I remind Members that under the new procedures,the proposer and seconder have a combined total time of 16 minutes. I call Senator Clifford-Lee.
Free Provision of Period Products Bill 2021: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I will be sharing my time with Senator O'Loughlin, who will second the Bill.
I warmly welcome colleagues, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, and all those who are watching this debate online. Because of our reduced number many Members could not come to the Chamber but I know many of them are tuning in tonight. Today is an historic day. The Second Stage debate of a Bill is always significant as it allows Members to discuss the general principle of a Bill and to find common ground and purpose. It is a fitting tribute to the women, girls and trans people of Ireland that we are gathered here this evening to discuss the topic of period poverty. As we know, it is they who have suffered the disproportionate economic pain of the pandemic, leading to an even further widening of gender and economic inequality in Ireland. In addition to the economic hit, they are holding households together, undertaking the majority domestic and home-schooling tasks and, unfortunately, domestic violence has increased.
The progress of this Bill and the continuing of the wider conversation around period justice is another step on the road to dealing with our historically dysfunctional relationship with female reproductive health in Ireland. We have a lot of catching up to do. There has also been an historic underfunding of female healthcare in this country. The passing of this Bill and the establishment of a free period product scheme would be a significant investment in female public health. It would also send a strong signal to the world that Ireland can be a world leader when it comes to gender and reproductive health and rights issues, and that Ireland is a good place for women, girls and trans people.
Period poverty refers to an inadequate access to period products, washing, waste management facilities and education. This leads to many adverse consequences. It is estimated that between 53,000 and 85,000 women, girls and trans people in Ireland are at risk of period poverty. However, the true level of period poverty is not known due to the historic shame and stigma associated with menstruation and the lack of data on the issue. Those at particular risk are people in active addiction, people who are homeless and those in abusive and controlling relationships. One-parent families are at particular risk of consistent poverty and this also includes period poverty. This also applies to members of the Traveller and Roma communities, as well as other minorities, as it is recognised they are the most marginalised people in Ireland. However, we know period poverty stretches beyond these groups and, therefore, I welcome the data gathering recommendation contained in the recently released report of the period poverty sub-committee of the national strategy for women and girls because it is only with this information we can truly address the issue comprehensively. I wish to acknowledge the work of all those involved in the sub-committee, as well as all those who gave their time and expertise to the committee.
The direct health impacts of period poverty include an increased risk of infection due to the use of improvised products, infrequent changing of products and toxic shock syndrome. The inability to access suitable volumes of period products can lead to leakage, risking embarrassment, which then leads to people missing school, college, work and necessary appointments, and it reduces female participation in sport and other community activities.
Plan International Ireland undertook a survey of 1,100 girls in Ireland between the ages of 12 and 19 in 2018. It found that approximately 50% of respondents occasionally experience period poverty, with 10% using unsuitable products as a result of cost barriers. It also found that 61% reported absence from school as a result of their period and 70% needed pain relief. It is known that girls' participation in school rapidly declines at the onset of puberty and it is my belief that period poverty plays a significant role in this decline.
There are wider health impacts of the lack of knowledge and also the typical issues associated with menstrual health. Endometriosis affects 10% of women, but they often find that when they seek medical help their pain is dismissed as simply being a period pain and they face a long uphill battle to get a diagnosis and treatment. I have spoken to several women suffering with endometriosis and they were all of the belief that it is only when we break down the stigma and speak about periods as a normal part of life that awareness around endometriosis can increase.
The provision of free period products would help reverse the gender inequality that is so apparent when one considers the burden of costs associated with managing routine reproductive biology, which nearly always falls on women, girls and trans people. It is bizarre to think that toilet paper, soap and paper towels are universally provided in public toilets, but period products are not. The system was clearly designed by men but now is our chance to design the system.
Many people played a part in getting period poverty onto the political agenda. I thank them all for their campaigning and action on the issue. The 2019 motions in the Seanad and Dáil tabled by the Irish Women's Parliamentary Caucus was a significant development in the fight for period justice. The cross-party motions were passed unanimously and led to the establishment of the period poverty sub-committee of the national strategy of women and girls, to which I referred. The sub-committee published its report today and it is a welcome step on the journey to achieving period justice. The programme for Government made a commitment on period poverty, which was an historic first for an Irish Government.
Local authorities around the country have passed motions highlighting period poverty and committing to providing free period products in buildings operated by them. Many of the motions were tabled by my colleagues in Fianna Fáil who are on councils across the country, so I want to give them a particular mention today. I also acknowledge that Senator Moynihan tabled one such motion when she was a member of Dublin City Council. I commend her and her colleagues in the Labour Party on their work on this issue and sponsoring a Bill on the topic. Senator O'Loughlin played a significant role in getting the cross-party motions tabled in 2019, along with the then chair of the women's caucus and now the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin. Senator Boylan raised the issue in the European Parliament when she was an MEP. That was very much welcomed at the time. All of our efforts have resulted in this issue being progressed to this point. Go raibh míle maith acu go léir. Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.
I will turn now to the Bill, the Free Provision of Period Products Bill 2021. The Bill requires the Minister for Health to establish a scheme to provide free period products for all who need them. The Bill allows for the development of a scheme for the provision of period products, which is suitable for the Irish experience. It is based on the recommendations in the report of the sub-committee, the 2019 cross-party motion and the commitment relating to period product provision contained in the programme for Government. The Bill requires the Minister for Health to lay the scheme, when drafted, before the Seanad and the Dáil so that Members can approve or reject it. This is significant as it gives parliamentarians oversight of the scheme to control its shape now and in the future.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the other Ministers in the Department of Health for their robust support of the Bill. I also thank the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, and the other members of the Cabinet for their support. Having strong political backing is essential for a sufficiently funded scheme to operate and serve the people who so desperately need this to become a reality.
I look forward to hearing all the contributions this evening and I hope to progress the Bill on a cross-party basis with support through the women's caucus. We should not play politics with periods. Nobody wants to hear negativity tonight. We should work together to deliver as quickly as possible for the women, girls and trans people of Ireland.
I am very proud and honoured to second the Bill brought forward by my colleague, Senator Clifford-Lee. I thank her for all of the work and consultation that she has undertaken to bring the Bill before us tonight. I say that both as a Fianna Fáil colleague and as chair of the women's caucus.
It is almost two years since the women's caucus decided to put a cross-party motion on period poverty to the Dáil. That motion was subsequently debated in the Seanad. It is great that less than two years later, the report is published today, we have this Bill in front of us and a commitment on the issue in the programme for Government, which my party and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sports and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, and her party ensured was included. The Bill that is before us is a natural progression of that effort.
