Menopause — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:20 pm on 9th June 2022.

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Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 3:20 pm, 9th June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Carolyn Harris on once again securing a debate on this important issue. It is good to see all four nations represented here this afternoon and both men and women involved in the debate. It is my wedding anniversary today, and it is a pleasure to share it with Jim Shannon and to show our continuing working relationship—[Laughter.]

To reassure hon. Members, progress has been made since the debate held by the hon. Member for Swansea East last October. It was one of the first debates I took part in as a new Minister, and I can honestly say that virtually every day since then we have worked on many of the issues addressed in that debate to improve outcomes for women going through the menopause. This is an important issue for me not only because it is a key priority area in my portfolio, but because I went through an early menopause over 10 years ago. Kate Osamor described her struggle to get her GP to take her seriously, but for someone in their 30s it is even more difficult, and it can be a lonely experience if your peers are not going through the same thing. They are busy getting married and having children; they are certainly not talking about hot flushes and not being able to sleep. It can be a very difficult experience. So, for me, this is a personal mission as well as a ministerial one.

I want to reassure colleagues that I absolutely have a laser focus on delivering many of the pledges made in the previous debate. On the cost of HRT, we announced in that debate that we would accept the move towards reducing the costs. It only affects women in England, but it is an important issue. Around 89% of all prescriptions issued in England are free. People qualify for free prescriptions when they are on income support, universal credit, jobseeker’s allowance and pension credit, so the vast majority of people getting general prescriptions are entitled to free prescriptions.

However, women going through the menopause often do not meet those criteria. I fully recognise that the cost is very high, particularly for women who are on two hormones or who have multiple products that they need dispensing. That is why we are committed to introducing the bespoke prepayment certificate for HRT by April next year. It is very different from the prepayment certificates that exist for general medicine. However, there are steps that we have to take. We are expected to consult the professional bodies involved. There will be changes to both dispensing and prescribing. A statutory instrument needs to be laid to make those changes happen. IT changes are also needed to make these things happen in practical terms, so that when women turn up at the chemist, their prescriptions are actually there for them to collect. We are not making excuses, and this will happen by April next year, not from April next year. If we can do it any quicker, we will. The prescription will be £18.70 for all HRT products, whether that is for two hormones or multiple products, and that will be a considerable cost saving for women.

The supply of HRT has been a challenge. We have seen more than a 30% increase in demand, thanks to all the campaigners raising the profile of the menopause but also highlighting the benefits of HRT and breaking the taboos. GPs and doctors were often worried about the safety of HRT, but campaigners have explained that some of the research that was around 10 or 15 years ago is out of date and that HRT is a safe and effective product for many women. So there has been a huge increase in demand. We have met trade suppliers, manufacturers and pharmacists to discuss the challenges they face and to try to overcome them. Of the more than 70 products that are available, we are now down to pressures on three or four, and even with those we are seeing significant progress.

Claire Hanna asked for an update. Maddy McTernan, the head of HRT supply, updated the taskforce this week. We are making good progress. There is commercially sensitive information, which we cannot share, but manufacturers are stepping up to the plate to produce extra supplies. It is not about meeting the demand now. Demand will continue to grow, and we need to future-proof to ensure that we are not in the same situation in six months.

The prepayment certificate will also help. Women will no longer have to try to get a prescription for three or four months in order to keep the cost down. They will be able to get a monthly supply and not have to pay an increased cost for doing so. That will help manage supplies overall. We have also introduced three serious shortage protocols for the three products, so that we can manage the amount that is being dispensed and have better stock control. It will also give powers to pharmacists to give alternative products. That is not always ideal, because I know that some women notice instantly a difference in the effect of a drug, even if it is the same drug but with a change in manufacturer. It is not ideal, but it is helping us get through this acute period, and it will enable us to better control stocks in the longer term. We will be updating colleagues as we go through this, and Maddy and the team from BEIS have been helping us hugely with that.

The UK menopause taskforce that has been set up was one of the asks from Feryal Clark; it was not a Government suggestion. We agreed to it and have had our second meeting. There are four key areas where we want to make recommendations. Those include education—for women, men, boys and girls, and healthcare professionals too. The taskforce will also look at the workplace, health provision, and research into areas such as testosterone, where we need to be breaking some barriers.

In the short time I have, I would like to touch on the workplace issue, which is crucial. One of the key things about the taskforce is that it is not just about health. We have a BEIS Minister and an employment Minister, and we are going to invite, as was suggested earlier, a Minister from Justice as well so that we reach out to all women affected by the menopause. I am really pleased that the civil service led the way this week when we signed Wellbeing of Women’s menopause workplace pledge. That will not just help women in the civil service who are going through the menopause it is to show other employers the sorts of small changes, such as the pink fan mentioned by Jim Shannon, that can make a big difference. It will also enable women and employers to feel confident to have those discussions at work. As my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken said, these women are in the prime of life. We have women with extraordinary experience and talent who we should be harnessing, not letting go.

We are really serious about improving GP training. It has been difficult for GPs to get that specialist advice and support, as this is a growing area, but the General Medical Council will be including the menopause as part of its licensing assessment, so it will be a core part of training. The NHS England menopause programme will be producing resources for all types of healthcare professionals so that we can make sure that people are trained.

I know I have to let the hon. Member for Swansea East come back in—