HL Deb 17 January 1984 vol 446 cc921-3
Lord Avebury

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 information they have about the effects of alcohol consumption by the mother on the foetus and on the later development of the child; and what steps they will take to advise women of childbearing age.

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

My Lords, heavy drinking during pregnancy can undoubtedly harm the foetus, but expert opinion is divided as to the extent to which lighter intakes are harmful, and whether there is a threshold below which it is safe to drink. With the present state of knowledge, it is sensible to keep alcohol consumption during pregnancy as low as possible. However, I am medically advised that strong warnings that pregnant women must cut out alcohol altogether could cause unjustified and possible harmful feelings of guilt and anxiety. Expert opinion has been taken into account by the Health Education Council in preparing their new publications on alcohol and on pregnancy.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, has the noble Lord seen the text of the new advice given by the Health Education Council, which is that to be absolutely safe a woman must not drink alcohol while she is pregnant or while she is contemplating pregnancy? Has the noble Lord seen the evidence that was presented to a recent conference held at the British Medical Association where evidence was presented by, in particular, some general practitioners from Glasgow showing that indeed small quantities of alcohol drunk during pregnancy had an effect on the birth weight of infants?

Lord Glenarthur

Yes, my Lords, I am aware of both the points which the noble Lord makes. The fact remains that expert opinion is divided as to the extent to which lower alcohol intakes are harmful to the foetus and whether there is a threshold below which it is safe to drink at all. But there is no doubt, as the noble Lord will know, that alcohol passes from the expectant mother to the foetus. Regarding birth weight and what effect not drinking alcohol has on it, the answer is that in general the less one drinks, the better. There is no denying that alcohol is harmful; but nevertheless there are other reasons, which I explained in my original Answer, which make it not necessarily correct always to condemn those who drink a little.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister tell the House what are the ages of childbearing for women?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, not off the top of my head; but I think my noble friend knows the answer to that perfectly well herself.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, bearing in mind that it is recognised that there is no fixed level that one can set, may I ask this question. Does not the Minister feel that he ought to be giving rather stronger advice to pregnant women, bearing in mind the report as long ago as 1979 of the Royal College of Psychiatrists which gave some strong evidence about the effect of heavy drinking by expectant mothers on damaging the foetus? It also referred to the fact that about 40 per cent. of the cases that were concerned in the foetal alcohol syndrome were born either abnormally small, had hare-lips or in some other way had a defect. Is it not really beholden upon the Government to give the strongest advice to expectant mothers that drinking of alcohol except at a very modest level is extremely unwise during pregnancy?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I think I indicated when I answered the noble Lord's original Question and his supplementary that drinking alcohol does not necessarily do a great deal of good—in fact it can do harm. However, I also explained that to say out loud that any drinking produces dangerous results for babies also presents difficulties because it can lead to unjustified feelings of guilt and anxiety when a baby is born with some problem which might—or equally well might not—be due to alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is part of a larger problem in terms of the effect of alcohol as a systemic poison on women? Has he seen the recent research which makes clear that the alcohol tolerance level of a woman is only half that of a man? Does he not think, in these days of equality, that that is one time where more publicity should be given for the woman to be unequal in attempting to match drinks?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, there are lots of reasons why women have less tolerance—if that is the right word—to alcohol than men. So far as dissemination of knowledge is concerned, the Health Education Council, in the light of their expertise in health education, have been discussing with the department how best the state of knowledge can be passed on to those who need it. I have with me—and I shall put it in the Library—a new publication called A Guide to Sensible Drinking—That's the Limit, and I shall ensure that that is placed in the Library for the noble Baroness to examine at her leisure.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that at least it is all right for husbands?

Lord Glenarthur

Yes, my Lords, I can certainly give my noble friend that assurance.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, would it not be a good idea to allow a certain amount of alcohol to be consumed during the youngest days of a person's life, and get them a little immune to it? A lot of people make fools of themselves later on in life.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I think that that flies somewhat in the face of the recommendations of the Royal College of Obstetricians and the British Peadiatric Association. Nevertheless, I shall make sure that they bear in mind what the noble Baroness feels about it.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, can by noble friend say whether there is any effect when men are drinking when, in his own words, their wives are contemplating pregnancy?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I do not think I shall be drawn any further by my noble friend.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that pregnant ladies are unlikely to see the advice in a publication placed in the Library of your Lordships' House? Therefore, will not the Government take steps to make sure that the Health Education Council's excellent booklet is as widely disseminated as possible, and that in particular the paragraph referring to drinking during pregnancy is prominently displayed in the surgeries of general practitioners?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I will take the noble Lord's suggestion to my right honourable friend to see what can be done. The Health Education Council has published the leaflet to which I have referred; but the fact remains that at the end of the day it is up to the woman concerned whether or not she drinks alcohol.

Lord Blyton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is my experience that a pregnant woman will do what she wants to do without any guidance?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am not quite sure how to reconcile the noble Lord's views on what he feels about being pregnant with what others might feel about it. Nevertheless, I am sure that others will take note of his view.

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