According to research conducted by Plan International Ireland, 50% of women between the ages of 12 and 19 struggle to afford sanitary products. I was absolutely shocked when I came across that statistic two years ago. It is very hard to imagine that approximately half of young women in Ireland and, indeed, some older women and trans men, cannot afford a basic product. Another thing that I discovered two years ago, as part of an exercise in which we looked at how many times menstruation had been mentioned in the Dáil record over the previous 100 years, was that it was mentioned 27 times. That shows the lack of debate on periods, which are a very normal part of girls' and women's lives. When menstruation was mentioned, it was in the context of fertility as opposed to an individual's health and well-being. That was worrying because period poverty is a real issue for women in Ireland. It is good to see the debate we are now having and not one but two Bills on the issue. It is also good to see women around the country, including councillors in Dublin, Longford and Kilkenny, putting this matter on the agenda and ensuring we have a debate on it. It is an issue of equality and dignity as well as one of trying to ensure that all women have access to the products they need. There is an element of poverty, with women who are living in poor conditions finding it difficult for many reasons, particularly in the context of their own dignity.
I pay particular tribute to Claire Hunt, who is pretty much a one-woman show in running the Homeless Period Ireland organisation. She has been doing tremendous work for years. Two years ago, she gave a presentation in the Oireachtas audiovisual room on the impact period poverty has on many women. It was wonderful to see so many schools involved in that initiative. There were pupils from two schools, in counties Meath and Cavan, in attendance at the presentation who were doing projects for the Young Social Innovators awards. That is really to be commended.
There is a massive stigma surrounding periods and the cost of period products. That has very real consequences. As well as the finding that 50% of women and young girls found it difficult to afford products, the Plan International Ireland survey also found that 61% of Irish girls have missed school because of their period. That is absolutely shocking. If 61% of any student cohort said that they had missed school because of some type of virus, it would be a national emergency.
Opening up the conversation, as well as providing free sanitary products, brings greater dignity and well-being to women and girls. Those of us in the women's caucus were delighted to have the opportunity to bring attention to the issue. We will be having a meeting tomorrow to discuss what we have achieved in the past two years. It is very timely that this Bill, which was sponsored by Senator Clifford-Lee, is before us this evening. Periods are an entirely normal part of life for every woman worldwide. Both the UN and the leading NGO, Human Rights Watch, have repeatedly recognised menstrual hygiene as a human right.
They have said that irrespective of income, background or circumstance every woman should have access to sanitary products in a discreet and dignified way. No woman should be left unable to manage her period. It is an issue and a matter of promoting and maintaining public health. It is an important conversation we need to have in the Seanad and Dáil and on the streets as well as in schools, communities, homes and offices.
The progressive legislation we are discussing today is welcome. It will be a major public health measure. It is welcome that the Government is supporting the Bill. Irrespective of what anyone says, no one woman or particular party owns this issue. This is an issue for all women and young girls of Ireland and of course for trans men. There are many different conversations that we need to have.
Gloria Steinem once said that the world would be a very different place if men had periods. I think she is absolutely right. If men had periods I do not believe we would be having this particular debate at this time. The debate is continuing around the world. We know that in Scotland a little over two years ago Ms Nicola Sturgeon was the first First Minister to introduce legislation supporting period poverty. Other countries have taken that example and I look forward to Ireland taking that lead and progressing the legislation we have before us. Again, I thank my colleague, Senator Clifford-Lee, and I look forward to the debate and to further support.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for attending. I note the press release issued by the half of the Department to which he is referenced. The press release refers to the launching of the Period Poverty in Ireland report. It is timely, wise and pragmatic - whatever we like to call it - that it should be today given what we have on the agenda.
I wish to acknowledge some important points that need to be looked at and addressed. It is positive and welcome. I thank Senators Clifford-Lee and O'Loughlin for using their Private Members' time for this important issue. It is an important issue. It is important that we have engagement and a conversation.
While I have heard people talking about this being a matter for women and girls - and it is - it is also a matter for men. We have male teachers in our schools. I heard a story from a mother of someone who works here. She told me today that her 11 year old was in school last year. The gym teacher blew a whistle and called to two of the students and said they were out. The reason was they were having their periods. The humiliation and the stigma they felt were acute. Considerable learning is needed and conversations need to be had.
I wish to acknowledge the work of Senator Moynihan of the Labour Party. She has done a good deal of work on this issue in the past two years. She was the champion of this in local government and in Dublin City Council especially.
The two Bills are considerably different in size and content. Senator Clifford-Lee talked about accepting or rejecting the Bill. There is a middle ground. There is accepting the Bill, rejecting the Bill and, more important, amending the Bill. The Bill will need polishing up - we all accept that. We need to bring more to the Bill. It is right to point out that no one owns this tranche of important work. We all need to bring our experiences and stories as well as the stories of other people's experiences to this debate. I welcome that and I believe it is an important point and one that needs to be made.
For too many people and for too long menstruation has been a hidden topic dealt with in silence, rarely spoken about and then only in female company. Menstruation is the most natural thing in the world. That is a simple sentence and I do not understand why that somehow has not been got out, because it is really important. It is hard to believe that the stigma of shame still exists around the natural female bodily function of menstruation in some families.
Remember that in some families this is an issue. It is not talked about in schools, workplaces or, dare I say it, in care settings. Recently, I spoke to someone whose daughter had a mild disability and was in care. Again, she felt ashamed and got no help or support or the appropriate sanitary care that she required and needed. This is a broader and bigger issue that is important.
Multiple barriers exist, such as the lack of emergency supplies of menstrual products, bins for disposal and simple warm water and soap in some of our schools. People keep speaking about secondary schools. I spoke about the girl of 11. This is not just 12, 13 and 14-year-old girls. Let us be realistic. We are speaking about girls and women. We need the support. They should not feel ashamed or that there is a stigma.
I am very aware of the work that Plan International has done. It was interesting to read in its report some examples of girls whom it spoke to and the feedback in its latest survey. One girl said when she is bleeding she does not go to school. Another said when she first arrived at the training centre they did not have anything and that she felt ashamed to mention what she thought was her problem but that perhaps it was their problem. Another said that when she grew up in care she did not get the assistance, the support or the care required for her severe endometriosis. She felt ashamed and dirty and thought she was going to die. These are real words, real conversation and real stories that young girls have had to tell.
The language in the Plan International report is interesting as it is overwhelmingly negative, and this was commented on in the survey. Words such as "annoying", "inconvenient", "painful", "hurtful" and "uncomfortable" were used. When describing the start of menstruation, words and phrases such as "scared" and "horrible" were used. One person said she had no idea and not a clue what was going on and not a clue what was going to happen. She said she was shocked, confused, embarrassed and unprepared. What does this tell us about our schools and about our families, social services and care services? We need to have a conversation.
