HL Deb 21 October 1975 vol 364 cc1261-8

3.44 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission it might be convenient if I were now to repeat a Statement on abortion made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. The Statement reads as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make, in association with my right honourable Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales, a statement on abortion. Since March of this year a Select Committee has been considering my honourable Friend the Member for Glasgow Pollok's Abortion (Amendment) Bill. The Committee made nine recommendations in its Third Special Report to the House on 5th August most of which follow up proposals made last year by the Lane Committee on the Working of the Abortion Act. I am glad to tell the House that the Government accept in principle all the Select Committee's recommendations.

"My intentions, announced earlier this year, to strengthen the safeguards which apply to abortion in the private sector are similar to those recommended by the Select Committee. Action has already been taken following consultation with the medical profession with a view to requiring private nursing homes which concentrate on abortion to give me an assurance concerning the total fees charged to patients. Assurances have also been sought from all approved nursing homes about financial arrangements with referral agencies. Only those private nursing homes with adequate facilities will be authorised to carry out terminations of pregnancy after the20th week. I have also written to those nursing homes which concentrate on abortion asking for information on the number of foreign patients treated during the 18 months to 30th June 1975, and I shall be seeking such information from all approved nursing homes at quarterly intervals in future. I am reviewing the arrangements which are made by the nursing homes for the reception, counselling and after care of foreign patients on the lines proposed by the Select Committee and I will require changes in these arrangements where necessary. The Committee recommended that the Health Ministers should produce a list of approved bureaux and refuse to approve clinics which accepted patients from unlisted bureaux. We are proposing to implement this change shortly and application forms have been issued to bureaux and agencies. I am, moreover, concerned to ensure that adequate counselling facilities are available for all women who indicate that their pregnancies are unwanted and a draft paper as proposed by the Select Committee giving guidance on counselling will be circulated for consultation to bodies representing the medical, nursing and social work professions.

"In the National Health Service the Select Committee's recommendations that terminations after the 20thweek of pregnancy should be carried out only in hospitals possessing appropriate facilities, including resuscitation equipment, has been accepted and discussions have been held with Regional Medical Officers who will be responsible for the implementation of the recommendations. I have issued a circular to health authorities on the Report of the Peel Advisory Group on the Use of Foetuses and Foetal Material for Research asking for the adoption of their recommended Code of Practice where not already in use and I put a similar requirement on private nursing homes.

"Some of the other recommendations of the Select Committee will require amendment of the Abortion Regulations 1968. My Department is undertaking a study of the procedures and forms set out in the Regulations as proposed by the Select Committee and in the light of their report I shall be considering the whole question of the procedure for the certification and notification of abortions. Another recommendation which would require amending the Regulations is to allow the disclosure to the General Medical Council of information taken from the notification to the Chief Medical Officers of the Health Departments. This recommendation is accepted and the Regulations will be amended to permit disclosure to the President of the General Medical Council at his request. A further change in the Regulations recommended by the Select Committee is designed to ensure that the doctors who certify that the conditions of the Abortion Act are met in a particular case should examine the patient. The Regulations will he amended to ensure that a question asking whether the patient has been seen and an examination has been carried out will be put on all forms.

"I think the House will be glad to know that action is being or has already been taken on all the recommendations made by the Select Committee in their Third Report and on many of the major recommendations of of the Lane Committee. I have issued guidance on day care systems to health authorities and hope to authorise day care services in some private clinics with a record of high standards. The most important preventative action which the Government have taken is to introduce as part of the NHS a comprehensive family planning service which started to function fully this summer. I can only regret that this was not introduced a decade or more ago.

"During the Second Reading of the Abortion (Amendment) Bill in February 1975 a commitment was given by the Government that if the Bill were withdrawn the Government would propose the establishment of a Select Committee to examine and report on the proposals contained in the Bill: and would also propose its re-establishment for the 1975–76 Session if this were necessary. In the event the House did not allow the Bill to be withdrawn but instead committed the Bill itself to a Select Committee. Under this procedure the Bill and the Select Committee lapse at the end of this Session. The Government feel that the House, in the light of the Committee's Reports already published and of this Statement, should be given an opportunity to decide whether the Select Committee should be reestablished as the Committee itself has requested, and a Motion will be tabled early in the next Session."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.


My Lords, I am sure the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for having repeated that Statement, and I should like to thank him for it. It is a very detailed Statement, and it will require a lot of careful study before we can say very much about it, hut the noble Lord will remember that it was the last Conservative Government which established the Lane Committee and we certainly welcomed the recommendations that it produced. Some of those recommendations have now been followed up and reinforced by the Select Committee, and certainly T very much welcome the Government's intention to accept those recommendations, especially to strengthen the safeguards for women who undergo abortion both in the private sector and in the National Health Service. This is a subject which arouses a great deal of feeling among individuals on all sides of the House, but I am sure that for the present we are wise to continue to follow the advice we are given by these expert committees on the administration of the present Act.


