If you wanted an easy illustration of the importance of a Parliament that looks vaguely like the country it works for, look no further than a tiny consultation issued this week by the Home Office. In it, ministers suggest new guidelines on the treatment of women in custody who are on their periods.
This sounds like quite small fry - and the sort of subject that makes at least 50 per cent of readers recoil from going any further. But it’s important, not just in itself, but also because it shows what happens when more women join the House of Commons.
For years, female detainees who are awaiting a court verdict on the crime they are accused of have either been given absolutely no sanitary protection at all, or the sort of thin, inadequate stuff that would be suitable only for a pubescent girl just starting to menstruate. This means women end up bleeding through their clothes onto the seats of the vans taking them to court or are forced to wear tampons for more than eight hours, which carries a health risk. Our criminal justice system removes freedom from people who have done wrong as a fitting punishment for their crimes. But it shouldn’t also take away their basic dignity.
I look at the general treatment of women’s issues in my forthcoming book, Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, and conclude that while MPs must have empathy for people whose lives are entirely different to theirs, it really is important that the general parliamentary ecosystem is made up of a mix of life experiences. It cannot be a coincidence that only in 2018, when Parliament was finally a third female, did ministers feel they could start talking about how women on their periods are treated. It’s not just those in custody, but the fact that sanitary protection costs money, even without the Tampon Tax that MPs put a great deal of effort into trying to abolish. The Chamber now discusses period poverty, too.
Most women have grown up with the fear of a period appearing on the outside of their clothes, and have a visceral reaction to the thought of anyone having to stuff their underwear with toilet roll to avoid that indignity. Men are largely unaware - and wish to remain so - of the general inconvenience of having a monthly period. If they can get over a lingering adolescent disgust at the whole idea, they still don’t fully understand that this is something worth pushing for: it just don’t seem that big a deal otherwise.
When Labour’s Jess Phillips told the House of Commons shortly after being elected that ‘every man sitting in this House is now here because, at some point, his mother had a period’, most of the men sitting there looked as though they wished she hadn’t provoked this mental image. There were similar uncomfortable looks when Phillips’ colleague Danielle Rowley announced in the Chamber that she was actually on her period.
It was blunt of both women to say such things, but parliamentarians surely need to be blunt about problems their constituents are facing. The squeamishness about periods is one of the reasons women have ended up suffering the utter humiliation of no sanitary products. Something needed to change.
If you don’t have mixed parliament, then you end up with laws designed and scrutinised by people who can’t quite imagine that indignity described above. You also end up with a system that doesn’t quite see the urgency in dealing with an inadequate building, as was the case in the Grenfell disaster, or less explosively, one that doesn’t really understand how crushing it is to be moved from one unsuitable form of temporary accommodation to another.
The political parties do know this, but as I’ve found in my research for my book, they have done little to change the root causes of an unrepresentative Parliament. Until they do, many more basic indignities will take years before their are noticed.