Menopause — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:02 pm on 9th June 2022.

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Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member) 3:02 pm, 9th June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson—also for the first time, I believe. I join other Members in thanking Carolyn Harris for securing the debate and informing us all so well on the subject. Her contributions on this matter through the years have clearly made a big impact in this place, and I commend her for that.

Those with an old-fashioned mindset will perhaps look at me standing here and say, “You are a man. What do you know about the menopause? What has it to do with you?” There are many more out there who would agree with that position—that is the current reality—but I say to those people that, as the son of a beloved mother and the father of a daughter first and foremost, conditions that affect women and girls today are just as important to me as any that I might face due to my being a man. That is why I did not hesitate to come along to today’s debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. Hearing the valuable contributions of Members and others from across society can only help my understanding and, hopefully in turn, that of my constituents.

Understanding is the key to this whole debate. It both puzzles and worries me that although women make up half of our population, the menopause remains a taboo subject: one that we will not mention, shrouded in stigma, hidden away, and perhaps even leaving feelings of shame being common. In particular, we as men cannot allow ignorance of conditions affecting the other sex—the women in our lives—to pose a danger to their health and mental wellbeing or their happiness. Also, why should women be made to feel that the men in their life might not want to be bothered talking about the often debilitating effects that the menopause is having on them? That shushing-up mentality must stop, and men can play their part in that.

The veil that too often covers discussions about the menopause is damaging for women who are experiencing it. There are often health and wellbeing implications to the menopause, and if those symptoms are even acknowledged at all, they are often dismissed as “women’s troubles”. Few men probably realise that the menopause can have a serious physical and psychological impact on women. I have heard my own mum refer to “the change of life”. As a man, the term “the change of life” seems to be a pretty dramatic and traumatic thing, so why do we just dismiss it out of hand in the manner that we do?

We have heard today from the hon. Member for Swansea East about the HRT lottery being experienced, particularly in deprived areas. I am so proud of the Scottish Government and their policy of abolishing prescription charges. This is exactly why policies like that matter. Caroline Nokes outlined the obstacles to career progression and the financial implications that can be caused by the menopause throughout a lady’s life and, indeed, her career. Kate Osamor outlined her experiences and the impact of the matter and the attitudes around the discussions that need to be had within our communities, across all these nations and across ethnic diversities. I thank all hon. Members today for their excellent contributions.

On top of the abolition of prescription charges and the introduction of free sanitary products in schools and community buildings across Scotland, I am proud to say once again that progressive action has been taken by the Scottish Government on the matter of menopause, because shying away from the issues that matter will not help the people to which they matter most of all: the women in our individual lives and the women who power the four nations of the United Kingdom. With a focus on earlier education about the menopause, the Scottish school curriculum includes meaningful learning about this vitally important subject. Our younger generation can now learn and grasp why menopause understanding is vital, seeing it as a relevant health condition. I would like to hear the Minister’s plans in that respect. What action are the UK Government taking now and in future to educate and involve younger persons in the discussion?

Supplementing that educational work, in August 2021 the SNP Scottish Government published a new women’s health plan, which set out 66 individual actions to ensure that all women enjoy the best possible healthcare, suited to their needs throughout their lives. Instead of making decisions behind closed doors, the real-life experiences of women are sought out and considered, recognising the importance of their feedback in effective policy making. From that, the menopause specialists network was established, whereby primary care teams meet on a regular basis to provide specialist, consistent and updated advice and training. This is what effective policy looks like: putting power into the hands of those most affected by the menopause, and enabling them to input and inform the best outcomes for their own lives.

Scotland is providing more than just hope to women that the menopause is to be seen as a normal thing and everyone in the health community is there to support them. I know the Minister here takes note of the outstanding work being done in Scotland on other matters. I hope that she will do the same on menopause matters as well.

We also note that implications of the menopause, unfortunately, display themselves most of all in the workplace. Those experiencing the menopause are the fastest growing demographic in the workplace. Recent data found that 62% of women report being stigmatised by their employers for requesting leave or specialised support to deal with their early menopausal years. Too many employers are choosing to take an ageist and outdated approach to specific healthcare needs and are, frankly, in grave danger of losing out on exceptional talent and experience by taking the decision to treat older women differently from other staff.

Although employment law is a reserved matter, the Scottish Government are working to make our country a fair work nation, where all employers will offer flexible working and support equal working practices by 2025. Jim Shannon mentioned the pink fan. Those are all matters that need to be taken on board to make the workplace a more practical place for women going through the menopause.

I believe that the UK Government could go further. If they need any inspiration, they can look to our European counterparts. Spain has recently made landmark changes in introducing menstrual leave, whereby employers make workplaces a comfortable place for women to support them from a medical perspective and also take necessary time out for painful periods or menopausal symptoms. I urge the Government to take similar action. If we want to reflect the growing awareness of employee health and wellbeing and to prioritise it, we must integrate such progressive approaches into our entire working culture, rather than depending on individual businesses taking individual actions.

Lastly, as a man, I want to see the Government normalise the menopause discussion and make it a conversation we can all have openly, before finding and offering the solutions we know are required. I want to see more men in this place and across wider society speak up for women and stand in solidarity with them for fair treatment by employers, in particular on matters such as the menopause. We will all experience gender-specific issues in life. The more we learn about and understand those issues, the better we, as a society, can effectively deal with them, for the good of us all.