There was a mention of Scotland. I am on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and I have had some talks with the Scottish National Party on this issue through a social committee on which I was involved. At the end of the day, I want girls and women to know it is okay to talk about their periods and to have easy access to a safe and, more importantly, an appropriate range of products, and people know what I mean by this. There should be an appropriate range of products suitable to their needs and their choice. Choice is so important.
I thank the proposers of the Bill. I thank everyone who has brought it forward today. We need a broader conversation, and what is more important is that it is not all about schools. It is about workplaces. It is about this workplace and it is today. Go to the bathrooms and see what is on offer. This is the challenge. If we start here, within weeks we will see progress. We do not need legislation to tell us to put in place facilities for women or girls visiting here with their mothers or guardians. We start here and we roll out the appropriate sanitary requirements that girls and women need, and we end the taboo and speak about what is the most natural thing in the world.
I welcome the Bill to the House and commend Senator Clifford-Lee on tabling it. As a matter of fact, it was not long after the Senator was elected to the House in 2017 that she spoke on this issue and highlighted it. It is good to see that Bills are finally coming to the House on such an important issue. The motions that came before the Seanad and the Dáil in 2019 set the agenda. In my opinion, it was far too late but at least it set the agenda. I acknowledge my colleague, Senator Seery Kearney, who has also been campaigning on this issue for a long time, as has Senator Moynihan.
The work done by Dublin City Council and all of the other councils is commendable. I would like to see it rolled out to every council in the country.
It is important that men speak about this issue. There is a phenomenal level of ignorance among males when it comes to this issue. This is not, to a large extent, the fault of the male. Rather, it is the fault of the education system and sex education which, in my view, has been pitifully poor in this country for decades. I agree with everything Senator Boyhan said and the eloquent manner in which he said it. What he said is true and accurate.
It is shocking that globally 50% of women experience period poverty. This should not exist in our society and it needs to be eliminated as a matter of urgency. This is a serious political issue. I agree this House needs to come together on it. It is not a political football but a political issue that needs to be dealt with. I am glad it is in the programme for Government. I do not know who is responsible for it being in the programme, but I acknowledge the sentiment and commitment in this regard among all parties in government and in opposition. Let us come together and put through this House legislation that can then be considered by Dáil Éireann and become the law of the land, thus requiring the Government to honour the commitment in the programme for Government to deal with this important issue.
I, too, have heard stories of females with serious disabilities and the challenges they face. The report issued today is welcome. I have only had time to scan through it because it only became available this afternoon. According to one statistic, the cost associated with period poverty is €100, which is in addition to the pain associated with periods.
I thank everyone who has led on this issue over the years. As I have only two and a half minutes, I cannot name everyone. This Bill and the Labour Party Bill relate to the provision of free period products, but they are also about social change in a country that will no longer accept the stigmatisation of menstruation, taboos around women's health or their bodies. Bodies and what they do is not something to be controlled, but accepted as natural and normal in all of our wonderful diversity and difference. Stigmatisation is a barrier to good health and gender equality. We see this across the board in women's health in regard to contraception, sexual health, breast-feeding and so on. This is the reason the national strategy for women and girls is so important and must be kept at the top of the agenda.
Accessibility of period products is as important as provision. Half of all teenagers and women between the ages of 12 and 19 have had difficulty paying for sanitary products. I am glad the programme for Government includes a commitment to provide them in all publicly-funded educational settings, but as provided for in the Bills and the report, we can and should go further than that. Supports for high-risk groups, including refugees, members of the Traveller community and the homeless are a must. Accessibility of products in addiction services, refuges, Garda stations, hospitals, primary care centres, public buildings and services, community centres, leisure centres and council buildings is a must. It is not just about providing the products; it is about having them in places where people need them. The lack of accessible public infrastructure must be called out as a potential issue. The lack of public toilets in this country is appalling. It is a barrier to good hygiene and health for all. In Dublin West, I am aware of a public toilet in Blanchardstown retail park and in SuperValu in the shopping centre in Roselawn. That is all. This causes a huge amount of anxiety for people. There are excellent public toilets in St. Catherine's Park, close to the playground, but only limited public toilets in the Phoenix Park, an issue I am frequently contacted about. This is also an issue raised by tourists in Dublin. This needs to change. This issue has come to prominence during Covid-19 because people cannot rely on private facilities and not everyone can do that when they are open.
There are two new public toilets in Dublin city centre, so we know the demand is there. As other countries manage to provide public toilets, why can we not do so? Other countries also manage to provide changing places. Apparently, there are 15 changing places in Ireland. There are 1,500 of them in England and 40 in the North. Public spaces say much about who we are, who we accept, who we welcome, what we accept and what we prioritise.
I would like to say much more but I will finish on this. One of the recommendations in tomorrow's report should be that a survey be conducted in respect of existing public toilet infrastructure, lessons internationally and how we can empower and enable local authorities to install public toilets where they are necessary. I thank all the players present today.
I welcome this debate and I welcome that the issue of access to period products is being discussed in the House. That said, I am disappointed that the reason the Government has at last raised the issue is because of a rushed Bill in response to one I introduced. This is a Government Bill that has been considered at Cabinet but it is unlikely to be constitutional because it delegates power to a Minister without setting proper procedures, principles and policies for any regulations being introduced, as is required in the context of delegated legislation. I have no doubt that this legislation was tabled in response to my Bill. I am disappointed that we could not work on a cross-party basis to put substantial, comprehensive legislation in place and, more importantly, a comprehensive, effective scheme to help all those who use period products, regardless of their circumstances.
Many people in this House have worked on this issue for a long time. In particular, Senator Boylan was very much to the forefront in the European Parliament, as was her colleague on South Dublin County Council.
A Bill enabling the Minister to develop a limited scheme does not go far enough. That is clearly the indication coming from the Government's report issued today, which shows it has decided that yet more debate, more research and more can-kicking are needed. However, I want to see this issue progressed, because I fundamentally believe in period justice and universal access to free period products. To that end, I will seek to amend and campaign for whatever Bill emerges from the Government.
I do not simply want a limited scheme in order that the Government can say it has addressed the issue of period poverty without considering period justice, dignity and the stigma associated with periods. I fundamentally believe in universal access to period products and that we need to stop treating period products as if they are any different from the other basic hygiene products that we find in toilets, such as toilet roll or soap. These are basic hygiene products and those who use and need them deserve respect.
When I was a member of Dublin City Council, I pressed for a scheme to provide free period products and then got money allocated in the budget for it. I did this not on the basis of limited access, but on the basis that it would be available in all our buildings in Dublin city. The Government report released today confirms that this was not abused and that people did not use it to replace the normal period products they use.
