HL Deb 20 April 1983 vol 441 cc560-1

2.38 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is included in the programme for school health in schools which come under the Leeds Education Authority to lessen the risk of infective hepatitis A.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, schools in Leeds are urged to take all necessary steps to ensure reasonable standards of hygiene to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases. The Director of Education in Leeds wrote to all the schools within his authority on 2nd February this year to that effect. Additionally, advice about the prevention of spread of disease in schools is contained in the booklet Control of Communicable Disease in Schools, prepared in consultation with the Department of Education and Science. Furthermore, education of pupils in the principles of personal hygiene makes a vital contribution towards control in these areas.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. May I ask him whether he is aware that hepatitis A is spreading and has increased in the past few years throughout the country, and in Leeds it happens to be about three times the average? May I ask the noble Lord who supervises the washing of hands before meals in schools, and whether disposable towels are supplied in cloakrooms? Should there not be posters on lavatory doors saying, "Now, wash your hands"?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the kind of arrangements which the noble Baroness describes would no doubt be of great assistance in this particular area. However, responsibility for this matter lies with the local education authorities, guided and advised, as they are, by central Government in the way that I have described. I am not certain that the noble Baroness is right when she refers to the increase in cases in hepatitis generally throughout the country. Although there has been a small increase in cases in the past two or three years, the level is still well below what it was, say, in 1968.

Baroness Bacon

My Lords, can the Minister say whether or not over the years there have been sporadic outbursts of this disease in places other than Leeds, and whether looked at over the past few years Leeds is any worse than any other place?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness is right to ask me that question, if I may say so, because so far as I can ascertain Leeds is indeed no worse than anywhere else in this particular case. The fact is, as the noble Baroness says, that this disease—in common with most other infectious diseases may I say—increases and decreases on a cyclical basis for reasons which are not yet fully understood.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister say what guidance, if any, is given by local or area officers of health to schools on this matter, since this is a very unpleasant illness, and to what effect?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the principal source of guidance is the source that I have already described; namely, the dissemination of information by the directors of education, particularly in Leeds, as I said, and also the various leaflets and other documents that I have referred to. Of course local medical officers of health are always willing to spend a good deal of time—and indeed they do—in lecturing, for example, to education authorities, and in some cases in schools themselves.

Lord Hunter of Newington

My Lords, does the Minister believe that the position could be improved by reintroducing the statutory medical officer of health, which was abandoned in 1973?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I would want to think about the answer to that question. I am not necessarily convinced, however, that a large increase in the number of people considering these matters would necessarily produce the right answer. As I have said, the real way to control these diseases is by better health education.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have the numbers from the regional medical officer? Is he further aware that in 1981 there were 102 cases in the Leeds district, and in 1982 there were 348 cases? In the national figures, in 1981 there were 9,834 cases, and in 1982 there were 10,641 cases.

Lord Trefgarne

Yes, my Lords, but in 1970 there were 21,584 cases.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, can the Minister give us any idea about how far the research into the causes of children catching this infectious disease has reached?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I think the reasons why this disease—hepatitis A is the disease we are talking about—is more prevalent among children is because they, in simple terms, do not wash their hands so often.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, may I ask the Minister, in view of his last answer, if he can tell us who is responsible for implementing everything that the Department, in very good faith, tells the schools to do?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, it is the staff of the schools who ought to be persuading the children to wash their hands more regularly, but as a parent of small children I know how difficult that is.