HL Deb 24 March 1998 vol 587 cc1090-2

2.51 p.m.

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the fact that more than half the children born in the city of Dundee in 1996 were born to unmarried mothers gives them cause for concern.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, in 1996, there were 875 new-born children in Dundee born to unmarried parents—that is, 50.6 per cent. of all live births. Some 80 per cent. of births to unmarried parents in 1996 were, however, jointly registered by both parents. Health statistics show that while the rate of teenage pregnancies in the Tayside Health Board area, which includes Dundee, is high compared with the rest of Scotland, there has been a small but steady fall in the number of such pregnancies in the area. Nonetheless, teenage pregnancies generally speaking are a cause of concern. Addressing the issue across Scotland as a whole has been given priority in the recently published Green Paper, Working Together for a Healthier Scotland.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, if I may say so, it does not really answer the Question, which relates particularly to the institution of marriage in the context of the births in Dundee, and also more generally. Does the noble Baroness agree with the view expressed in an article in the Independent on Sunday two days ago, which was an analysis of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget and was summarised in the following quotation: Mr. Brown's message was that Government is a bystander when it conies to love, marriage and divorce … For a poor woman now the only safe marriage is with the state"?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, we cannot allow for every spin that newspaper reports put on the Budget. Indeed, I saw many headlines about the Chancellor of the Exchequer being the friend of the family and about it being a family-friendly Budget. As my right honourable friend made clear in his Budget Statement, the Government know that families are the bedrock of a stable and healthy society. The Budget proposals of the Chancellor of the Exchequer seek to ensure that women get a fair deal from the state and that women's choices, as well as men's, are dealt with fairly in both the tax and the benefit systems. That poses no threat to family formation.

The Government's primary concern is with the stability of relationships where children are involved. They recognise the evidence which shows that two parents offer the best prospects for their children and that this stability is often most easily found in marriage. However, it is important to recognise that the Government cannot, and should not, force couples either to marry or to stay together. As I said, the Government place considerable value on the family; indeed, we see it as our duty to support and nurture its role. But that is not to deny that there are strong, mutually supportive family relationships outside marriage.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, in view of the rather remarkable statistics revealed in the Question, can the Minister tell the House to what extent the figures for Dundee are consistent with those for the country as a whole? As regards the answer that the noble Baroness has just given on the Budget, surely it is the case that the Budget actually restricts the married couple's allowance. Is that not bound to be a deterrent to those who may wish to marry?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, on the noble Lord's first point, I can tell the House that health statistics show that, in 1996, Tayside had a 52.1 per cent. rate of conception per 1,000 female teenage residents against a Scottish average of 41.9 per cent. In other words, the answer to the question is that the figures are higher than those in the rest of Scotland. Regarding the noble Lord's second point, the answer is no. I am afraid that the noble Lord is mistaken; that is not the effect of the Budget.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that those of us on these Benches are not happy about the Government's apparent neutrality over the institution of marriage? We speak from these Benches not just for all the Christian Churches but for all the main religions in stating that the institution of marriage is vital not just to the nurture of children but also to the stability of society as a whole. Will the Minister do her best to ensure that the Government make a commitment by introducing practical measures to support the institution of marriage?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I repeat what I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. The Chancellor of the Exchequer made clear in his Budget Statement that this Government know that families are the bedrock of a stable and health society. We see the family as the essential unit of social stability, which should, therefore, be supported as far as possible by government policy. I do not believe that to be neutrality. Moreover, it is most important for us not to get this out of perspective. Out of 16 million families in this country, four out of five are headed by a married couple. After Denmark and Portugal, the United Kingdom has the highest marriage rate in the European Union. I believe that that shows that marriage is alive and well in this country.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, does the Minister agree that deliberate teenage pregnancies might be discouraged if the donees were to be given vouchers rather than monetary benefits?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

No, my Lords; I do not agree with the noble Lord. Indeed, I am not quite sure what point he is trying to make by using the word "deliberate". As I said, teenage pregnancies are a big problem for all of us and they cause us great concern. However, through the Scottish Office in Scotland—which, after all, is the subject of the Question—the Government are involved in various projects regarding sex education and other measures to try to discourage teenage pregnancies. But I shall not take up the time of the House by listing some of them.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that another important aspect of this whole area is suitable sex education in schools and the availability of family planning facilities and advice? Can my noble friend tell me whether or not these are readily available in the Dundee area?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that important point. The Scottish Office offers general guidance on family planning and sex education and looks to health boards and education authorities to devise strategies best suited to their own needs for implementing that. In 1998–99 the Health Education Board for Scotland is undertaking a project to encourage and promote family planning, including appropriate use of contraceptives and sexual behaviour. In Dundee the Cornerstone Project is a city centre, drop-in facility for young people funded jointly by Dundee City Council, Dundee healthcare and the Scottish Office, providing facilities and services for counselling and advice about contraception.