When the Minister of State leaves his house for the day, he does not pop in his bag a roll of toilet paper or put a few sheets in his back pocket just in case. Nobody talks about toilet paper poverty and there are no reports recommending that more data needs to be collected on the use of toilet paper because it is considered to be a basic hygiene product that we all understand should be universally provided. Every single Government building has it, as does every single school, every social welfare office, every library, every recreation centre and every swimming pool. In recent months, every shop or building we enter has had a hand sanitiser dispenser available because we decided that it was up to everyone to provide the products needed to help stop the spread of the virus which has changed our world.
In 2019, the climate action plan provided that no Government agency or Department should buy single-use plastics. The shared facilities management unit had to implement this and it has now been extended it to all the bodies under the aegis of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. When it comes to period products, however, it has taken over a year to come up with a report suggesting that more data is needed when it is not.
In contrast to this one-liner of a Bill, I introduced legislation to make period products free of charge in schools, educational facilities and public service bodies.
We underpinned the obligation to provide period products with core principles such as ease of access and respecting the dignity of those using them; ensuring that people had a choice of products; promoting environmental sustainability, such as the use of non-plastic options; and, most important, ongoing consultation with users about what they want. At this stage I thank Ms Monica Lennon, a member of the Scottish Parliament who introduced legislation there and who has helped us.
This is not perfect legislation and more work is needed, which is why I wanted to engage cross-party support, contacting the women's caucus and cross-party group on reproductive health. Instead, the Government has decided to formulate its own Bill, which is fair enough, but it could have put in more work. We have been engaging with groups all over the country on the wider matter and more than 3,000 people have responded to a survey in this process. I will use the experience of those people and groups when drafting amendments. It is the experience of the people who use period products that matters.
Hear, hear. Well done.
I am not sure I want to go on after Senator Moynihan's contribution. I thank the Senators and commend them on putting forward Bills on this matter, along with all the people who have done work for a long time on this. I also mention everybody who has been experiencing periods all their lives and knows first-hand these difficulties. I know many, like me, had to approach strangers for help in getting this essential service as teenagers because they did not have any pocket money. It is correct to say it should be like toilet paper, which we do not pay for in a public facility.
We have spoken much about the pain and shame but menstruation is a celebration as well, and we very rarely talk about that aspect. It is a celebration not just of life giving but of who we are. How we operate in the world is based around our cycles or not having those cycles. One of the key aspects of this report concerns stigma. If we are saying there is no stigma, it is not just that there is no stigma around pain but that there is no stigma around the joy in being a person with a menstrual cycle and what this has to offer the world as well. It is a closeness to nature and connection with other species and how we are natural beings. It is a key part of this discussion.
It has not been mentioned but it is important to look on period products from an environmental aspect as well. Many years ago I was converted to using reusable products and I have not had to purchase a product for years. We need to take this into consideration, regardless of which Bill we go for or which recommendations we follow. The matter is not considered to a sufficient degree as €25 will buy something that will last for years while doing no damage to the environment. We must think creatively about how we deal with this. These are not products that can be picked up in a public toilet but it should be free.
In the same way, I know many people have spoken about contraceptives and I tabled a motion relating to free contraceptives when the Minister of State came to the House previously. Senator Clifford-Lee has done work on free access to contraceptives as well and the women's caucus has worked on all these matters. It is a key consideration and with contraceptives, for example, it should not just be a case of allowing people to pick up a condom, which is the cheapest option. We should think about what suits a woman or a person at a particular time. It may be a different product.
More work is required on this but, as a first step, we need to make sure the people who really need a certain product are catered for.
The report states that between 53,000 and 85,000 people are at risk of period poverty. Those people need to be dealt with as soon as possible. We need to think creatively. I am not attached to the outcome but to the actual result for women and girls and for transgender and intersex individuals. I am attached to ensuring everybody has access. We must think long term about the kinds of commitments we need to make to our planet and to people's pockets. That includes the pocket of the State because, as we said about contraceptives, it is actually cheaper in the long run if the State forks out up front for something that might cost a little more. It will save it money.
I thank the Fianna Fáil women for introducing this Bill. The deputy leader of the Green Party, Deputy Catherine Martin, has done significant work on this for a long time, as have many of my colleagues. I also thank Senator Moynihan for introducing a Bill. It is quite correct to say neither Bill is perfect. This is Second Stage, however, not Committee Stage, so we should all work together. Forty percent of Members of this Chamber are women. That is why we are seeing all these things flying at us from every angle. Is it not great to see that we can all work together on these issues?
I now want to hand over the Chair to the chairperson of the women's caucus, which has championed this cause. It has done so not for one woman but on behalf of all women. That 50% of women have not been able to afford a product that is so basic and needed all the time brings shame to this country. I hope this legislation and the proposals made by Senators and Members of the European Parliament, including motions, will mean this will no longer be the case. It should not be a case of having more studies and reports. I hope this is about action. I am happy to hand over the Chair to the person who is leading the parliamentary caucus for the country, Senator O'Loughlin. I thank the Senator.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his kind words. I call Senator Boylan to speak.
What a shame it is that Ms Claire Hunt from Homeless Period Ireland cannot be here today because she has, from her kitchen table, provided menstrual dignity to thousands. She has sought no plaudits or awards. In fact, all she wants is for Homeless Period Ireland not to exist. When the cross-party motion was passed in the Dáil and Seanad, it was seen as a really positive step towards making this happen. All political parties were on board to ensure no one who menstruates should have to exclude themselves from daily activities due to an inability to access period products.
The events of the past fortnight have been so disappointing because it seems that period poverty Bills are like buses now in that, after waiting ages for one, two come along at once. In this case, however, we were all informed about the first one. In fact, the driver, Senator Moynihan, invited us all on board to make sure that it was fit for purpose and that our experiences of working on the issue could be incorporated when it came to any amendments. I guess that, as they say in politics, we are where we are. Sinn Féin will support the Bill today. It will work with anybody and everybody over the coming months to make sure the amendments that are essential are passed to improve the legislation.
The issue of period poverty is part and parcel of the broader issue of poverty in society. It is the condition of not having enough money to live one's life. If people are living in poverty, it cannot be compartmentalised. It affects every part of people's lives, including how people feel about themselves.
I have been a volunteer driver with Homeless Period Ireland for a number of years and the places to which period products are delivered are not stand-alone facilities, set up only to distribute period products. They are food banks, domestic violence refuges, direct provision centres, homeless charities and addiction services. The Department of Health period poverty report flagged that while we, apparently, do not have enough data on the scale of period poverty, we know that there are probably between 53,000 and 85,000 people at risk of period poverty. While the Bill is indeed welcome, recognising the issue of poverty and how it disproportionately impacts women and girls is a critical part of the solution.
