The Scottish Government was right to be cautious about Labour MSP Monica Lennon’s Bill to make period products available free of charge to all.
The problem with any universal benefit is that it does not target government help to those who need it most and therefore can reduce the overall amount of help available to that same group.
However, in the grand scheme of things, the estimated annual cost of £24 million to make period products free for all is not a huge amount of money and so probably does not justify the bureaucracy associated with a targetted benefit – the hassle and cost of making people prove their eligibility.
And it would have been politically embarrassing for the SNP if Lennon’s Bill had been passed by MSPs in the face of their opposition, a serious prospect given it was backed by the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens. The proposals had also won support from a range of charities and other groups, including Girlguiding Scotland, the STUC and the Scottish Women’s Convention.
So, for a number of reasons, it was sensible for the Scottish Government to accept there was a “broad consensus about general policy objectives”, as Communities Secretary Aileen Campbell said, and back the legislation, although it will seek to agree amendments to “allay our concerns”.
Some may present this as an embarrassing ‘U-turn’, but any government that refuses to change its mind simply out of fear of looking foolish does not have the best interests of the public at heart, simply its own. So Campbell and co perhaps deserve some credit for not being pig-headed on the issue, although political reality may have been the driving factor.
Calculating whether £24 million could have been better spent in some other way is difficult and, ultimately, subjective, but there is no doubt that the decision will make a real difference to tackling period poverty and the associated stigma. Free period products will make the lives of many ordinary people in Scotland better.
However, writing in The Big Issue, Lennon said that “no one will be forced to take them”. All of us have a choice to make about whether to take advantage of a universal benefit or not.
So anyone who objects to a particular benefit can take a principled stand if they wish.