. We got behind the wheel and pushed, and we have got to a place that everybody in Northern Ireland should be proud of. There are not many days on which we can stand up and speak with pride, but

"My mama told me, 'There'll be days like this'".

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

As this is my last speech at the end of the mandate, it is a privilege to speak on a topic as important as this. Today is a very good day. For generations, women have had to make do, suffer and struggle but, thanks to the Bill, that is no more. The Bill is another strong step closer to true equality in the North of Ireland. It is about social justice and keeping girls in school, the workplace, the study hall, the library and, of course, in sport. I welcome the comments of my colleague from Armagh on the importance of females in sport, including the GAA.

My admiration for Pat is no secret, and I reflect often on his incredible work ethic. Today, Pat, everyone can see the heart and soul, the effort and the hours of work that you and your wonderful team have put into this unbelievably important Bill, including talking to activists from a variety of sectors, hearing the voices of women across the North and responding with kindness, consideration, the spirit of inclusivity and, most importantly, an open mind. I thank all those activists, many of whom are here today or listening at home. We thank the students and volunteers, community leaders and others for their grit and determination and for maintaining hope that a Bill like this could and should go through our Assembly.

As I mentioned at a previous stage, the beauty of politics is that none of us is permanent, but the Bills that we pass remain long after we are gone and create real change. What a legacy Pat will leave for the years to come, although I hope that he will be here for a good while yet.

I thank, as my colleague did, every party and MLA across the House for their support. It really is a day of great importance. Regardless of how we identify politically, we all have the shared goal of improving our communities and the lives of people across the North. The Bill will do just that. No longer will those who have periods suffer the indignity, distress and anxiety of makeshift alternatives. Today, this is what real change looks like: free products that are not means-tested and universal provision for all who need it. As the cost of living continues to go through the roof, that policy is needed now more than ever.

In closing, as a young woman, I thank Pat for introducing the Bill. I have seen behind the scenes, and I am truly so grateful for what the legislation will mean for the women of today and the women of tomorrow. He will have saved hundreds of thousands of moments of embarrassment, discomfort and indignity, and that is the measure of the man. Thank you, Pat.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:30 pm, 24th March 2022

I, too, support the Bill, and I thank Pat Catney, my friend and colleague, for introducing it.

As a Member who sat on the Justice Committee, I am all too aware of some of the harrowing circumstances that young women face every day. While the Bill was passing through the Assembly, at the back of my mind was always that young girl who might have no access to funds of her own and is dependent on the goodwill of others. Now, with absolute dignity and no questions asked, she has access to period products, and that is because of Pat Catney. I commend Pat for recognising the plight of many women, and I focus on young girls, because, at that stage of life, they are perhaps the least comfortable and least empowered when it comes to managing their period.

Periods have had many different names and have come, as Emma correctly pointed out, in many different colours. Mostly, they were talked about in hushed tones, but that is no more. It is no more because people like Pat Catney, who were uncomfortable sitting in a room full of women — I think that he would admit that openly — found the confidence to say, "This is a wrong that needs to be righted, and I will do it". We were and are so proud of Pat for doing that, and we always will be.

If I may say so, plenty of private Members' Bills have come through the House, and, no doubt, plenty more will come, but very few will come with the charismatic style attached to them that only Pat Catney can deliver. Few will have every Member of the House sitting with a big grin on their face, regardless of the topic. Pat's charm allowed everybody to embrace what he is trying to achieve today. I genuinely mean this: the people of Lagan Valley served the House proud when they put Pat Catney here. It is having people like Pat, with a good heart and good intentions, in a place where change can happen that results in days like today. Thank you, Pat, and thank you to every person in the House who spoke on the Bill and supported Pat in getting it to its Final Stage.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

A few SDLP Members have spoken today, as people will have noticed, but so have Members from across the House, which is testament to how important and popular the Bill is. The Bill sponsor is also popular, and he is popular for good reason. His party colleagues and Members from across the House are proud of him for a reason: the Bill is a hugely positive step forward. It will pass today, which is wonderful.