An ESRI report showed that from 2008, budgetary policies, including changes to the tax and benefits system, hit lone parents harder. It left women with greater income reductions than men. These were Government decisions that pushed women into period poverty. The period poverty report also noted that there was a significant incidence of period poverty among those experiencing homelessness and addiction, those living in abusive relationships and minority and ethnic communities. We know for a fact that the number of women in every one of those categories has increased this year. More than 2,000 women are rough sleeping and that does not include the women in Tusla facilities, religious shelters, or who have a right to remain in the country but are stuck in direct provision services. That brings the figure closer to 3,000. Direct provision services have existed in this country since 1999 but it was only in 2019 that the Government saw fit to provide period products to them. I do not know what the Government expected the women to use until then. Even then, because the direct provision model we have in this State is a for-profit model, those running the centres sourced the cheapest products available so that they could profit on the back of women bleeding.
For the women living in abusive relationships and at risk of period poverty, there is a lack of refuge spaces. There is not a single space in nine counties because they do not have a domestic violence refuge at all. With all the gusto that is being shown regarding period poverty, I hope to see the same enthusiasm in addressing the systemic issue of poverty.
I will move on to the other purpose of this Bill, which relates to the need for access to be universal because, as Senator Moynihan said, universality is an important part of addressing the stigma and shame around menstruation. We help to break that down through the visibility and accessibility of products. Universal access brings an end to the days of shoving the tampon up a sleeve or having to ask friends or strangers if they have spares, regardless of incomes. Universal access in every bathroom across the country normalises what is a normal biological process that has been stigmatised by years of misogynistic culture. Access to choice is also important, as is a commitment to demanding more sustainable products and practices from the manufacturers.
When I worked on the single-use plastic directive in Europe, rather than regulate the manufacturing companies to reduce the plastic content, the Commission wanted to increase the taxes on them, further punishing women for being women. We need to put pressure on the EU to reform the VAT system on the newer period products so there are no punitive taxes. We also need reform in the manner in which it regulates period products because greater transparency is also needed in labelling and further research into products.
I welcome the Bill and the manner in which it came about. We all need to work together. I hope that the Chairperson will give me the benefit of a couple of seconds to read two verses of a poem by Salena Godden:
You should see what I made red
You should see what I made red
You should see my art
The sheets, the sheets, the sheets
I made all the sheets red
All the bed a pool of red heat
This blood does not come from violence
This blood does not come from murder
This blood is not my death
And yet this blood disgusts us the most
More than any blood
More than the blood on the hands of man's bloody war
This blood disgusts us most
This shameful blood, this quiet blood
Shush! Don't mention the lady blood
Shush! Don't mention this discreet blue lady blood.
I commend Senator Clifford-Lee on tabling this Bill which tackles the everyday injustices felt by people during their menstruation cycles. It is essential that in 2021 we see legislation to end the prominent problem of period poverty in support of women's rights. Periods are not a luxury. They are an everyday life reality and there should be absolutely no barriers to accessing the necessary sanitary products for all people who have periods. It is shameful that there are young people with periods who intentionally avoid attending school owing to the lack of sanitary products. This is a problem that can be tackled with the correct legislation.
In 2021, it should not be the case that people who do not have access to money are missing out on basic sanitary products. We can reduce and eradicate the levels of period poverty in our lifetime. To do that, we require legislation that aims to make meaningful change for those who menstruate. It is a part of everyday life and we must have period justice for all people. United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 33/10 stated that the lack of menstrual health management and the stigma associated with menstruation both have a negative impact on gender equality and the enjoyment by women, girls and trans people of human rights, including the right to education and health. I am delighted that the Departments of Health and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth have jointly launched a report examining the prevalence and impact of period poverty in Ireland in line with the recommendations of Oireachtas motions passed in early 2019.
Period poverty is a very real and persistent problem in Ireland, one that unfortunately carries with it the weight of considerable shame and stigma. The reality is that 800 million women, girls and trans people menstruate every day. It has been calculated that the average cost of period products alone in Ireland is up to €130, just in respect of the menstrual cycle. This is before the additional costs for pain management, contraceptives and laundry bills are factored into the calculation. This is a major additional financial burden, which can be unmanageable for the most vulnerable in society.
While I say "well done" to Senator Clifford-Lee, I also commend Senator Moynihan and the Labour Party on having another Bill on the Order Paper. As a group, they have taken tremendous strides in creating comprehensive and thorough legislation that tackles period poverty and ensures the provision of education around the destigmatising of periods for women, girls and trans people who menstruate. It is essential that we implement legislation that follows in the steps of the ground-breaking Scottish Labour Party Bill, on which Monica Lennon, MSP, led. Ireland can and should follow in the footsteps of Scotland, the model for such legislation and its implementation.
It is essential that there is also education provided concerning where these products are available. In 2021, there is no reason that the provision of period products should differ from the provision of soap or toilet rolls in a public building. There are countless examples of young people on lower incomes who struggle to afford tampons and sanitary towels and are forced to resort to using items such as kitchen roll and socks. There are examples, as I mentioned, of young people avoiding school around their period, meaning that they are missing out on their full education and schooling. By providing easily accessible products in our schools, we can protect these girls and give them the same chance as their peers. In this day and age, we should not be in a situation where people are not using the products they need for their periods. For this reason, we need a legal basis to underpin a scenario in which products are freely available in schools, educational institutions funded by the State and public service bodies.
Some 109 of the young women who participated in a survey said they were forced to use a "less suitable sanitary product" because of the high monthly cost involved. Nearly 60% of young women said they did not find classes at school on periods helpful, while six out of ten reported feeling shame and embarrassment about their periods. A small number even said they believed they could lose their virginity by using a tampon, while others did not think it was possible to become pregnant while on their period. Some 61% of Irish girls have missed school because of their periods and more than 80% said they did not feel comfortable talking about their periods with their father or a teacher. Nearly 70% take some form of pain relief during menstruation.
This report clearly highlights the need for education and normalisation regarding periods, as well as removing barriers to accessing these products. I commend the Labour Party's social media campaign, "Bleedin' Justice", to raise awareness of period poverty and the injustices that go with menstruation. It has been highly informative and important in encouraging conversation around this topic, which so many struggle to speak about. As Senator Moynihan said, period injustice can have a detrimental effect on the health and well-being of women, girls and trans people.
The objective of this legislation is that all who menstruate should be able to access period products at no cost as and when they are required. For some reason, period products are treated as a luxury item. Period products are not a luxury item and should be accessible to all who need them. It is common sense that we implement legislation which will ensure that young women in particular can access different types of period products easily and, importantly, can do so with dignity.
Any initiative that alleviates period poverty is to be applauded. Menstruation is an absolute necessity to the very existence of our species and yet we hesitate in speaking about it. Ridiculously, an advertisement that spoke directly and usefully about how to use a tampon was complained about and discontinued - too shocking and too blunt for our moral sensitivities. It speaks of a huge need for education and normalising of the subject and of this most normal of bodily functions.
