HC Deb 14 July 1999 vol 335 cc389-92
3. Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South)

What key actions were agreed at the recent United Nations General Assembly special session on the five-year review of the international conference on population and development plan of action, Cairo 1994; and if she will make a statement. [89754]

5. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

If she will make a statement on the recent Cairo plus five meeting on population control, maternal mortality and reproductive health. [89756]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

The recent UN General Assembly special session reaffirmed the breakthrough made at Cairo five years ago, which stressed the need to provide all people with the information and opportunities necessary to control their fertility and protect their sexual health. We also agreed key future actions to curb the spread of HIV, to reduce maternal mortality and to improve education and access to services for young people. The agreement included key targets and milestones to ensure that the policies are effectively implemented.

Mr. Jones

I support the stand made by my right hon. Friend on reproductive health issues in her speech to the special session. As one way in which to push forward the decisions taken at Cairo is for all countries involved to give their full donation up to the 4 per cent. OECD recommended level, has my right hon. Friend made any progress in ensuring that other countries involved in the Cairo decision will put that full 4 per cent. into the projects?

Clare Short

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for our position. With regard to financial support, it is important that reproductive health care is not seen as a separate programme, but that basic health care systems should be in place for everyone in the world, providing reproductive health care, inoculations for children and all the other basic care that people need. That makes it less easy to define the money spent on reproductive health care. At the UN special session we agreed targets to roll forward improvements in services across the world. That requires co-operation between donors, the World Health Organisation, the World Bank and local Governments to improve health services and reproductive health services, and that is how I hope services will develop.

Mr. Chaytor

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way in which she has pursued the issue at international level. Is it not a frightening prospect that there are now 40 million HIV sufferers in the world, more than half of them young people—of whom half are women—and that the maternal mortality rate in poor countries is 500 times worse than that in western Europe? Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that she will continue to ensure that the issue has a high profile? Will there be a Cairo plus six?

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is right. There are now 40 million people with HIV or AIDS. The disease is concentrated in Africa, but it is now spreading in Asia and Latin America. Half the new infections are in young people, half of whom are young women. One of the issues discussed at the UN special session was the need for proper sex education for young people. Traditionalists tend to say that that will encourage sexual activity, but they are wrong. Young people who know about their sexual health tend to delay their sexual activity and protect themselves much more, and that is crucial for the largest generation of young people that we have ever had. Since Cairo, there has been no improvement in the number of women who die as a result of pregnancy-600,000 a year. My hon. Friend is right to say that we must make faster progress. There will not be another special session next year, but we have milestones by which to measure progress.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I congratulate the Secretary of State on her speech to the special session. I read it carefully and I agree with every word. Recognising, as she does, that unprotected sexual intercourse leads to unwanted pregnancies, abortions and disease—indeed, it is reported that rape has now become a recreational activity in South Africa—will she undertake that her Department will make emergency contraception available in all the projects that it supports in Africa and Asia? Will she also suggest to her Cabinet colleagues that, to set an example, emergency contraception should be more easily available in Britain?

Clare Short

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her support. In the preparation for the special session we had a big argument about emergency contraception for refugees. The traditionalists argued that it should not be made available to women many of whom are fleeing having been raped, such as those from Kosovo. It is unbelievable that anyone should suggest that such women should not be entitled to emergency contraception. I am pleased to say that, in the end, we won that argument. I agree with the hon. Lady that all forms of contraception should be available, but, wherever possible, we should give people knowledge and control over their sexual lives so that they do not have to have to resort to abortion or even emergency contraception. None the less, the services must be there for people to make their own choices.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

To what extent does the right hon. Lady intend to press for the development of the role of the private sector in the provision of reproductive health services to complement the allocation of public resources?

Clare Short

I support the hon. Gentleman's point. We are working in many countries to make comprehensive services available. That includes public sector, private sector and non-governmental organisations, and sometimes subsidising the cost of products, making them available through the private sector. We need to make provision through all outlets, so that everyone has access to contraception in the best way possible.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

My right hon. Friend will know of the great efforts that have been made in South Africa to combat the growth of AIDS, notwithstanding all the other priorities that the new South African Government have. What does she think is being done, and what can be done, to help that Government to overcome the increasing epidemic?

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is right; I think that the AIDS epidemic is growing faster in South Africa than anywhere else in the world. A big effort is now being made, but there was a delay at the beginning.

Uganda and Thailand teach the big lesson. Uganda has stemmed the increase in infections through public campaigns, both from the President and in every village. People in Uganda now know how to protect themselves; condoms are available, and the incidence of AIDS is no longer increasing. Other countries, including South Africa, need to learn from Uganda. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited South Africa, he announced big new support for the programme to combat the spread of AIDS and HIV there.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

Conservative Members fully support the provision of the best possible education about health care, sex and reproduction for everyone in the developing world. However, does the Secretary of State accept not only that her comments in The Guardian two weeks ago—she branded the Catholic Church as pursuing a disgusting and unholy agenda and being in favour of more women dying—were gratuitously offensive, but that they clouded an important message about family planning that needs to be communicated skilfully and tactfully? Does the right hon. Lady now regret those insensitive and insulting remarks?

Clare Short

I do not know whether you, Madam Speaker, have received a message from the Vatican to the effect that the hon. Gentleman has been appointed to represent its interests. Given that the Catholic Church is my Church, however, and given that I have many contacts with it, I do not accept the idea that he should represent it to me; I consider that entirely inappropriate.

The sad reality for the Catholic Church is that most Catholics throughout the world do not think that its teaching on contraception is right. I am one of those people. I think that the Vatican's attempt, behind closed doors in New York, to reverse the progress made in Cairo—progress that gave people the right to choose for themselves—was deeply wrong. It had allied itself with some fantastically reactionary countries, such as Sudan, Libya and Algeria, in its endeavour, and, in the early days, it was succeeding. But when this became a matter of public knowledge, it was driven back. I am glad about that, because I think it important for people to know the truth.

Mr. Streeter

None of that excuses the intemperate language used by the Secretary of State, which has masked an important message. Why does she not model herself on Geri Halliwell, the United Nations goodwill ambassador, who recently spoke out about reproductive health care, but in a skilful and tactful way, and got the message across? If a former Spice Girl can get it right, why cannot the Secretary of State?

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman's ever more desperate attempts to generate publicity are not very impressive. He was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying something very different: he aligned himself with the reactionary forces who do not believe that people should have choices and control over their sexual health. Perhaps he would like to tell us whether he supports the declaration agreed by all the countries of the world at the United Nations. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Question?"] Indeed, I do not usually ask the hon. Gentleman questions; but if he has any aspiration ever to become an International Development Minister, he ought to tell us whether he will act responsibly in that area.

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