It is important to acknowledge some of the extraordinary campaign groups that have put pressure on us as legislators and on legislators in other places to remove the stigma around menstruation, to use our power as legislators to do what we can to make access to period products universal and routine and, hopefully, to do something else, which is to start making it much more normal for all of us to talk about issues like menstruation that, for too long, have been shrouded in euphemism and awkwardness. Too often, that has caused not just discomfort for women but shame, embarrassment and a huge range of other difficulties. Those campaign groups — EqualityPeriod, Homeless Period Belfast, the Red Box Project and a huge number of others — deserve so much credit for moving the issue forward.

Often, in this place, people think that positive things cannot happen. Positive, progressive things are for someone else; they are for another place. We are proving with this legislation and with other legislation that will go through today and has gone through in recent days that that is not true. This can be a place where progressive change happens, and we do not have to wait for other people to do it for us. We will now be, I think, the second place to introduce ambitious period poverty legislation. We have been able to do that because people with a big heart and generosity who were determined to use their mandate to improve the lives of people came here and did that. That is what Pat Catney is. Over the past couple of years, I have got to know Pat fairly well. We are more than just colleagues; we have become very good friends. To say that Pat has a big heart would be a crude understatement: Pat Catney is a giant of a man with a big heart. He wanted to use his mandate to do something positive for people, and this is positive for all women and girls and those who menstruate. The legislation is testament to what good people can do when they come here.

It is also worth acknowledging and celebrating the fact that the Bill will be passed by parties from across the House and that a Sinn Féin Minister will implement it. That is important to acknowledge. The Alliance Party Education Committee Chair, who will be a huge loss to the Assembly, helped to shepherd the Bill through when he had his own private Member's legislation and other private Members' legislation to scrutinise, so credit must go to him today as well and to some Members from other parties. The DUP and the UUP have both spoken in support of the Bill today.

The Bill is a hugely positive step forward. I am genuinely delighted. I think that most of us will have a smile on our face when the Bill passes because we are proving that this place can do important things for people when we put our minds to it. I am so proud of my friend, the indefatigable and amazing Pat Catney, and I am proud of the Assembly for passing the legislation today.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

On behalf of the Green Party, I support Mr Catney's Bill at its Final Stage. I have supported it from day one. We have had many conversations about the Bill, and he knows that he had our support from its inception. We know that steps have already been taken in Northern Ireland to pilot the provision of period products for those who need them. As we know, however, that is not universal. This year, we saw the long-awaited launch of the Economy Department's pilot scheme, as well as the Department of Education's scheme to provide free products in schools. The Bill closes the gaps. As we know, many businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector — an area of work that Mr Catney and I share — are leading on this, and that is very welcome.

As I said at Second Stage, period poverty must be viewed through the lens of children's rights and how the Bill meets our obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). As a political youth champion, I thank all the young girls who reached out to me and, I assume, to many Members over the last number of months to discuss their experiences and to speak in support of the Bill.

Period poverty is unnecessary and unfair. Products should be universally accessible, as they are a vital everyday health product and are essential for accessing education, play and recreation. We know that many who experience period poverty miss school and are absent from class. We also know that poverty is directly linked to educational underachievement. Period poverty is another way in which poverty disadvantages people.

The Bill recognises, as we all should, at every government level, that this is about dignity. That is what the Bill is fundamentally about. Periods are more than just tampons, pads, Mooncups, cramps, paracetamol and ibuprofen. We have all had an opportunity to remove the unhealthy narrative around this so-called taboo subject. It is not taboo, dirty, unclean or something to be ashamed of. I am sure that I speak for everyone here who has had direct experience of their period arriving when, perhaps, they were not prepared for it. Maybe it has happened when they were out — I know that I have had to go and find some toilet roll from somewhere — or they have had to go to the toilet next to them, bang on the door and ask whether anybody had a spare pad, because, guess what, the machine was out of order or because they did not have a pound in their pocket.