I was very fortunate to have a very progressive mother who sat me down at the age of ten to give me all of the facts of life in a natural and fabulously normal way. When periods came they were supported and cherished but that is not the case for everyone. Many girls, women, trans and non-binary persons who menstruate experience period poverty in the management of their periods. That is totally unacceptable and it has to stop.
I am very grateful to those who have gone before me in lighting the way to this matter including Plan International Ireland for its considerable work, Homeless Period Ireland for its tireless work and the councils, including Senator Moynihan who, as a councillor, took the decision to supply period products in the past number of years. I am not new to this subject either. I have been active for a considerable amount of time and have worked quietly with others in my close circle of friends in the funding of provision of period products.
It is awful to experience the pain and discomfort of menstruation without being able to deal with it in a manner that is respectful and without shame or embarrassment. I have often wondered what the world would be like if men had periods. Would force majeure leave include the reason of menstruation? Would pain relief be included with period products in the pack? Would period products be open and freely available? Would menstruation still have its obligatory forbearance, shame and embarrassment? I suspect not. Instead, we live in a world where the vast majority of those who menstruate are women, who are more likely to be in the lower income groups, to be the head of lone parent families and to be living in precarious tenure and precarious employment. Consequently, they are more likely to experience period poverty.
Over the past few days, in preparation for the forthcoming debates on the legislation, I conducted an online survey. Of the replies to that, 1% did not believe that it existed, 20% never experienced it and of those who did, 25% do not use formal period products, and one person elaborated to tell me the choices she is obliged to make between feeding her children and other necessary costs over the choice of period products.
In making provisions for period products we need to be very careful about any assumptions we make based on the projection of our own choices. We now have a society that is multicultural and multifaith. Cultural differences mean that the sales of period products are changing, tipping back in favour of sanitary pads from tampons. Those who are conscious of the environmental impact of period products advocate for the use of the menstrual cup, a silicone cup that is inserted to collect menstrual fluid and can be reused safely and hygienically.
The products made available must respect that diversity of choice. So also the entities and organisations chosen to provide those products must not influence that choice. We must enshrine that choice to those who menstruate. The placement of the product must respect the diversity of users, including trans and non-binary menstruating people. Placing them in a women's toilet, therefore, will not be sufficient. Equally, care must be given to ensure the accessibility of all products.
If we are to distribute period products to schools we need to include primary schools to ensure that those menstruating from as young and as early as seven and eight, as reported, are also included. What happens when schools are closed for holidays and, for instance, during this Covid-19 pandemic? How are the products being accessed? Should we be including the provision of period products as part of the medical card entitlement?
I welcome the report published today. It calls for a comprehensive addressing of the issue of stigma and sets out ways in which that might be achieved. The report suggests a pathway to provision via established networks and NGOs and makes sensitive suggestions around that provision. It further suggests solutions on the subject of VAT.
That needs to be addressed at an EU level. I have already contacted our MEPs, Maria Walsh and Frances Fitzgerald, and sought their support in lobbying for member state discretion in the VAT equalisation directive.
The report addresses the fact that funding is required to support any initiative in this area. I believe it is a comprehensive report which provides a pathway for consideration of all of the necessary steps to true period poverty alleviation. I therefore urge that we take on board all that the report urges us to do and find out before we move to the next stage of legislation, so we make sure we have a gold standard of provision that reflects the careful inclusion and consideration that is required. I fear that if we rush, we will end up with merely a nod to provision and tokenism instead of a truly transformative, empowering end to period poverty. We need to be ambitious and be dedicated in that ambition. I hope that it will be a matter of weeks, at most a couple of months, between Second Stage and Committee Stage so that we can ensure a gold standard and end period poverty.
I call Senator Dolan.
I thank the Acting Chairperson. It is great to see her here today as chair of the Irish Women's Parliamentary Caucus. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan. It is clear that there is cross-party support for immediate movement on this matter. I am proud to stand here and I thank my colleagues who have done so much work in introducing this Bill. I am in awe of the work that Senators Clifford-Lee and Moynihan have done here and in councils.
This matter impacts on girls and women and inherent human rights to hygiene, and just not having infections. To think of young girls, women and trans people who cannot afford to purchase what they need for periods or to access pain relief is mind-boggling. We have details from the evidence in this report. There is stigma and people cannot talk about the issue openly, which is a problem. Girls sometimes do not go to school or even stop taking part in sport. We all know about this, that it happened and that it is still happening. I am aware that some sanitary towels and tampons are not subject to VAT but there is still a significant cost.
I welcome this report and its initiation by the Irish Women's Parliamentary Caucus, as well as the incredible work over the 14 months by the sub-committee chaired by the Department of Health, including the international statistics that were gathered. A few statistics really stood out for me. Between 53,000 and 85,000 women are at risk of period poverty, with especially high risk among groups subject to homelessness and addiction. Over 86% of lone parents are women and they are a group at high risk of poverty. In 2019, the State supported more than 44,000 women with exceptional needs payments. Today the State is supporting nearly 600,000 on the pandemic unemployment payment and with unemployment assistance, which is down to Covid and the lockdown. The impact on the retail, hospitality, travel and tourism sectors has affected women, especially young women, more than any other group. Women have always been at a higher risk of poverty for many reasons, as has been mentioned by my colleagues, whether they are single parents or in abusive relationships.
All that I can add to what my colleagues have said is that we need to see this happening quickly. Dublin City Council has set an example. I would like to see our councils in Galway and Roscommon supported to be able to run these programmes and deliver this, whether through libraries or schools. The women who have accessed the exceptional needs payment from the Department of Social Protection have to be the first group that we deal with. We need to look at how we provide this through State-run institutions or support it in local authorities.
The United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 33/10 on 29 September 2016 states that a lack of menstrual health management and stigma associated with menstruation both have a negative impact on gender equality and on women's and girls' enjoyment of human rights, including the right to education and the right to health. This is a basic human right.
I am very glad to speak on this important Bill at this sitting. While it is fair to say that there are many of us on this side of the Chamber who may have done it quite differently in terms of the Bill itself, and we have pointed to gaps and missed opportunities, nonetheless this is a very important and positive debate.
A lot has been said this evening, and at the conclusion of this debate I want my message to be that there is a onus now, on Government party Senators in particular and indeed the Minister, to ensure that there is no delay in getting this Bill to the Committee on Health and that the amendments which my colleague, Senator Moynihan, the Labour Party and other parties will put forward to flesh out this Bill and make it workable will be taken on board quickly so that the Bill is implemented and enacted by the middle of this year. We can have all the lovely words in the world, pat ourselves on the back, say that we are talking about this issue and putting it centre stage, but at the end of the day, unless we actually see action, it will have no use.
