HL Deb 17 November 2004 vol 666 cc1436-9

2.57 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are their plans to reduce the pregnancy rate in 16 and 17 year-old girls.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, the Government have in place a 10-year strategy to address the causes and consequences of teenage pregnancy, with a view to halving the rate of under-18 conceptions by 2010. Between 1998 and 2002, the under-18 conception rate fell by 8.6 per cent and the under-16 rate by 11.2 per cent. The next phase of the strategy will involve intensifying delivery in areas with the highest rates and work to reduce the incidence of unplanned second pregnancies.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. While I acknowledge that the Government's strategy is beginning to work for the under-16s, do the worrying figures for 16 and 17 year-olds not indicate the need for a different sort of message for the older teenage girls who really should be in education and training rather than looking after babies?

Secondly, do the rather small and slow improvements not indicate that it really is time that sexual and relationship education should be a statutory part of the national curriculum, delivered by specialist trained teachers?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, let me take the noble Baroness's first point first. I entirely agree that every message we send should be tailored to its audience. Teenage pregnancy is a hugely complex question, with a combination of circumstances applying in each case. Getting teenage mothers back into education is a very important part of the strategy. The figures show that we are beginning to win—they went up to 29.7 per cent in 2003 compared with 23 per cent in 1997. So we are making progress.

In terms of the statutory basis for PHSE, SRE has, as the noble Baroness knows, a partly statutory basis in the science curriculum. We keep the PHSE curriculum under review, but because it is such a wide and sensitive area of relationship education, risk assessment, and so on, for young people, we feel it is better for teachers to keep the discretion.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, I believe that the teenage pregnancy rates for the under-16s are at their lowest since 1993. That is a success story, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, indicated. Are disadvantaged areas suffering from disproportionate levels of teenage pregnancy?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, the most effective contraception policy is to raise aspiration and achievement among young women. One of the problems is that—these are astonishing figures—50 per cent of conceptions occur in only 20 per cent of wards, where conception rates are up to six times higher than in more affluent areas. However, having said that, many areas such as Liverpool and Tower Hamlets are doing very well.

When I referred in my first Answer to intensifying the strategy, I meant getting better proposals for clearer messages, targeting schools with 20 per cent free school meals eligibility, taking part in professional development programmes and working with neighbourhood renewal units to co-ordinate targeted activities. There is a great deal more that we could do.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, it is six months since I asked the Minister why the same prominence was not given to the "say no" campaign as was given to the "know how" campaign. What is the Government's response to the report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which states that, in the 15 to 19 age group, the number of pregnancies is down by 30 per cent over the past decade due to a "say no-campaign?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I am very interested in the figure although I do not know the report. However, it does not accord with the other evidence that we have, which is that abstinence programmes on their own, especially when they are not followed up with education, support and advice, do not work as effectively as contraceptive programmes delivered and explained responsibly. That evidence comes from the United States, which has a higher rate of teenage pregnancy than we do and where a lot of different work is going on. However, I will certainly look at the report mentioned by the noble Baroness and write to her.

Lord Laming

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that becoming a parent is a lifetime commitment. Is there anything in this strategy that ensures that the fathers of these babies are able to carry out their continuing responsibilities?

Baroness Andrews

Yes, my Lords. Let me explain briefly what we are doing about parents. The strategy has two elements. First, it will help young teenage parents to become better parents, not by being judgmental, but by giving them support, especially through the Sure Start Plus pilot programme to ensure that they have all the support that they need. That is very important. Secondly, we are helping them to get back into education, work and training. However, fathers have been relatively neglected. A programme that I saw recently has commissioned research on how to assist fathers to become more involved in bringing up their children. That is being done by an organisation called Continue, which examines support needs and will provide a guide to practitioners.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, the Minister referred to the PSHE programme. Can she assure us that all schools—or at least the majority of schools—now have a teacher who is specifically trained to deliver relationship education?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord that we are aware that sexual relationships education has been a little patchy. We are doing a great deal to raise quality and standards overall. One of the crucial ways of doing that is to develop continuing professional development for teachers in this field. Seven hundred teachers went through a new programme last year and another 3,000 will follow this year. That is the way to overcome some teachers' lack of confidence in teaching what is a very sensitive area of the curriculum.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, did my noble friend the Minister see the recent TV programme on teenage pregnancy? If she did, was she, like me, concerned when the young schoolgirl said, "It's no big thing to have a baby—everybody's doing it"? What are the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills doing to use other teenagers to try to develop an alternative cult that it is not cool to become pregnant?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, the whole thrust of the sexual relationships education programme is to teach about responsible relationships and avoiding risks. Young people are clear that they do not want be taught only about sex. They want to be taught about relationships. That is the best message that we can send. The media campaign that has been running since 2000 is having an impact. Evaluations show that teenagers are well aware of what we are trying to get across, especially in the field of SRE, so the noble Baroness's prognosis was rather a gloomy one. I do not think that most teenagers would agree with that message.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us whether there is a link between underage conception and under-age drinking?

Baroness Andrews

Yes my Lords; in fact, some research has proven the link. I refer the noble Viscount to the recent report by the National Children's Bureau on the basis of research commissioned by the DfES, which shows that there is a link between alcohol and under-age sex, especially in relation to early sexual experience. Clearly, what we are trying to do through the SRE strategy, the sexual health strategy and the alcohol strategy, especially in relation to binge drinking, is ensure that everything comes together in a coherent and strategic way at local authority as well as national level.

Lord Patel

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is aware of the significant number of children who responded to the Every child Matters consultation asking for health services to be available in their schools, including at weekends. Children and young people want the services to include confidential help, support and advice on all aspects of sexual health. Does that kind of facility form part of the Government's strategy for sexual health?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, very much so. In fact, the strategy seeks to improve access to services in all settings. We are very aware that many young people cannot presently access services at the weekends and in the evenings. However, we have seen a 25 per cent increase in young people's consultations in community contraceptive clinics. We are looking to use Connexions, for example, and one-stop shops that are open at weekends and in the evenings. That is particularly important in rural areas. The noble Lord will appreciate that we are working with the Royal College of General Practitioners to develop much more teenage-friendly and accessible services in surgeries.