HC Deb 23 February 1971 vol 812 cc313-8
The Secretary of State for Social Services (Sir Keith Joseph)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, now answer Question No. 21, No. 101 and No. 105 together.

The Government have now studied the working of the 1967 Abortion Act. Our conclusion is that, while the Act has operated to the benefit of many people, there is cause for real concern about the way in which certain of its provisions are working in practice. We therefore propose to appoint a committee of inquiry to review the operation of the Act on the basis that the main conditions for legal abortion remain unaltered. I will, if I may, circulate the full terms of reference in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

The essential point is that the inquiry will be concerned with the way the Act is working and not with the principles that underlie it. It will be open to the Committee not only to recommend changes in the law but also to suggest interim changes in the Regulations under the present Act should they find this necessary. I am glad to tell the House that the Honourable Mrs. Justice Lane has accepted our invitation to preside over the inquiry, and, in choosing other members, we shall be looking for people with the right kind of knowledge and experience who are not already committed on the subject.

The Government believe that family planning can often improve the quality of domestic life: it can prevent the unhappiness that unwanted pregnancies can cause and reduce the need for abortion. The Government propose to encourage the growth of local authority family planning, including domicilary services, particularly in areas of special need. Provision has therefore been made mainly in the rate support grant for expenditure in England and Wales to treble by 1972–73. The rate of growth in subsequent years has yet to be settled. Advice will remain free to all and so will equipment to those requiring it on medical grounds. Local authorities may waive charges for equipment in other cases.

Hospital authorities are also being asked to increase provision for family planning.

No change is proposed in the arrangements for the provision of family planning advice and equipment by general practitioners.

Dr. Stuttaford

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the establishment of this inquiry will give great pleasure to and allay many fears of those who are in favour of abortion law reform just as much as to those who are against it? Is he further aware that his reply about general practitioners will cause anxiety not only to general practitioners but to the general public, since a recent survey showed that the general public want and expect their general practitioner to give this advice? Is he aware that at the moment this service is curtailed because private prescriptions have to be used? If the E.C.10 could be used far more contraceptive advice could be given in general practitioners' surgeries, and accepted.

Sir K. Joseph

We are increasing the facilities throughout local government and hospital clinics for people who cannot afford the supplies involved. The Government see no reason for taking over from the vast majority of the public who are well able to seek advice and provide their own equipment if need be. The job is now done by general practitioners.

Sir D. Renton

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this most welcome and much-needed extension of the family planning service should help to relieve poverty and reduce the birth rate? Is he aware that much more will need to be done to stabilise the population over the next 30 years? Can he say when a decision will be made and announced about the Population Study Group to which the Prime Minister referred on 26th January?

Sir K. Joseph

That is a question for the Prime Minister. I would not like my right hon. and leaned Friend to delude himself into thinking that the increase in family planning is intended for population policy reasons. It is intended to increase family happiness and as such has an important contribution to make.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement will be welcomed by hon. Members on all sides, particularly by those who think it a crazy social policy to make abortion easy and family planning difficult? Can he assure the House that all interested parties, including the medical and nursing professions, will be able to give evidence at this inquiry?

Sir K. Joseph

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are lucky to have got so distinguished a Chairman for the inquiry.

Dr. Miller

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether the position which he has outlined applies to Scotland; secondly, will he accept that the medical profession will welcome any kind of investigation into abortion? Is he further aware that we also welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has said categorically that the main conditions of the Act will not be affected? Can he tell me whether the position of voluntary bodies in family planning will be affected by the new proposals?

Sir K. Joseph

The abortion announcement was made on behalf of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales as well as myself. Family planning policy was announced for Scotland by the Secretary of State for Scotland about two weeks ago. Family planning bodies will, I imagine, benefit from the increased resources available.

Mr. Crawshaw

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many people like myself who support this Measure will welcome the inquiry because we are concerned about certain aspects of the policy? Would he tell the House whether this inquiry will alter the imbalance in certain parts of the country, particularly in the Liverpool area, where it is almost impossible to get an abortion because of opposition from certain people there?