I pay particular tribute to my colleague, Senator Moynihan, because she has talked about this issue for years within Dublin City Council, ensuring that €100,000 was put in place for period products across every institution. There is no point in having motions or Bills if they do not do something because what is at stake is affording dignity to girls and women of all ages in what is a part of all our lives.
We have spoken a lot about period poverty and rightfully so, but it is important to talk about the need for universal access to period products. We should not profile who we think may need them, because need happens in all sorts of houses and environments. Indeed, many in this Chamber may well have found themselves in that place. My clear call is for the Government to get on with this. There was a huge rush to get this Bill here today. There should be no excuse for not seeing this enacted by the middle of this year.
I thank the Senators for highlighting the issue of period poverty and for the opportunity to discuss the work the Department of Health and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth have undertaken on this matter.
I thank the proposers of the Bill, Senators Clifford-Lee, Ardagh and Fitzpatrick, and the proposers of the second Bill: Senators Moynihan, Wall, Sherlock, Hoey and Bacik. I am very thankful for the co-operation of Senators today. I am a Minister in the Department and I happen to be a man. However, I want to work with Senators with empathy. I want to do this for mná na hÉireann and equality in general, for wives, sisters, daughters, friends and colleagues, and for the wider considerations of compassion and fairness.
We will do the right thing by this issue. The Government is supporting this period poverty Bill and I look forward to bringing it to other Stages and to discussing it with the parliamentary women's caucus. I thank Senator O'Loughlin, Deputy Catherine Martin and others who were on the parliamentary women's caucus for progressing this. This is very helpful. I again thank Senator Moynihan and her colleagues. I understand that they have a Bill and I hope we will be able to deal with the issues in the coming weeks and months. I also thank Senator Boylan. I understand that, as an MEP, she progressed this issue as well.
Senator Boyhan talked about taboos, shame and stigma which are issues that we must address. Senator Conway raised several issues and Senator Currie talked about social change and referred to a survey about public toilets and conveniences. These are things that we do not really notice until we start discussing the complexities of a Bill like this. I am sure there will be a lot more discussion on this. Senator Moynihan spoke about period justice and stigma and also referred to basic hygiene products. Senator Sherlock raised similar issues and more or less said we should get on with it and that is what the Government must do. Senator Pauline O'Reilly spoke about the 53,000 to 85,000 people at risk of period poverty. She also spoke about peoples' pockets and saving the planet. Senator Boylan made reference to Ms Claire Hunt. I have not met Ms Hunt but have heard her name mentioned frequently and I pay tribute to her for the work she has done in this area. Senator Clifford-Lee also mentioned Ms Hunt. Senator Black spoke about school and the cost of period products. She also used the words "shame", "stigma" and "taboo" which came up time and again. These are words we should not have to use in this day and age but unfortunately, they are appropriate. Senator Seery Kearney talked about education, normalisation and a diversity of choice which is exactly what is needed here. I look forward to working with her on this in the coming weeks. I thank Senator Aisling Dolan for her contribution. She also urged us to progress this issue without further delay.
The issue of period poverty, defined as the inability to afford period products such as sanitary towels and tampons, is an internationally recognised health and social issue. It has significant consequences for the women, girls, transgender and non-binary people affected in terms of their exclusion during their period from educational, employment, recreational or social settings. The effects of period poverty on social engagement as well as on physical and mental health are of significant concern, especially given the reported high levels of shame and embarrassment around periods. Help may be needed but it is difficult to ask. Potential impacts on physical health include an increased risk of infection due to an inability to change sanitary products at recommended intervals or from using inappropriate, improvised products or materials. Period poverty and period pain may also be relevant in terms of both school absences and missing out on sports, physical education and physical activity generally, which are vital for overall health and well-being. Physical activity levels are significantly lower in teenage girls than in teenage boys.
The cost of managing periods in terms of sanitary products and pain relief has been estimated at over €121 per annum. Period poverty and the anxiety accompanying it has a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups including the homeless, those experiencing active addiction, teenage girls and disadvantaged groups. Several jurisdictions have introduced measures recently to address the individual and societal impacts of period poverty. These often include reduced or zero-rated VAT or equivalent sales taxes on period products. In the Republic of Ireland, sanitary towels and tampons are already taxed at 0%. This measure was put in place prior to EU VAT harmonisation in the early 1990s. As many Senators pointed out, Scotland recently passed a Bill providing for local authorities to ensure that anyone who needs period products can obtain them free of charge, while Wales and England have provided free period products in schools. A number of pilot projects have been initiated in Northern Ireland. A number of local authorities in this country have passed motions on period poverty since 2018 and schemes to make products available have been piloted by Dublin City Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and South Dublin County Council.
Period poverty, in addition to its adverse effects on inclusion and health and well-being, is also an equality and equity concern. The financial cost of period products contributes to gender inequality, while varying capacity to afford sanitary products creates inequality among women and girls in Ireland. Women from lower socioeconomic groups are often at greater risk of poor health and experience lower life expectancy than women from other groups and circumstances.
Recognising these factors, in early 2019 the Irish Women's Parliamentary Caucus proposed motions that were passed in this House and in the Dáil calling on the Government to introduce measures to mitigate period poverty. The issue is very relevant to the cross-government work on the national strategy for women and girls which aims to advance the rights of women and girls and enable their full participation in Irish society. Consequently, the strategy committee established a cross-sectoral sub-committee on period poverty chaired by my Department.
With due regard to the breath of this issue, the sub-committee had representation from the Departments of Justice, Education, Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Social Protection and Finance, in addition to Health. The HSE, the Local Government Management Association, the Irish Prison Service, Tusla, the National Women's Council of Ireland, the Union of Students of Ireland and the voluntary sector, including the National Traveller Women's Forum and One Family, were also represented, with presentations and submissions from other NGOs, including Plan International, Homeless. Ireland, the Coolmine Therapeutic Centre, Merchants Quay Ireland and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. I thank all participants and commend their valuable work on this important topic, led by the Departments of Health and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth in partnership with a wide range of sectors.
I am delighted to announce that the sub-committee recently completed its report which was released today. The findings show that information on the prevalence of period poverty is limited, in particular regarding women over the age of 19. However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Various voluntary sector organisations working with the homeless and those experiencing active addiction have been very clear that period poverty is an issue for the people they serve.
It is also likely that those living in consistent poverty and, in particular, those who need to use food banks are at high risk. Unfortunately, many food bank operators have advised that they do not stock period products. Based on consistent poverty data from the CSO survey of income and living conditions, 2019 population estimates and participation in the fund for European aid to the most deprived programme, we can calculate that in Ireland between 53,000 and 85,000 women and girls aged between ten and 54 years may be at high risk of poverty. Other groups at risk include victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, including those subject to coercive control regarding their financial status, members of minority ethnic groups, including Travellers and Roma, and lone parent families who are five times more likely to experience deprivation than two parent families. Some 86% of lone parent families are headed by women.
