HL Deb 26 May 1977 vol 383 cc1424-6

11.22 a.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made in the discussions on the Report of the Working Party on oral contraceptives.


My Lords, as I stated in my reply to my noble friend Lady Summerskill on 10th November last, the Joint Working Group on Oral Contraceptives has reported to four bodies, three of which set it up. Three of the bodies have completed their discussions, and I understand that the fourth expects to reach a view shortly. When the conclusions of all four bodies are available they will be considered by the Secretary of State for Social Services and his learned friend the Secretary of State for Wales.


My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that reply and acknowledging his own deep concern with this Question, may I ask him whether he could tell me which of the four bodies has not yet replied, and when the Government will make an announcement on this matter?


My Lords, if understand that the Medicines Commission have not yet replied. They have discussed the report, I believe, on several occasions, and we are awaiting their view, which we hope to get shortly. With regard to when the Government will he able to make a pronouncement on the report of the Working Party, it would seem to me to be some distance ahead, because once the four bodies have communicated their views to my right honourable friend he will then have to consult, as I understand it, with the British Medical Association and the various Royal Colleges and other bodies concerned. If I can express a personal opinion—and it is probably unwise that should do so—I do not think that the Government will be able to make a pronouncement before the end of the present year.


My Lords, while declaring a personal interest in this report, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware of the deep frustration felt by the very many eminent experts who gave of their time to the production of this report when such a long time elapses before anything is heard of it? I should also like to ask whether there are signs in the latest abortion figures, which show an increase of 4 per cent. in the number of abortions performed last year, that the general practitioner family planning service is not meeting the needs of the most vulnerable group of society—those between 16 and 19?


My Lords, I hope the noble Baroness will allow me not to comment on the second part of her supplementary question. I would rather not do so. I have great sympathy with the view that people take with regard to delays in such matters as this, and I often find myself in a position of having to say to your Lordships that something will be available shortly. But so far as this matter is concerned, there are four very prominent bodies. Not only is there the Central Health Services Council, but we have also to take the views of the Committee on the Safety of Medicines, the Committee on the Review of Medicines and the Medicines Commission. I hope I am permitted to say that there is a division of opinion among the bodies themselves, and, as I said, when they come to some point of view then my right honourable friend is obliged to consult other interests.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister two small questions? First, is he aware that, in the Press, it has been shown that a weaker oral contraceptive pill is just as effective as the stronger one, which sometimes has side effects? Secondly, is he aware that the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, if she looks at the latest sheets of the Family Planning Association, or one of them, will find that the number of abortions have not increased in recent years but have fallen because of the oral contraceptive pill?


My Lords, I am not competent to discuss the relative effectiveness of different oral contraceptives. The Question relates to the report of the Working Party, and I have tried to deal with that matter quite frankly.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend—and I do so without declaring any personal interest—whether he can do something to speedup the publication of this report because, in the meantime, owing to statements on the radio and articles in the Press, many women are being frightened?


My Lords, it is the Government's view that we want to be able to express an opinion on the report as soon as possible. It is very much in the forefront of the minds of my colleagues, and I will certainly convey to them the views expressed on both sides of your Lordships' House today.