HL Deb 28 October 2004 vol 665 cc1399-401

11.16 a.m.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they intend to take following reports that the British Pregnancy Advisory Service had referred women abroad for abortions after the United Kingdom legal limit of 24 weeks.

Lord Warner

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Health has asked the Chief Medical Officer to investigate those reports and to make recommendations. It would be inappropriate for me to comment any further until the investigation has been completed.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. Is the Minister able to say when the Chief Medical Officer is expected to complete the inquiry so rightly ordered by the Government into the matter? Could he tell the House whether the BPAS is in receipt of any public money, either directly or indirectly, and if so, how much?

Lord Warner

My Lords, on the first point, we certainly do not wish to cramp the Chief Medical Officer's style in carrying out a thorough and independent investigation, but I anticipate that the report will be available before the end of the year. On funding, central government do not give any funding to the BPAS. Funding is provided for services that it provides by individual primary care trusts, but we do not collect that information centrally—after all, we are devolving responsibility within the NHS.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, could the Minister tell the House whether, given that the Government give no money to that organisation, it is suggested in any way—without pre-judging the inquiry—that there could have been a criminal offence?

Lord Warner

My Lords, all I would say is that the law in this area, as I discovered when I was being briefed for the Question, is extremely complex and is not a matter on which I would want to venture an opinion at this time. That will be covered by the Chief Medical Officer's investigation, and I would hope that he will be able to clarify matters in terms of the law in an extremely complicated area. I do not want to comment further on this aspect at this time.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if an abortion must be performed, it should be performed as early as possible? Is he aware of the concern of the All-Party Group on Pro-choice and Sexual Health that the standard three-week waiting time should be reduced to one week? In the light of that, are the Government considering the proposals of the Family Planning Association that the second doctor's signature may be unnecessary in future, and that abortions could take place in community settings, such as family planning clinics and GP clinics, and done by specially trained nurses, where that abortion is early and uncomplicated?

Lord Warner

My Lords, we are aware of those various proposals for change. We certainly agree that where women are legally entitled to an abortion, they should have access to the procedure as soon as possible. The evidence shows that the risk of complications increases the later in gestation.

As a government, we have invested £6 million to improve early access to abortion services and have set a standard of a maximum waiting time of three weeks. In addition, primary care trust performance in this area is being measured as part of NHS performance assessments. At this stage, I would not want to comment further on possible changes in the law. The Government certainly have no plans to change the law in this area.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance to the House that the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, will be conveyed to the people doing the study? Can we have an answer on that? It is a most interesting point.

Lord Warner

My Lords, I am sure that the Chief Medical Officer is an assiduous reader of your Lordships' debates in this area. But I shall certainly draw this debate to his attention.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what the change has been in the number of abortions year on year over the past 10 years? In particular, how many have been early abortions? That follows on from the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley.

Lord Warner

My Lords, I do not have the 10-year figures in my head or my brief. The total number of abortions in 2002 was just over 180,000. We know that on the latest abortion figures 87 per cent were carried out at under-13 weeks and less than 1 per cent were performed at 22 weeks and over.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Lord's answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, implied that the only concern that the Government have about the dangers of increasing the age at which abortion might be carried out is the danger of complications. There was no mention of the danger of the sensitivity of the foetus. I hope that the noble Lord will assure your Lordships that that is also in the Government's mind.

As I am on my feet and allowed two shots, where might my noble friend Lady Knight get the figures from the trusts that the Minister is unable to provide centrally?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I think that noble Lords will find on the Department of Health website the names of the 303 primary care trusts. I leave it to noble Lords to make their own inquiries in that area. There was no implication in my reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, at all. We have to look after the health of women who are legally entitled to an abortion.