The key recommendations of the report are to gather more data by surveys, studies and focus groups to provide a comprehensive and reliable evidence base regarding the prevalence of period poverty in Ireland; address the stigma associated with periods by the provision of diverse information resources; engage with the most vulnerable groups such as, for example, the homeless, those living with active addiction, those in various forms of long-term State accommodation and minority ethnic communities, including Travellers and Roma, to ensure they can obtain an adequate supply of period products in a stigma free manner; consider the provision of products on gender equity grounds by, for example, providing period products in the bathrooms of public buildings and facilities that provide State-funded services; and engage with charities and food banks serving vulnerable cohorts to ensure they have an adequate supply of period products for clients through food banks or by funding for provision of products on-site.
I have listened to many Senators say that we should get on with it, but it will take time for this legislation come through. However, I will talk to my officials and perhaps we can immediately provide some form of funding to some of these charities and food banks to provide period products through those bodies. That might be something we can do immediately. I will work with my Department as quickly as I can. The report recommends continuing with negotiations at EU level to give greater flexibility to member states for lower VAT rates on newer and more sustainable period products, which, unlike the zero VAT rated tampons and sanitary towels, are currently VAT rated at 23%, and developing a systems approach and co-ordinated funding mechanisms to address period poverty in a co-ordinated way across the Government and through a range of the public services that it provides.
The Bill we are debating was introduced in the Seanad parallel with the finalisation of the report. I commend my Seanad colleagues on introducing the Bill on this important topic. To be clear, the Government supports the Free Provision of Period Products Bill 2021. However, given that these were parallel processes, the text of the Bill does not fully take into account the recommendations of the report. The Government has agreed that further development of the Bill will take into account the findings and recommendations of the report on period poverty. There are complex issues which should be considered in any proposed legislation. The breadth, depth and variety of public services mean that interventions to tackle period poverty would have to be managed across a wide range of Departments and State agencies, as well as independent and voluntary organisations which provide services funded by the State but which are nonetheless under independent governance.
It is an anomaly that bathrooms accessed by the public provide most items required in bathrooms for free - paper, soap and hand-washing facilities are standard. Why are period products exempted? That point was made by many Senators. The bins for their disposal are in place so their existence is acknowledged, but the products are not provided.
The Government has agreed to seek cross-Government, interdepartmental, inter-agency and societal support for the Bill and related implementation measures. The Government also agrees that all-party support for the Bill through engagement with the Houses of the Oireachtas women's parliamentary caucus should be sought prior to further progression of the Bill. I thank the members of the parliamentary women's caucus, the proposers of this Bill, the proposers of the Labour Party Bill and the Members present for this important debate and their engagement with this issue. I look forward to further progress and engagement on it.
I thank the 12 Senators who spoke this evening and I am glad that all of them indicated support for the Bill. I took on board what they said. They were valuable and useful contributions and all Senators have their own unique perspective on the issue. I thank them for giving such thought to their presentations.
I wish to address some issues raised by Senator Moynihan, first, and to correct the record of the House. This Bill was not tabled in response to the Labour Party Bill and it is disingenuous of the Senator to suggest that. Last November, I secured this Private Members' business slot at our group meeting. Fianna Fáil has 20 Senators and securing a slot is very competitive. I raised it with my colleagues and secured this first slot after Christmas. The reason I got the slot is that I had a Bill ready to go. I ask the Senator to stop promoting that untruth. I have never sought to run the Senator or her work into the ground and I hope she will stop doing this to me. I hope we can move forward in a positive light. I was anxious to correct the House in that regard.
There is no indication that we want to have a limited scheme. I never suggested it. In fact, the wider gender equality issue is clearly acknowledged with universal access to period products. I will be working closely with the Minister, the Ministers of State and departmental officials to ensure we achieve this. Senator Pauline O'Reilly spoke about celebrating periods and their being part of the natural process that occurs in the animal world and the human world. I was struck by that because I have many friends who are facing infertility. Senators O'Loughlin and Ardagh are working on an assisted human reproduction Bill.
I have many friends who would love to have regular periods and a healthy menstrual cycle. They would love dearly to have their own children. When we talk about shame and stigma, it strikes a chord with some women who do not have the opportunity to have a monthly period. We should bear that in mind.
Senator Conway made a most valuable contribution on period poverty suffered by people with disabilities. Affording dignity to them has to play a strong role in this. Senator Boylan raised an important issue in respect of the VAT on the newer sanitary products. That is something which we must work on at a European level. I have raised the issue with my colleague, Mr. Billy Kelleher, MEP. I will ask Mr. Kelleher to liaise with all the Irish MEPs to make sure that this issue is tackled. Senators Boylan and O'Loughlin mentioned Ms Claire Hunt from Homeless Period Ireland. I know that Ms Hunt is watching this debate. She deserves great credit for the work that she has been doing with the most marginalised people in Ireland. They are people without a roof over their heads. I commend her on all the work that she does.
Every Bill requires amendments. I was conscious that we were waiting on the report that is based on the Irish experience of period poverty. I was not going to second-guess the contents of the report. I believe that the Bill introduced in Scotland by Ms Monica Lennon, MSP, was heavily amended to deliver what was right for the Scottish experience. I hope that we can work together to get a very robust and fit-for-purpose scheme put in place for the Irish experience.
From my point of view, the most exciting development in the topic of period poverty taking centre stage politically has been the real engagement of young women on this issue, including teenage girls in secondary school. There has been great engagement with classes right across the country, who have invited me to speak to them about this issue. The young women and men in Ógra Fianna Fáil have also been working on this issue. It really shows them that they can get something done, and that their political activism can result in real life changes. I have also spoken to primary school teachers who have informed me that they do not have the education, experience or the language to deal with girls in their classes who are starting their periods. The toilets in primary schools are not even equipped with the appropriate sanitary bins.
I will finish shortly. I would appreciate being given an extra minute. Senator Dolan said that she would love to see sanitary products being supplied by the councils in Roscommon and Galway. I can confirm that Councillor Albert Dolan of Galway County Council is planning to table a motion on this issue shortly, so it is going to become a reality. There will be no delay on the Government's behalf. Substantial funding has been committed by the Department of Health. I am glad that the Minister of State confirmed earlier that he will make funding available immediately for the most vulnerable groups and that the supply will be distributed through food banks.
I thank Senators for their support. I hope we can leave here tonight united with one purpose, namely, to deliver for the women of Ireland.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Next Friday, 12 February at 10.30 a.m. in the Dáil Chamber.