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Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): I should like to take up where the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) left off, to some extent, because I found his speech fascinating. It behoves hon. Members who did not hear his comments, some of which illuminated the whole education debate, to read them later. I, for one, will study hard what he said because there is great merit in extending the argument in education to consider issues that we do not traditionally look at as politicians and tend to leave to the teaching professions.
The hon. Gentleman's contribution was very worthwhile indeed, and it pointed me towards some other issues. Year in, year out, we debate the attainment of young people in secondary education and their ability to do more, and the outcry is always that we must have lowered standards. There is no acceptance of the fact that there is hidden, untapped potential, but the findings that he pointed to reveal an untapped potential that we ought to reach and show that there is great merit in looking at ways to reach it that we may not have looked at previously.
I hope that the answer is as simple as streaming. In my constituency, where streaming is common, school results are extremely good. I recently visited one school that, when we took office in 1997, already enjoyed high attainment on which it would be difficult to improve. The main thrust of my speech will be about, for example, the healthy schools initiative, and one thing that I noticed on my visit was the fact that it was a healthy school. Although its pupils were criticised for
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their exam results that year, the fact that the school's high standards of achievement have improved time and again shows that that it is an outstandingly good school.
Mr. Bacon: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Before she moves on to the main substance of her speech, I should like to agree with her about my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). Will she encourage him to publish the extremely good pamphlet that he has written on this subjectI have read it, but he has not yet published itbecause it goes into greater detail on precisely the points that she is making?
If what the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) says about the pamphlet is correct, it should be published. Given that the debate is about how we achieve yet better standards, even for those who are already doing well, it would ill behove us not to read the pamphlet, and I would encourage the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton to publish it. New ideas are welcome in any debateit would be madness not to consider thembut that one in particular has a core value about it and struck a chord with me. I congratulate him on his speech, and I hope that he publishes the pamphlet.
I want to combine education and health in my remarks. Most of my political life has been about how we take people from the position in which they feel that they are at the bottom to take them to the top. One of the issues that we examined many years ago was the relationship between health and poverty and then between health, poverty and education. How do we square that triangle, as I suppose we should call it, and make sure that people become better in themselves, better in their lives and have better attainments all round?
When we consider the issue in a growing and healthy economy, we have a particular duty to make sure that everyone shares in economic growth and wealth and also shares in better health. Many of our debates and the Bills that we consider deal with how we look after people when they are already ill. How do we invest in hospitals and GPs' practices? How do we manage the money? There is nothing wrong with such debates, and the outcomes of surgery, operations, health practices and new methods of achieving better health are all to the good. I would prefer it, however, if we focused even more on the health message. The age on which we focus that message must be very young.
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I have seen families, especially families in which long-term unemployment has been the history for some time, where the health message is even more necessary for the very young. If the young start out in life not only not achieving as much educationally as they can, but with poorer health expectations and experiences, their hopes for the future are equally diminished.
How do we get to those young people? For the very young, we obviously need to get the health messages to their mothers. I believe that 1 per cent. of drug users who become pregnant pass on their addiction to their unborn child. However, more important is the fact that drug users pass on the drug experience to children as they grow up. We need to do more about getting the health message over to those young mothers so that they understand what they are doing to their children, their future health and their prospects for education and life expectancy. That is not simply because the mothers may pass on the addiction through the womb in pregnancy, but because of the effect on their children's childhood and education. Those messages are vital.
We must not consider just the role of the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health, but the role of the Home Office and what it is doing in the drugs Bill. That is a vital part of the healthy nation initiative.
I also consider what is happening to the young people who turn to drink earlier and earlier than was my experience when I was growing up. I always hesitate to talk about health issues as a fairly robust woman of certain years and not necessarily in the prime of my life. People attract attention to themselves in an unwarranted way in these debates, but I would say do not necessarily do everything that I have done. However, I did not start drinking when I was 12 or even by the age of 21, but that is another matter. However, if people start drinking regularly at the age of 12, they are not only damaging their health but their chance to learn and to do anything constructive. I was 21 before anyone would serve me with a drink.
Mr. Hopkins: My hon. Friend is making a very good speech with which I agree. However, does she agree that a great danger for mothers is drinking while they are pregnant? That brings a high risk of foetal damage that affects children for the rest of their lives. We have not paid sufficient attention to that issue so far.