I will go back to the Bill. We are really overcoming the stigma attached to periods, but it still exists, and we must facilitate a public conversation about it. As part of the Bill's passing, we must consider how we talk about periods and how we learn about them in school, as young people grow up, and as a wider society. Powerful street art about period poverty should never have been vandalised or painted over. This is our life. As I said at Second Stage, there is no doubt that many of us here will remember our first conversations about periods with our parents, family or friends. I found those conversations uncomfortable, but I do not know why. We need to overcome that. I hope that the Bill will go some way to encouraging that in our society.

That ends my remarks, but I want to thank Mr Catney for taking the Bill forward. Very well done.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

As others have said, it is great to be here on the Assembly's final day in the mandate and to get to the Final Stage of this important Bill.

As Pat reflected, we have come a long way as a society that is emerging from decades of conflict. That can often lead to division. That is also reflected in the art installation in Belfast that Pat mentioned, which looks back over those 50 years. He had a business in the city, just a stone's throw from where I grew up in the Market area of south Belfast, an inner-city, working-class community. As I said a couple of days ago, the media and others sometimes focus on the negativity or disagreements, but a lot of good work has been done, even in the shortened mandate. Looking back, there has been huge change over those 50 years, which is reflected in that art installation.

This final day of the Assembly reflects that change. Let us hope that that is reflected in the media and on the air waves this evening. We are seeing progressive, rights-based legislation progress, not just with this Bill. There is the Preservation of Documents (Historical Institutions) Bill, and we know the impact that that will have on women in particular. For other people who have suffered abuse in our society there is the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill. The Hospital Parking Charges Bill will have an impact on our health and social care sector. There is the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill and, of course, the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill. All of that is progressive, rights-based legislation being passed on the final day to ensure that it becomes law and that those protections will be instilled in legislation here, going forward.

That got me thinking that change happens with people: it is people who make change. We often look only at the big events like today. It is a good day, because we are passing legislation, but that happens only because of the everyday, slow, daily grind of our activists out there, whether they are political activists, community activists or others, who campaign daily and are involved in activism to create change in our communities and across society. That activism is clear in the legislation that we will pass today.

Last night, I saw the video by The Homeless Period Belfast, which really showed the importance of what this Bill will mean to people's daily lives.

Period products should be available in the same way as toilet roll is. In the video, someone holds up toilet tissue and says that period products should be viewed in the same light as it. It is about dignity. It is about normalising the issue. It is about creating visibility. This is not some dirty thing that should be kept behind closed doors. Over 50% of our population menstruate, have periods and bleed. It will happen to a new generation of people as well, so the more that we can build dignity and normalise the issue, the better.

As I said, we are seeing change happening right across the Chamber on rights and equality, and that benefits all of society. That change is reflected not just in the Chamber but on the streets. It is reflected in the activism and campaigning that we have seen outside the Chamber today and on the streets over the past week. While I was sitting here, I received a photo from my sister of my niece, who is coming two soon. She is standing in a local shopping centre, as they are out doing the shopping. In the background, there is a Mother's Day installation, with a sign that says "Love". The legislation is important for future generations, including young children like her growing up. There will be protections around her rights and her dignity. That is what such legislation really means. It is what a functioning Assembly and a functioning Executive really mean for people out there on the ground. It is about building an inclusive, rights-based society for generations to come. This is therefore a good day, with this Bill and the others that we are finally concluding today.

I thank my team in the Department, which worked with Pat and others to make sure that we got the legislation through before the end of the mandate. I am sure that those officials loved it when I came to them to say that we needed to get this done in a couple of weeks. In true fashion, they all put their shoulder to the wheel to make sure that it got through in time. I thank the Office of the Legislative Counsel; the Assembly Bill Office; TEO, which is to where the legislation will now go; and Education, Health and the other Departments that did work on the technical and other amendments and that ran pilots on the issue. I also thank the campaigners, whose slow, daily routine of campaigning and activism really created the change that we are seeing today. As an activist myself, I am sure that this will not be the end for them. They will be thinking about the next campaign and continuing to look to build the type of society for which we all strive.

Last but not least, I thank Pat for, first, listening to your daughters and for listening to and engaging with the campaigners out on the ground. I also thank you for working with the Department to bring forward this much-needed legislation, which will now become law. There is much more to do. We need to continue to organise in order to effect the change that we all want to see to improve the quality of life of people outside of the Chamber.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:45 pm, 24th March 2022

I was not too sure at the start whether I was going to wind or whether it would be the Minister.