Sir K. Joseph

It will be open to the inquiry to consider any evidence that is put before it, including that to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Mrs. Knight

Will the inquiry be empowered to take evidence, preferably written, from women who have had abortions in the private sector as to the standard of care they received and, bearing in mind the implications of the tax position here, the sums of money that they have been asked to hand over in cash?

Sir K. Joseph

That sort of question is entirely for the Committee, but as it has a Chairman who is a High Court judge I am sure that it will be able to handle such evidence, from whatever source.

Mr. Simon Mahon

Is the Minister aware that the House will be gratified by his statement? May we take it that there will be no religious embargo on membership of the Committee for the medical and nursing profession?

Sir K. Joseph

We shall seek objective members with suitable qualifications, obviously regardless of any religious background.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

While not accepting the morality as distinct from the legality of abortion, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether, pending the results of the inquiry, he will look very closely at applications for the licensing of abortion clinics having regard to the strong feeling of the clergy and many people in my constituency about the proposal for such a clinic at Buckhurst Hill?

Sir K. Joseph

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to examine very carefully all applications for further clinics.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

Before dealing with the right hon. Gentleman's very welcome announcement about the inquiry and the family planning matters, may I ask him why the B.B.C. carried on its one o'clock news a complete statement to the effect which the right hon. Gentleman has just given to the House? Will he bear out my view that it is very unfortunate for information to be given to the public through the mass media before it is given to the House?

We welcome the setting up of the committee of inquiry in view of certain disturbing features of the working of the Act. First, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that a close look will be taken at the working of private clinics, and particularly the length of time which people spend in them, and the possibility of touting for custom? Secondly, referring to his announcement about family planning, can he confirm that domiciliary services will be made available in all parts of the country because we on this side of the House share the view that it is much better to prevent unwanted births rather than abort them? Finally, will he consider making contraceptives available free of charge to those in need on social as well as medical grounds?

Sir K. Joseph

Contraceptives are already available on social grounds when the local authority judges fit and when the income is low.

I regret that the B.B.C. has, according to the hon. Lady, published my statement in advance. I referred as long ago as October to a pending Government announcement about family planning and I have answered a number of questions tabled by my hon. Friends about abortion, with the promise of an early statement. Therefore, it is not surprising that some decisions on this matter should have been expected. Certainly the inquiry—[Interruption]—The Order Paper today is peppered with Questions on this subject and it was not surprising that people should conclude that there might be a statement today. I shall certainly see whether there has been any "leak" of the crucial information.

The inquiry will be able to consider the practice of private clinics. The Government believe that the principal growth in family planning should come in giving advice in the home to those who, for one reason or another, are not able to take advantage of contraceptive methods.

Mr. Selwyn Gummer

While thanking my right hon. Friend for his comments on family planning matters and for setting up the inquiry, may I ask him whether I would be right in saying that the Committee will not be precluded from making comments on the essence of the Act if it felt that those comments were necessary?

Sir K. Joseph

I do not want to open up the subject which took so long to debate in the House originally, but obviously if the Committee felt trammelled by its terms of reference it would be able to write to me and say so.

Mr. Steel

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be a general welcome for the very carefully measured terms with which he made his announcement about the inquiry into the Abortion Act and that there is growing evidence that the great demand for abortions is caused by a lack of family planning provisions? There will be a welcome for the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has linked the two subjects together.

Will the inquiry be able to look into some of the widely publicised allegations made against the working of the Abortion Act, some of which have been found by his Department to be totally unfounded?

Sir K. Joseph

Yes. One of the main values of the inquiry will be that it will separate truth from fiction. A number of statements have been made which the House would like to have examined.

Mr. C. Pannell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the general satisfaction that the inquiry will proceed on the basis that the law will not be altered, bearing in mind that the overwhelming majority of this House voted in favour of the 1967 Act and that it is proper to emphasise the terrific social benefit which the Act has brought rather than its minor shortcomings which are insisted upon by those people who voted against it in the first place?

Sir K. Joseph

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is wrong to stoke up feeling on this issue. A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to reopen the whole issue, but they have come together in welcoming an inquiry into the workings of the Act.

Following are the full terms of reference: To review the operation of the Abortion Act, 1967, and, on the basis that the conditions for legal abortion contained in paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (1) and in subsections (2),(3) and (4) of Section 1 of the Act remain unaltered, to make recommendations.