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Dr. Harris: Is it not surprising that the Conservative party is whipping against moves toward greater access to emergency contraception, given the evidence from other countries where children, young people and teenagers are not having any less sex than they are, I think prematurely, in this country? That evidence shows that better access to such contraception decreases the amount of teenage pregnancy, teenage abortion--which I know particularly worries the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), as it worries all of us--and teenage births.

Mr. Harvey: My hon. Friend makes a series of very good points. My advice to him is never to be surprised by anything that the Conservative Whips do.

According to the Public Health Laboratory Service, there was a record number of new HIV diagnoses in heterosexual females in 1999. That is cause for serious alarm. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made some pertinent points about the increasing incidence of sexually transmitted diseases over the past five years. Perhaps it is in no small part due to the fact that, after the worries about AIDS which broke out in the 1980s and carried through into the early 1990s, there has probably been far less observance of safe sexual practices in recent years than there was before that. I think that that is in no small part due to the general perception in society and perhaps in the media that, because the AIDS epidemic has not reached the sort of numbers that were originally predicted, the whole problem has somehow or other been beaten. It certainly has not. If the growing incidence of these very serious conditions is an indication that people have become more relaxed about them, they are wrong to do so, and this lack of caution has potentially dangerous consequences. It must be a matter of concern to all of us that there are an estimated 30,000 HIV infections in the UK, with a third of them undiagnosed.

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The tobacco advertising ban, which started its way through the House on Monday, and some of the commitments the Government have made in their NHS plan, are welcome signs that the Government are taking the public health agenda seriously. We gladly support them. But there is still a long way to go to put right some of the UK's real problems. That is why we should like to see a Minister of public health not in the Department of Health, but in the Cabinet Office, bringing together relevant policies across all Government Departments. Putting the important questions of public health at the very heart of Government is the surest way to making the further improvements that all of us in the House, of whatever colour, want to see.

8.30 pm

Mr. Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): I shall be shorter than I might have been, in the light of the way in which the Opposition have staged their debate. As the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) leaves the Chamber, I should like to draw attention to the motion. I am puzzled; it is worded in a weasel way. What is the purpose behind it? One might have expected a full-frontal attack on the use of MMR vaccines. The hon. Member for Woodspring did not do that, for which I am sure the House is grateful. I will say more about that in a moment.

Is it simply coincidence that we are having this debate when there is what I call the "Daily Mail tendency" debate in the press on MMR? Conservative Members do not have the courage of their convictions to join in that debate. They want to sail close to the debate for the sake of cheap publicity, but they will not come out with it.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that part of the duty of the Opposition is to articulate in this place--the proper forum for debate--in a measured way issues that are of grave concern and are receiving a substantial airing in the media?

Mr. Hesford: The hon. Gentleman is clearly upset at what I say. I do not retract anything of it. Perhaps he could deal with my point about coincidence. Why are we having this debate now? I see that the hon. Gentleman is not about to rise.

Mr. Hammond: I am happy to rise, and the hon. Gentleman will hear more when I wind up. The debate is being held now because matters of great public concern are being aired in the media, and there may be misinformation about them. We believe that when issues of great public concern are being debated, it is right and proper that they should be aired in this place, in a measured way, and the Government should be given a proper opportunity to respond.

Mr. Hesford: So would it be wrong for us to have in mind a slight bandwagon tendency?

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that the House should ignore matters that are of concern to the public and deal with issues that are not of concern to them?

Mr. Hesford: I have to say--[Interruption.] Conservative Members do not want to hear the answer;

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they want to speak among themselves. [Interruption.] What Conservative Members wish to debate is a matter for them. I am simply seeking to understand why they want to debate this now.

I should like to touch on what I learned from the meeting that the all-party group on primary care and public health held on the important issue of MMR. As I said in my earlier intervention, an all-party approach was taken. My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health came; we had an excellent debate, and heard from several eminent sources. The hon. Member for Woodspring asked for a cross-party approach on the issue, yet he failed to attend that meeting; he failed to adopt that approach. As a result of that meeting, there were several important press items affirming public confidence in the MMR vaccine.

Three issues arise from this question. The first is the safety of the immunisation programme. I know that there are concerns about that on the Opposition Benches. There are also the consequences of non-immunisation if people do not take part in the programme. The two cannot be dismissed--they have to run side by side. There is also the question of press treatment. I am afraid that in this country, certainly at the moment, the press are letting themselves down as the fourth estate in dealing with these issues. That makes the job of my hon. Friend the Minister that much more difficult in getting across a proposition that the scientific community agrees on. That is a barrier to proper debate and to putting across the information to my constituents and others.

At the meeting of the all-party group in July, we heard from Dr. Liz Miller, a very senior person at the Public Health Laboratory Service. She dealt with what I will call the rogue report--the report by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and his team, based at the Royal Free hospital. Rather curiously, one of the 37 studies, including that of the Committee on Safety of Medicines, was also based at the Royal Free and found that the adverse reports and the allegations were founded on data that were either not robust or had been disproved. Does the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) accept that the Wakefield report is nonsense, and that there is nothing in it?

Dr. Miller went on to discuss--[Interruption.] I see that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) thinks that the entire debate is a joke.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that I might best advise the hon. Gentleman to move on with his speech and to turn as deaf an ear to sedentary interventions as I am occasionally indulgent enough to do.

Mr. Hesford: Your indulgence is well known, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and appreciated from time to time. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will react in the same way.

Dr. Miller went on to discuss a paper in The Lancet in 1999 which reviewed the idea of the link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The main findings of the paper were as follows: there was no clustering of onsets shortly after the MMR vaccine, no difference in age at diagnosis between cases and the rest of the population, and no difference in MMR vaccine take-up between cases and the rest of the population. The paper also found that a rise in diagnosed autism cases pre-dated the use of the MMR vaccination, and that the rise continued while the vaccination uptake was constant--or, as we have heard, falling.

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The Wakefield report was designed around invalid evidence. Dr. Miller stressed that the Wakefield report was entirely fallacious. Curiously, she concluded that a paper by Chadwick, et al, published in an august journal in 1998, decided that there was no link between MMR and alleged side effects. One of the authors was the same Dr. Wakefield.

Among the other contributors to the all-party meeting was Dr. Tony Jewel, a director of public health and a member of the UK Public Health Association. He made several telling points. If the public are to be re-engaged in accepting public vaccination programmes, the concept of no-fault compensation in vaccine damage cases should be sympathetically considered. Those involved in immunisation could have that at the back of their minds, if it were felt relevant to them as parents.

Dr. Jewel stressed also that the public must be reassured, with complete transparency in the communication of reports dealing with MMR research and use. I remind my hon. Friend the Minister of her comment on that occasion that the Government need to take vaccination safety seriously and must demonstrate that there is no cover-up in the dissemination of safety studies.

Another participant in that all-party meeting mentioned a worrying subset of the consequences of non- immunisation. I do not know how widespread this is, but Dr. Ruth Gallatley, Bradford's district immunisation co-ordinator, pointed out that some of the people withdrawing from immunisation programmes are ABC1s--members of the upper and middle classes.

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