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement, which is a very important one. I have very little to add to what the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has already said. I hope that the counselling will be available to patients in both the private sector and the public sector, because I think all women need help and counselling in these matters. I was wondering whether it would be possible for the medical officers of health departments to tell the local health authorities some of the figures which come to them showing the numbers of abortions which occur in their areas. The only other point which I should like to make is that 1 am very pleased that a Motion is to be introduced in order to continue the Select Committee during the coming Session.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether it would not be true to say that this Select Committee was completely unnecessary it has not produced anything that we did not know already, or that is new, after the Justice Lane Committee sat. It has produced nothing. The Government's weakness for spawning Select Committees and Commissions is simply a waste of money. The counselling, one of the recommendations of this Select Committee, has been done and is being done by the Family Planning Association and by the Brook Advisory Centres. When Sir Keith Joseph was the Minister of Health he put family planning on a very good basis and was very far-seeing. It seems to me that another Select Committee simply to produce a state of affairs which will deal with some abuses by private nursing homes is completely unnecessary.


My Lords, before the noble Lord rises to answer that, is it not correct that the formation of a Select Committee of either House is a matter for that House and not for anybody else, and would it not, therefore, be inappropriate for your Lordships to comment upon it?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, because I wanted to make precisely the same comment and observation myself. This is a Statement about what has been done by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. I had hoped that your Lordships would be prepared to accept it and leave it there. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for his comments and I will certainly convey the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, to my right honourable friend. In view of the Statement, I do not think I can take this matter any further.


My Lords, may I apologise to the House for being out of order? I was ignorant of the fact that we cannot comment on a Statement of this kind, and if I had known it I would not have done so.


My Lords, I would hate my noble friend to feel that she was not entitled to comment on a Statement. Every one of your Lordships is entitled to comment. I think what the noble and learned Lord said, which I would have said if he had not done so, is that it is not wise for us to comment on the practice and, perhaps, the right of another place.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend what principle governs the Government's reluctance to terminate the pregnancy of a foreign woman in the private sector, provided that the same conditions apply as for a British woman?


My Lords, I think there is a responsibility upon us to see that a person coming over from another country is treated in precisely the same way as our own nationals, and if she is going into a clinic where they specialise in abortion we ought to be satisfied that the standard there is of the highest.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether this Select Committee has heard a single one of the very many women's organisations which have asked to give evidence before it?


My Lords, I do not have before me a list of the bodies, individuals or organisations which the Select Committee heard.


My Lords, in view of the fact that so many comments have been made, against the advice of both Front Benches which seemed to me in this case very sound, surely this is not a matter to be debated in your Lordships' House at the present moment. It should be left until we have heard the Motion which is to be introduced in another place, and leave them to debate it. We will, I hope, have ample opportunity to debate this question later, and I hope I shall be allowed to intervene in that debate then as I did seven years ago, when this subject was discussed here. I do not propose to do so now. As a Back-Bench Liberal with a minority point of view, who is perhaps better fitted than others to represent the point of view of a "foetus", I should like strongly to support the proposal put forward that matters for the other place are matters for them, and matters for your Lordships' House are matters for us. Having said that, I will sit down and say no more for the present.


My Lords, there seems to me to be a misunderstanding about the Select Committee. Following the Second Reading of Mr. White's Abortion (Amendment) Bill, the Government agreed to set up a Select Committee. There was a great deal of dispute about that, because we had just had the Lane Committee (referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare) and the Department itself was in the process of bringing Amendments in the light of that Report. At the present time there is no Bill before the House of Commons, and the procedural Motion is whether a Select Committee elected in another Session should be continued. I agree entirely with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, has said about its setting up, but it would be a misunderstanding to think that this is another Select Committee; it is the continuation of a quite useless one.


My Lords, may I just for clarification ask one question? Most of us have not yet had the opportunity of reading this Statement, and it may be that I did not hear the necessary information. Could the noble Lord tell us what is to be disclosed to the President of the General Medical Council, and whether this will include doctors' names or patients' names or both?


My Lords, as I understand the situation, the President of the General Medical Council will be entitled to ask for information relating to abortions which have been undertaken by members of the medical profession.


I beg your Lordships' pardon, but that does not answer my question. Will it include the names of patients or doctors?


My Lords, I really do not know. But I should have thought that the information may well do so, bearing in mind that special precautions have been taken to safeguard privacy by disclosing it only to the President.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether consideration might be given to the elimination of sex education from schools, as a very satisfactory method of reducing the rate of abortion?


My Lords, I do not think that really comes within the terms of the Statement which I made this afternoon.