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9.48 pm

Mr. Cohen: I have presented four data protection Bills to the House, and I congratulate the Government on presenting this Bill. However, I was not selected by the Whips to serve on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill because, obviously, there was great interest from other Labour Members.

The Government have made a worthy attempt to improve data protection and to implement the European directive, although they have not been altogether successful in some aspects. Recital 10 of the directive requires that

A lot of the Bill achieves that higher level of protection, but several aspects fail that test. The Government have been unduly influenced--and, I think, misinformed--about the possible costs of implementing data protection in relation to the directive. In her briefing note on the Bill, the Data Protection Registrar says, in respect of the £1,892 million estimated costs, that she

    "cannot see why data controllers should have to incur increases in compliance costs of this kind".

I think that a false figure has been put out.

Time is short and I do not want to delay the House, so I shall run through a few items to signal where I think that there may be problems and a lessening in rights. I have already referred to the relevant filing system. On enforced subject access, the Bill provides less protection than the Police Act 1997 in respect of employers obtaining criminal conviction certificates, and they will be able to see spent and unspent convictions, bindings over and cautions against would-be employees under enforced subject access, until it is got rid of.

On sensitive personal data, the Bill has worrying aspects. Genetic data should have been regarded as sensitive, and the confidentiality of medical records is a concern. Aspects of the Bill effectively allow for the

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increasing of data processing without the patient's consent, and some of those contradict what the General Medical Council recommends. I am concerned that protection for patients, especially that associated with their consent, is not going according to what the GMC advises. Ministers should give some thought to an explanation of why they have moved away from the GMC, at least in that respect.

The second data protection principle is weakened by being linked to a notification procedure. That was not required under the directive, and I do not know why the Government weakened that area, but I am concerned most about the exemptions. The scope of a number of exemptions has been widened, or new exemptions have been introduced. No explanation has been given, and there should have been an explanation if the current law had created any problems. It did not seem to be creating problems, so I do not know why those new exemptions have been introduced.

There are powers in the Bill for data controllers to delay the giving of information. That proposal will not be in the freedom of information Bill, but it will be in this Bill, and it will cost a lot of money.

The Data Protection Registrar has expressed concern about clause 59, which has been described as a "gagging clause", preventing staff from discussing cases of interest with the press. I have outlined some of the aspects of the Bill which I fear will result in a reduction in the rights of data subjects. I suspect that, in future, the European Commission may require the United Kingdom to modify the legislation to deal with some of the problems that I have mentioned.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.



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Emergency Contraception

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

9.55 pm

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I should like to think of this Adjournment debate as my contribution to the 50th anniversary of the national health service.

Before I became a Member of Parliament, I was a family planning doctor and general practitioner for many years, and I saw hundreds of examples of young women who needed emergency contraception and could not obtain it. In many cases, that led to unwanted babies or abortions. The problem lies in the fact that appointments have to be made with GPs and it often takes two or three days before one can see them. Casualty departments are overcrowded and, in any case, are not appropriate places to discuss such matters. Moreover, there are fewer family planning clinics than there used to be, and women often have to wait until after the weekend before they can go to one. Thus, women often cannot get emergency contraception within the prescribed 72 hours unless they are very brave and persistent. Young teenagers, in particular, are terribly afraid of making a fuss.

I must state at the outset that I regret the fact that there is so much sexual activity among young teenagers. Many factors are to blame, as I am sure the Minister realises. The fact that unwanted pregnancies and abortion rates are highest in areas of social deprivation will not have escaped her notice, and I know that she is already addressing the problem of sex education by trying to improve matters in schools and to increase personal responsibility among young people. I commend her for those much-needed efforts.

Emergency contraception is not meant to be a substitute for either sex education or regular contraception. They must go hand in hand. However, it is a practical way in which to deal with the world as it is, and its wider use would prevent the high rate of abortion among young women, which must be our main priority. This country has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. Out of every 1,000 women under the age of 16, 8.5 get pregnant, and in the 16 to 19 age group, between 58 and 59 out of every 1,000 get pregnant. It simply will not do. Half to a third of those pregnancies end in abortion.