Before I start, I thank you, Emma, for your act of kindness before we met on the steps of Stormont. It had a huge impact on me, as it did on a lot of MLAs. I have heard great words spoken. I am a big, strong, burly man, but, at times, I get a little bit emotional. I am delighted to be part of this Assembly, working with some great people. In fact, I am delighted to be working with everyone. I believe that every single one of us is here because we want to do better for where we come from and enrich our home place.

I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate. I thank Ciara Ferguson and Diane Dodds. I am going to call Diane "the Baroness". Diane looked at the Bill and went through the scrutiny of it. I have to commend her, and I commend everyone who does that, so I am giving her her full title. From an Irish nationalist to the Baroness, I thank you.

The impact on those who cannot get access to period products is huge. Giving that to pupils, workers and all people will improve access to education and work and will allow them the level of dignity that they all deserve.

I thank Chris Lyttle. It has been great to see how Chris works, how he does his politics and how he engages, how he was the Chair of that Committee and how things were pushed upon him. I am delighted that he will get his own private Member's Bill through, which will bring equality, again, within teaching. He had to do a huge piece of work on the back of that.

It makes me proud to be part of this Assembly. I am not going to apologise: I left school at 15, and I do not have any O levels or qualifications, but I will tell you what I do have: I have a grounding in Belfast and seeing the best in people, because I left Moira to come into Belfast. We live in a great place, and we have seen that, when we work here, we can deliver. This is a positive message.

We should have got rid of the stigma of period poverty and the stigma of talking about periods years ago. I am a son, a brother, a father of three girls and a grandfather of three little girls, and, as the Minister said, this changes it for them. It must be absolutely terrible to wake up in the morning and find that you are going out to school and you do not have access to the products that you need for a natural bodily function. I hope that this changes it for every little girl, every person, every woman and everything that goes on from here. I am delighted to welcome the fact that we are able collectively to change this.

As I said, we should have got rid of that stigma years ago. My colleagues here have supported me throughout all of this, including a lot of the women from the UUP, the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Greens. I am sure that I have had your heads turned, because I had to ask questions. I was on a journey, and I was asking questions, and all those questions were answered and all that help was given. When I started out, I did not know the whole process of where or how it goes, but I know the process now, and I know that there is a lot of work, including from the civil servants. Mr Deputy Speaker, I will go back to tell you about when I had the little pub next door to Churchill House. I saw the civil servants going home at 5.00 pm, and I thought, "God, that would be a great job. I am still having to work until one or two o'clock in the morning". I am glad that I did not go into the Civil Service, I can tell you, because I see how hard they work.

I thank Dolores Kelly, Nichola Mallon, Sinead McLaughlin, Sinéad Bradley and my room-mate, young Cara Hunter, for all that help. What a team of Members. I have sat with them and talked about every aspect of this Bill, its impact and the change that it will make. I have done that with every single Member whom I have met out there and talked to. I thank Members across the Chamber for their kind words to me personally today. This is not electioneering, folks, but I will tell you this. As we walk out and face the general public, no one knows what way they are going to go. I do not even want to give you Winston Churchill's quote after the electorate had spoken in 1945. Winston said, "The electorate have spoken", and he then used a bad word that started with b, but I will not say it.

We are going out there, and I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the way that you have conducted this debate. This has been one of the great experiences for me as an MLA who came here quite late in life. I was over 60 when I was elected here. This is a day when we are working on important issues. People have dedicated their lives to campaigning for this, and we are passing legislation that will make a tangible difference to many. I hope that you can all join in that support. I will not leave the Floor without going back to our Minister. I thank you, Deirdre. You have stated that you are from a working-class area of south Belfast, and I had a little bar that was close to it. I say that, if this is my last day and my last word in the Chamber, the support from all the parties — all of us together — gives me hope for the future. That is what we need and what is in short supply. We can do it when we work together.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill [NIA 39/17-22] do now pass.

[Applause.]

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

That concludes the Final Stage of the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.