I congratulate Alec Shelbrooke on securing the debate. I put a shout out on social media yesterday and was overwhelmed by the responses I got from women across my constituency and beyond. When I posted something about the debate, asking people to watch it, a post came in from a woman who said, “It nearly killed me”. That goes to the heart of the issue and conveys the severity of endometriosis symptoms.
A statistic that I was not aware of, which came up early in the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, is the 62% increase in the rate of heart attacks among those who suffer from endometriosis. One of my staff members had a hysterectomy because of endometriosis, and she suffers from a number of other health issues, which we have done our very best to accommodate and support her through. I have seen the pain that she went through. A number of my friends suffer in this way; one of them, Sabrina, got in touch with me. I remember working with her in Aberdeen, and recall the pain and suffering that she went through—and, sadly, the lack of support that she often received from employers, was significant.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned an anonymous person who had got in touch with him and who worked at HMRC. Another woman from HMRC—she does not want to be named—got in touch with me, and said that she feels unable to miss work appointments, and that the condition has had a deep emotional impact and caused her huge anxiety. She said:
“I work in a male dominated civil service department and have had my concerns ignored, and a previous manager even refused to document the condition as it made him feel uncomfortable.”
The fact that so many men are speaking up about this issue today—the husband of my hon. Friend Patricia Gibson has also raised it in the Scottish Parliament a number of times—goes to show that there are men out there who care. We must ensure that every employer does, and we can make a significant dent in that by getting the UK Government to commit to ensuring that HMRC, and all other Departments, are sensitive and prepared for something that is clearly an issue in their own house.
This has been a hugely consensual debate. I do not want to be overly critical, but we cannot have consensus just in Westminster Hall today and nowhere else. We can do something about this issue if we work together. We heard what Paula Sherriff has had to endure, and Louise Haigh spoke powerfully about her experiences and the work she has done. There is huge expertise in this room, but I also wish to give a voice to some of the women who have got in touch with me. One said:
“I was lucky to have a good employer and eventually they sent me home with the promise that I go to the doctor, as the pain was so bad one day.”
She said that her doctor had no clue what the problem was, and she had to go to hospital many times after suffering for 10 years. Another women, Ailsa, said that the condition
“completely impacted my work and social life due to the pain, anxiety and isolation”.
Rebecca said that endometriosis had a life-changing impact on her mental health. She has been trying to reduce her working hours, but that has not yet been implemented, and she has been off sick since August.
A number of women got in touch to say that their employers have been sensitive to this issue, but so many are not. Raising awareness of endometriosis is our duty, but doing something about it is even more of a duty. One woman said that she was constantly being called to see HR, and then being called a liar and threatened with dismissal. Another woman said that her employer had refused to provide a sanitary bin because it was “too expensive”, and he did not want to add it to the costs of the business. It is incredible that although 1.5 million women are affected by this condition across the UK, we still have employers who think such behaviour is acceptable. Let us be clear: they are breaking the law.
Legislation alone will not solve the problem. Earlier I spoke about ENDO Warriors West Lothian, which was founded in 2017 by Candice McKenzie and Claire Beattie, and I pay tribute to them. They recently walked, as did I, on the Kiltwalk in Edinburgh to raise money for the EXPPECT Centre, which is a specialist clinic for endometriosis. We must also recognise the challenges in rural areas in Scotland and across the UK. Women in rural areas have to travel further to reach services, and good practice is particularly important.
Another constituent, Rachel, said that she lobbied her employer, and they now have an understanding. She has been able to get better support, whereas previously she lost pay or had to take holidays to attend operations or hospital appointments. She was unable to get sick pay, which added to her stress and financial worry, and those poor experiences resulted in her taking more time off. One woman told me that she is fighting her employer to get reduced working hours, just so she can work at a desk. We are all employers, and it is our duty to support our staff.
Emma got in touch with me to say:
“25 years blessed with a curse…finally diagnosed 15 years ago after 10 years of being palmed off.”
She was told that she suffered from hypochondria—that old chestnut—and that periods were “meant to be painful”; that was said by a man. Someone said, “I’m sure your pain is very real to you,” as she crawled to A&E, crying her eyes out and vomiting in pain. She was told that periods cannot cause leg pain—she uses crutches some of the time—and she often passes out from pain when going to the toilet. She was told, however, that she looked “fine”. She wrote:
“Through the years I’ve passed out so much that my bathroom floor has had more hits than Take That”.
That goes to the heart of the issue.
Shirley said that she
“worked full time and had NO support from bosses and management…even after my specialist wrote to them I still got no support…in fact they stressed me out that much I had a heart attack”.
Such experiences are outrageous, and wherever we find them, we must call them out. Not every woman can get in touch with her employer, or ask a specialist to write a letter. We must do everything we can as Members of Parliament and legislators to change the narrative, change the law if necessary, and work holistically across Departments and the UK to ensure that women who suffer from endometriosis get a proper diagnosis at the proper time and the right support. When women are at work, they should not be persecuted for something over which they have no control.