The problem is not limited to teenagers. Many older women who are otherwise quite responsible about their sexual lives and their relationships have contraceptive accidents and need better access to emergency contraception.

There are two forms of emergency contraception. The fitting of an intra-uterine contraceptive device, commonly known as a coil, must be done within five days. I do not intend to go into that this evening because the device must be fitted by a properly trained doctor in a clinic.

I want to concentrate on the emergency contraceptive pill. It is a dose of oestrogen and progesterone female sex hormones, which have been used since the 1950s. Indeed, in the 1960s, when I was on the pill, I took the equivalent dose of the emergency contraceptive pill every day--21 days out of 28--and so did many women of my generation.

Emergency contraception is a dose repeated once, after 12 hours, and it prevents pregnancy in about 90 per cent. of episodes. In most cases, its effect is to prevent the

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release of the egg from the ovary. It is important for people to know that. If it is taken later in the menstrual cycle, it will prevent implantation in the wall of the uterus of the fertilised egg. It has the same effect as a coil or an intra-uterine device. It is not an abortion in any shape or form. I repeat that point: emergency contraception cannot be used to cause an abortion.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Janet Anderson.]

Dr. Tonge: Emergency contraception cannot be used to cause an abortion. If a woman is already pregnant, emergency contraception does not work. Abortion occurs after implantation, and the emergency contraceptive pill intervenes before that stage.

Recently, the Daily Mail ran an article claiming that I and my supporters were promoting abortion over the counter. The journalist who wrote that article should be thoroughly ashamed. We are trying to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Such misleading, inaccurate and unbalanced reporting will harm the very people who need most help. The press are ready to condemn single parents and unmarried mothers, and when people try to do something about the problem, they condemn them, too. Over the years, the press has been responsible for pill scares, which have caused many unwanted pregnancies and abortions. They have put women off taking the birth control pill, and now they are trying to put them off emergency contraception.

I shall deal with some of the issues. The fear of thrombosis is often mentioned. Sixty in 100,000 women who become pregnant will get a deep-vein thrombosis. It is a little-known fact that pregnancy is quite a dangerous condition. In my pill-taking days, when women were taking the higher dose of pill, the rate of thrombosis was 30 in 100,000. With the new pills used today, the risk is even lower: 15 to 30 in 100,000. In the past 10 years, with the use of the emergency contraceptive pill, there have been very few cases of thrombosis. The levels are similar to those of the general population who are neither pregnant nor taking the pill: about 5 in 100,000. It is not a risk.

A one-off high dose of oestrogen and progesterone carries no contra-indications, except if there is an active attack of migraine--anyone knows when that is happening. That is caused by dilation of the cerebral arteries and may be affected by oestrogen.

Suspected pregnancy is a contra-indication simply because the method does not work after implantation of the fertilised egg. As I said, it will not cause an abortion. Experience in the past 40 years has shown that the use of the ordinary contraceptive pill does not have any adverse effects on a baby, even if the mother continues to take the pill while she is pregnant.

A large dose of the same hormone--such as a young woman taking it two or three times in one month--would disrupt the menstrual cycle, but would not have any other effect. Indeed, if a baby swallows a whole packet of contraceptive pills--four or five times the dose of the emergency contraception--the mother is told that it may make her baby very sick, but that, apart from dealing with that, she need take no action.

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The emergency contraceptive pill is safer than aspirin, paracetamol, many of the caffeine products that are available as pep pills and many drugs that are currently on sale in supermarkets and petrol stations. Indeed, one can buy contraception in the form of condoms at petrol stations, but, if a condom breaks or the method goes wrong, one cannot get a remedy anywhere in the time scale about which I am talking. I know that this is controversial, but I believe that emergency contraception available over the counter from properly trained pharmacists could prevent an abuse of the method.

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