HL Deb 21 January 1991 vol 525 cc5-7

2.47 p.m.

Baroness David asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proposals they have to deal with the problem of teenage abortion.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hooper)

My Lords, there was a welcome reduction in 1989 in the number of abortions among teenage women, particularly among girls under 16. Effective family planning and sex education have a major role to play in preventing unwanted pregnancies and the Government's policies are aimed at making such provision widely available. We recognise that every abortion is a tragedy and a major decision for the woman and the doctor concerned.

Baroness David

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply. I believe that she gave the figures only for 1989, which are an improvement. The abortion rate for the under-16s from 1980 to 1988 has increased by 28 per cent. That is very alarming. Does the noble Baroness agree that the closure of some family planning clinics has had a disastrous effect because young people, particularly the under-16s, will not always go to their GP for advice? The closure of family planning clinics means that advice on contraception will be available to fewer people. The tragedy of an eventual abortion could often be avoided by family planning advice. Can the Minister give us an assurance about the future provision of family planning clinics and government support?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, statistics are not always helpful but the noble Baroness's Question gives me an opportunity to put the record straight. Last week I quoted an increase in the abortion rate for England and Wales for women aged 15 to 44 as a percentage when it should have been per thousand. The figure is 1.19 per cent. in 1979 up to 1.54 per cent. in 1989, but with an encouraging drop in 1990. Those are overall figures.

I am rather puzzled by the statistic quoted by the noble Baroness. In 1989 there was a 4.6 per cent. fall in abortions for girls aged 16 to 19 years. That group represents 21 per cent. of abortions to resident women. The number of abortions to resident girls under the age of 16 has fallen each year since 1984. While we are by no means complacent about that, it is an encouraging sign.

Regarding the noble Baroness's second supplementary question on family planning, health authorities have been asked to consider provision of separate, less formal family planning arrangements than those for older age groups. The policy on sex education in schools is the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science and the school governing bodies. But there is no evidence of a lack of counsellors.

Baroness David

My Lords, can the Minister provide the figures for conceptions as well as abortions? The fact that the number of conceptions has risen is also alarming.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I do not have the relative figures.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, would the Minister agree that the underfunding of preventive and health education services generally is now becoming widespread in London? In some cases grants have been withdrawn altogether. A recent example is the London Borough of Lewisham where three Wel-Care workers who specialise in working with young people at risk and teenage single parents have had their grants terminated. The situation is extremely serious. Does the Minister agree that the social services in London, both statutory and voluntary, are facing an ever-growing and almost overwhelming volume of crisis work as a result?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, as I said, there is no evidence to show that there is a lack of counsellors. I also said that we aim to provide less formal family planning facilities to cater for teenage cases. Various projects are being independently evaluated and are about to be reported upon, which should be helpful. The Department of Education and Science is providing a large amount of funding generally for health education, including sex education in schools.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, would the Minister explain her answer? She said that there is no evidence of lack of resources. However, the right reverend Prelate has just told us that Lewisham had to get rid of three workers in this field. The two statements do not tie up. Does not the noble Baroness agree that it is an extremely short-sighted policy? If the Government wish to avoid abortions, surely the best way is to invest money in adequate advice and planning and not to get rid of those who work in that field.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for drawing attention to the examples he gave. However, overall there is no evidence of a shortage of counsellors.

Viscount Craigavon

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that in the past decade the Brook clinics, which have a high reputation for counselling services on contraception for young people, have had to reduce the number of doctor sessions by 15 per cent.? Would the Minister issue directives to district health authorities which are stronger than simply asking them to improve services for young people, as referred to in an earlier answer?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, last week in answer to a Question on a related topic I referred to the guidance and circulars that had been issued in relation to counselling and to the monitoring methods which are in place.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that as long as the young regard technology as a substitute for morality in the prevention of either conception or birth we shall continue to be faced with this tragic problem on a major scale? Does she also agree that there is an urgent need for all agencies, including the Government's education department, to press for a return to traditional family values in this country?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, my noble friend makes a helpful point. Counselling is not just for family planning clinics. It can come from parents, GPs, teachers and other members of the community.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I agree with the Minister that her noble friend makes a valid point. But it is worrying that there seems to be a conflict of evidence. Does the noble Baroness accept that across the country one in four of the family planning services in district health authorities have been cut? Does she also accept that in half of the district health authorities in London 50 per cent. of late abortions are for girls under 20? If there is already a shortage of family planning facilities—of which fact there is a great deal of evidence—does she not feel that the Government should ensure that there are no further cuts? Can they ensure that in future family planning services are kept up to scratch?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, we have had this argument before regarding the prescriptive rights of central government. As the noble Lord may remember, our view is that local health authorities are best able to decide on spending priorities. I do not have figures of late abortions for those under 20. However, there has been a decrease in late abortions for those under the age of 16.