HL Deb 20 January 1999 vol 596 cc573-5

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in 1997, the conception rate for 13 to 15 year-old girls rose by 11 per cent. over the figure for 1996; and, if so, what action they propose to take to reverse this trend.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I believe the figures to which the noble Lord refers may be those first published by the Office for National Statistics in March 1998 relating to conceptions in England and Wales. For 1996 those showed a rate of 9.4 conceptions per 1,000 girls aged 13–15—an increase of approximately 11 per cent. over the 1995 rate of 8.5 per 1,000.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer. Does he agree that every child, boys as well as girls, by the time they reach the age of 14, ought to have a clear picture of the grim realities of single motherhood and of the problems that flow from it, both for the mother and the child?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Yes, my Lords, there is a case for effective sex and relationships education in schools. But it is also important to help children prepare for parenthood. The noble Lord will be interested to know that a joint working group of the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment is examining the approach that can be taken in this area, particularly in relation to schools.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, do the Government have any plans for assisting girls in this age group in schools; for example, through the school nursing system where numbers, I am led to believe, are declining?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the whole area of sex and relationships education in schools is an important issue. I am the first to acknowledge the important role of school nurses in providing the right kind of support education to young people in schools. I also acknowledge the role of teachers and health visitors. There are examples of very successful projects where health visitors have entered schools to provide the right kind of support to teenage girls.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that the Government will not pursue the tactic of making contraceptives, including the "morning after" pill, widely and readily available to very young girls without informing their parents, who are after all responsible for the well-being of their daughters? Is he aware that evidence indicates that such a tactic does not cut back, but increases, early pregnancy?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am sure that no one in this House could possibly condone under-age sex. It is worth making the point that the great majority of girls in schools are not sexually active. However, a minority are. We must recognise the need to provide education, advice and, where appropriate, contraceptive services to young people.

On the more general issue of the availability of sex and relationships education in schools, evidence indicates that well-designed education, far from encouraging sexual activity, plays a key role in delaying sexual activity and improving the uptake and appropriate use of contraceptives, with the consequent avoidance of sexually transmitted infections.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, will the new committee that is to examine these matters also take account of the European figures? Other parts of Europe have a better record than the United Kingdom in this matter.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, that is an important issue. If we examine the rate of teenage conceptions in this country as compared to other countries in Europe, we find that our rate is twice that of Germany, four times that of France, and seven times that of Holland. There are lessons we can learn from other countries, not merely in relation to the availability of family planning services and education in schools but also in regard to relationships between parents and children. In some other countries there are more successful approaches to discussing these issues.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, the Minister referred to the question of education. Does he accept that one reason for the problem is the constant under-rating of the need for Christian education on these and other moral issues in schools throughout the country together with the Government's failure to curb the proliferation of pornographic and foul language programmes on television and the many hundreds of magazines that are available to youngsters?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Yes, my Lords, when one examines the availability of magazines such as those suggested by my noble friend and the peer group pressure that young people are sometimes under, one realises the tremendous challenge that we face in trying to reduce what is a very high teenage conception rate in this country. As regards a proper programme of sex and relationships education, we encourage schools to provide that education in such a way as to have due regard to moral considerations and the value of family life.

Baroness Young

My Lords, is the noble Lord able to give a breakdown of the figures to show whether it is possible to establish how many of these young girls are repeating a cycle of deprivation and are themselves the daughters of young mothers? In addressing that point, will he emphasise the importance in all sex education—or personal and social education, as it seems to be called today—of stressing to young people that a marriage is the proper situation in which to raise a family and that that is a very positive attitude to put forward to young girls?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I agree that marriage provides a strong foundation for raising children, but I believe that many other kinds of relationships can be equally successful. To 13 or 14 year-old girls, concepts of marriage may seem rather remote. I believe that it is necessary to deal with the issues in the broader context of support and counselling about relationships.

With regard to the noble Baroness's first question, I do not have figures available to show the relationship, but I will see what I can find out. Certainly, I believe there is some evidence that the cycle of deprivation in which young girls have children can be passed on from one generation to another. That is one of the key elements of the work on which the Government are focused.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, I accept much that my noble friend Lord Stallard said. However, in these difficult matters of ethics and sexual conduct, will all those concerned with sex education bear in mind that Christianity is not the only religion practised in this country and that there are many people of no religion who have strong ethical and moral codes? Perhaps we should be a little broader in our concepts.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Yes, my Lords, I very much agree with that.

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