HC Deb 13 March 2003 vol 401 cc422-4
9. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

If he will make a statement on the advice issued by his Department on the teaching of sex education in schools. [102707]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg)

In July 2000 we provided sex and relationship education guidance to maintained schools. The guidance places the responsibility of determining a sex and relationship education policy firmly on head teachers and school governing bodies. Schools should develop their policies and programmes in consultation with parents.

Ann Winterton

The Minister will be aware that teenage pregnancy rates in Britain are four times higher than in the Netherlands, where Dutch parents and school governors have more control over what is taught in schools and where family links are stronger. Bearing in mind our high teenage pregnancy rates and the even higher rates of sexually transmitted disease, which is almost at epidemic proportions in certain parts of the country, will the Minister follow and promote the example in the Netherlands which advocates sexual abstinence among the young and strengthens the role of parents and governors in these matters?

Mr. Twigg

The hon. Lady will know that our guidance indeed strengthens the role of parents and governors. She is correct to identify the high rates of teenage pregnancy and of sexually transmitted infections as a major cause for concern. That is an important part of the reason for providing our sex and relationship education guidance. I am sure that she will join me in welcoming the fact that the most recent figures show that teenage pregnancy rates have fallen again. Teenage conception rates have fallen for three years in a row and are now 9 per cent. lower than in 1998. I am not complacent about that, but the figures show that the existing programmes are having some impact.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Is it not the case that, since the social exclusion unit's ground-breaking report on teenage pregnancy, this country has for the first time woken up to the fact that we have one of the highest levels in the world? In the 1970s, our teenage pregnancy rates were about the same as those in the rest of Europe but in the '80s and '90s they went up in the UK while they were going down throughout Europe. Does my hon. Friend agree that educational underachievement and teenage pregnancy go hand in hand? Will he ensure that his Department carries on relentlessly with its programmes and strategies on teenage pregnancy so that the rates continue to fall and that young people understand the consequences of sexual relationships? We must put an end to cases such as those reported by the social exclusion unit in which young people believe that by drinking vinegar they will not get pregnant.

Mr. Twigg

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the powerful way in which he set out his case, which demonstrates the importance of Departments working together and with local agencies, including schools. Enabling young people to make responsible and well-informed decisions is at the heart of our sex and relationship education policy. The statistics on teenage pregnancy suggest that we are having some success but clearly we still have a long way to go.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Does the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) was absolutely right to describe the sex and relationship education guidance issued in July 2000 as excellent, balanced and reasonable? Will he confirm that that is a far better basis for providing information and developing understanding among children than the offensive, redundant and irrelevant section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986 which, the other night, the House once again wisely voted to repeal?

Mr. Twigg

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and associate myself entirely with his remarks. I am delighted that we received firm cross-party support in the vote on Monday night, with a significant number of Opposition Members joining Labour and Liberal Democrat Members and Members from other parties in the Lobby. I very much hope that the other place will take notice of that strong cross-party support for repeal of section 28.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)

Does my hon. Friend agree that schools can be usefully supported in their work on sex education by other services, such as those provided at Rowlinson youth club in my constituency where there is a drop-in clinic for young people who can discuss with health professionals, in a non-judgmental way, their concerns about personal relationships?

Mr. Twigg

Absolutely. I agree entirely. There are a number of such opportunities, where the school, as the hub of the local community, can work with other services to ensure that young people receive all the advice, guidance and education that they need.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Much as the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) would like to turn the clock back to the days when we could only have sexual intercourse after permission from a priest or the local registrar, and while I congratulate the Minister on the welcome decrease in the number of teenage pregnancies, does he agree that sex education is part of general education? It is the same as history or politics and, in many cases, a good deal more useful. Will he pledge to the House that he will try to ensure that all children in this country, regardless of which school they attend and the flavour of its governing body, receive proper sex education?

Mr. Twigg

I am grateful to the hon. Lady and I very much agree with her. She was a little unfair on the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), who, somewhat to my surprise, felt that we had lessons to learn from Holland in these matters. I am happy to look at the figures, because we can always learn lessons in ensuring that sex and relationships education is as effective as possible. We can provide the framework, but such decisions are best made at school level, involving governing bodies. A testament to the success of these programmes is not only the figures on teenage pregnancies that I gave earlier, but the fact that although parents have the right to withdraw their children from sex and relationships education, fewer than 1 per cent. do so. That demonstrates that we are having an impact, but the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) is right that we need to do more.