HL Deb 15 July 1996 vol 574 cc614-6

2.51 p.m.

Viscount Craigavon asked Her Majesty's Government:

What new initiatives the Overseas Development Administration has taken in the field of reproductive health following the recommendations of recent international conferences.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, in Cairo I said I hoped to commit more than £100 million to reproductive health work in 1994 and 1995. We actually committed £184 million. Our spend has increased from £24 million in 1990 to £62 million in 1995—some 3 per cent. of the aid programme. New developments include our Seedcorn Fund to support innovative work. ODA and the Medical Research Council are co-funding the development of new methods of contraception.

Viscount Craigavon

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. Will she accept that her response indicated welcome examples of the considerable achievements of her department and herself in recent years, reflected in the enormous increased resources allocated? However, does she agree that there is still a large expressed need in the area of reproductive health in the developing countries—something of the order of 200 million people? Will she continue therefore to set an example to other donor countries by giving high priority to this subject in her department?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount. It is vital that not only we, but also other donor countries, help the development of the growing world by assisting families to decide on the size and spacing of their children. The world population is currently 5.6 billion. It is growing by 1 billion people every decade and could double or triple in the next century. That is why we are committed to giving access to families so that they may choose what size of family they want and its spacing. And that is why we have more than doubled our programme in the past five years.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I acknowledge the splendid work which the Government, with the help of my noble friend, have done to help the world in that way. As my noble friend recently agreed that overpopulation is a principal cause of poverty, will she agree also that it leads to relentless urbanisation and too much damage to the environment? Will the Government therefore continue with their policy as relentlessly as they can?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. He is right that urbanisation does not bring relief to families that are growing faster than the economies of the countries to which they belong. The difficulty for those families is often that they have no access to good family planning advice and no access to sound reproductive health assistance.

We want to give them that access so that they can choose. In the British programme there will never be any coercion and support for abortion.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge

My Lords, I wish to raise two points: first, that the term "reproductive health" includes access to abortion on demand; and, secondly, that the declaration of the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo last year stated that abortion should never be used as a method of family planning. That was confirmed at a recent conference in Istanbul. I would ask the Minister to assure the House that Her Majesty's Government will not support any initiative that involves abortion.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I repeat what I said to my noble friend. We have been opposed throughout to abortion as a method of family planning. My team and I argued for that to be included in the Cairo programme of action; we argued for it in the Beijing platform of action; and will not support any organisation that permits or condones abortion as a method of family planning.

Baroness Flather

My Lords, my noble friend said that population increase is the single most serious problem facing developing countries. Will she agree to help to remove opposition to family planning which still exists in some quarters in this country and throughout the world? That is essential to the developing countries. Will my noble friend do her utmost to remove that opposition and lay to rest the fears that are quite unjustified?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I will do my best. It is sensible to set out these matters in a factual and non-emotional way. We know from long experience in development that many families across the world are desperate for help in containing the number of children that they have. I have seen many thoroughly exhausted young women in their late 20s and early 30s who have already been through more than 10 pregnancies. That has so exhausted them that they are no longer able to look after their families. It is important to work in a practical, common-sense way to get rid of some of the emotion and some of the fears that arise in relation to this difficult and sensitive subject.

Lord Rea

My Lords, the Minister is aware that the all-party group on this issue gives equal weight to the words "population" and "development". Does she agree that her successful population programmes go hand in hand with social or human development, particularly the development of primary care and education, especially of girls? Does she agree also that population activities which neglect that aspect and are funded at the expense of such programmes are likely to be ineffective?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, not for the first time on this important subject the noble Lord, Lord Rea, and I are in a considerable degree of agreement. It is critical that, in addition to making available access to family planning advice, we ensure that all people, especially women, have access to better opportunities for education so that they can make and maintain responsible choices. We know that we cannot be as successful in helping families without education and the ability to read to choose and determine the number of children that they have.

Lord Winston

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on their commendable record with population control in the world generally. However, is not the Minister concerned that we give proportionately more of our gross national product than any other country? Is it possible that we can persuade the Americans to be as generous as we are in helping this problem which, out of self-interest, they should consider seriously?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will not use the word "control" again because nothing in our policy smacks of it. We talk about children by choice and not chance. There is a real reason for that: that couples should decide how many children they are going to have; they should never be controlled by any government. As regards the United States, we very much hope that it will be more realistic. We know full well that all the most successful programmes to look after the needs of women in the developing world begin in the villages. They are very much based where the family is situated. If more of that work can be done through USAID, I believe that the United States will see the value of the sort of work of which we know the complete value.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a large body of scientific evidence available now indicating that perhaps the women involved will not need to have the choice? There are something like 25 million pesticide poisoning incidents in the undeveloped countries each year. There is an increasing body of evidence that pesticides in small quantities are affecting the reproductive health of these young women and that eventually they will be unable to have babies. Many of the pesticides have been found in the United Kingdom—

Noble Lords


The Countess of Mar

—and other developed countries. Can the noble Baroness say what she proposes to do about it?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, this matter is very wide of the Question. I shall look at what the noble Countess has said. We try to improve health wherever we are working.

The Duke of Norfolk

My Lords—

Noble Lords

Next Question!

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, I wonder whether we might proceed to the next Question. I apologise to my noble friend. With the leave of the House, I believe that we should give time to the final Question.