HL Deb 10 July 1997 vol 581 cc717-9
Viscount Craigavon

asked Her Majesty's Government: What priority is being given by the Department for International Development, in the context of the Government's policy on human rights, to the continuing development of projects on women's reproductive health.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Government want to ensure that all people can realise their internationally defined human rights. Among those is the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health. The Government will give top priority to contributing to the OECD target of reproductive health for all by 2015 and a three-quarters reduction in maternal mortality by the same date.

Viscount Craigavon

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging and detailed Answer. Does she accept that many of us who have been in this field for many years are encouraged by the comments of her colleague the Secretary of State? Even before the departmental White Paper is published, she has placed on record—in her characteristic and forthright language—that she supports reproductive health and population measures as the core of her attack on poverty and also her emphasis on sustainability.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that comment. I thank him also for his contribution as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population Development and Reproductive Health. I hope and believe that we can look forward to more from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State at the Department for International Development on World Population Day. She will be making a speech later today on these important topics. It is important to note a story of considerable success for reproductive health in recent years. Around 57 per cent. of the world's couples now use some form of contraception as compared with only 9 per cent. 30 years ago.

Baroness Flather

My Lords, is the Minister aware that recent research from India shows that literacy, as a precursor to teaching about health issues, has failed? Will she make all efforts to encourage NGOs to link literacy to family health issues and family planning to make literacy viable as well as to bring forward the programme for health education?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the point is well taken. The fact is that literate women are better able to control their fertility than illiterate women. They are the potential for an engine of massive human development which will transform and enhance social arrangements. Education and health are the key to sound development. Women and girls need access to education if they are to improve and protect their sexual and reproductive health.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is not only literacy, but also the inter-relationship of mother and child health programmes and health programmes in general, together with overall economic development, that are central to success on this issue? We are therefore all looking to the White Paper to see how those are brought together in the interests of women and reproductive health.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, many factors are involved in this important matter, not least the question of resources. I am happy to say that the UK is the fourth largest donor in the field behind the United States, Japan and Germany. Indeed, the United Kingdom invested nearly £70 million in reproductive health last year.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on this side of the House we are extremely pleased that the Government are continuing the valiant work which was carried out in this field by my noble friend Lady Chalker of Wallasey? Will she try to encourage the US, France, Italy and Belgium to desist from slackening their assistance?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I join with the noble Lord in his tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, for her valuable work in this field. Such work has brought home important achievements. The world's population was growing at a slower rate in the first five years of the 1990s than in the last five years of the 1980s. We shall continue to press our colleagues in Europe and elsewhere to keep up their donations in this important field.

Lord Rea

My Lords, as well as encouraging international action by other countries that have possibly fallen by the wayside in their contributions, can my noble friend assure us that of the good proportion of the funds devoted to primary healthcare and other health matters in the social sector generally, the part going to reproductive health will be maintained as it was under previous governments, and possibly even increased?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, sadly, the US—which was the lead donor in population assistance—cut its foreign aid bill in that respect. That has led to a rather more uncertain position. Nonetheless, the UK looks to the UN population fund—the UNFPA—to lead the global effort to ensure that adequate supplies of contraceptives are made available. I can assure the noble Lord that we shall maintain our own financial effort.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is important to watch not only reproductive health but also general health in terms of sexually transmitted diseases? Is she aware that many charities in this country—I declare an interest as chairman of Plan International—are raising money to help educate people in terms of sexual practices which are important in terms of sexual health and sexually transmitted diseases?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware of the point made by the noble Baroness. It is not just a question of the risk to mothers at the time of pregnancy, though that is still a real risk in many developing countries. Sadly, it is still the position that 1 million people die each year throughout the world as a result of treatable sexually transmitted diseases—diseases other than HIV and AIDS. It is important that funds are maintained for education on those matters as well as healthcare.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is a third strand in addition to health and education, hinted at by the noble Lord, Lord Judd? I refer to income generation targeted at women of childbearing age to provide additional income in the family. That is extremely important. I hope that the Minister will give encouragement to the voluntary sector which has targeted successfully programmes such as Care International.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is important that lines of income to the voluntary sector are maintained in the way the noble Earl describes. At the heart of the issue is the question of dealing with world poverty. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made that clear on a number of occasions. I hope and believe that we can look forward to the interesting speech she will be giving on that subject later today.

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