Kali Mountford: My hon. Friend is right. Babies might be underweight at birth due to drug abuse or under-nourishment. Under-nourishment in babies often goes alongside their mother's drinking because that can have an effect on their mother's normal nutrition and diet. He is right to point out the huge impact of a mother's drinking on her unborn child.
I would like a campaign to encourage all pregnant mums to be more careful without having to enter into the debate of whether we are being a nanny state and failing to accept that all people have individuality and their own responsibilities. Of course we must strike
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a balance between the two. However, if a mother acts irresponsibly, what is our responsibility? Should we let her continue her actions, or intervene when her child is born, which used to happen a lot, but is now not encouraged?
Mr. Hopkins: My hon. Friend is correct that we have the right to make decisions about our own lives, but when behaviour such as passive smoking affects othersperhaps a foetuschoices are being made about other people's freedom.
Kali Mountford: I was coming on to that point, and it is where the rights and responsibilities argument is the crux of the matter. We must take responsibility on behalf of the community to care for such unborn children, so the most obvious thing to do is to educate mothers about the effects of their behaviour so that they can choose not to behave in such a way. It is more difficult to treat babies who are sickly due to their mothers' alcohol or drug abuse, under-nourishment, or any other behaviour than to encourage mothers not to behave in such a way.
It is now almost unknown for mums to smoke during pregnancy, so that campaign has started to hit home. Any pregnant mum who lights up in the street or a bus shelter is frowned upon or causes people to raise an eyebrow. Everyone would have a word with such a person and say, "You know, this really isn't on." However, other health messages have not been conveyed to such an extent that we will collectively encourage and admonish young mums for other behaviours. I would prefer to encourage them, because if people are constantly admonished by society, it becomes more difficult to change behaviour. If we encourage and inform people, we empower them to change what they are doing.
The whole of this health debate, which is extremely welcome, is centred on setting individual freedoms against our rights and responsibilities. The Government have the responsibility to act on behalf of everyone, because we all pay for the results of people's behaviour in the end. We pay through our own health when we breathe the smoke of others. We pay if we pick up the pieces for someone whose health has failed because of alcohol abuse. If a person is completely out of control in the street, we pick up the pieces and pick up the tab, so we take on extra responsibilities.
The right place to start to address the matter is in our schools, which takes me back to the healthy schools initiative. I was extremely impressed by teachers' enthusiasm for the scheme in a school that I visited. They were initially cynical about it and thought that it was another gimmick, or a ploy to engage them so that it would look as though people were doing something. However, they told me that when they got into the scheme, started to push the agenda along and realised their power to make a difference, their attitude to it changed, as did that of the young people in the school. The young people started to learn about more than just eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. I assure the House that I do that, despite my appearance[Hon. Members: "You look very nice".] I suggest that hon. Members stop there.
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We should consider not only what people eat, but the more intimate aspects of people's lives that some parents would perhaps prefer us not to discuss in detail. People have got used to the idea of sex education in schools and are beginning to accept that even quite young children can understand complicated messages about sexual relationships and what they mean. The messages rightly focus on the nature of love in a relationship and the responsibility that two people have to each other. However, we need to go much further and talk about the dangers of sexual activity, but not in a frightening way. We cannot say, "No. Don't do any of that. It's not a nice thing to do, so don't do it at all because you'll get sick." Children are not going to believe us if every time they try anything that we say they should not do, they find it fun. Even if they do believe us about the risks, they will carry on because the fun outweighs the message.
We have to get around that problem in an intelligent way. We need to reach young people in a way that makes sense to them, which is not by hectoring and lecturing them. We also need to provide support if they become frightened by the message. The problem is that if they think that they have contracted a disease, instead of telling us about it, as is often the case, they might withdraw into themselves because of the fear they encounter. They would rather run away from the problem.
In my view, young people are certainly too young to engage in sexual activity if they are in secondary school, but we know that they do. They will not admit that that is what they are doing because they think that they will be told off. They say, "Me Dad'll kill me. You can't tell me Mum. She'll go mad", but it is better that mum and dad go mad than some time down the line infertility sets in, which happens to some young women with chlamydia. Other long-term health problems could also set in. Irreversible damage can be done, but they cannot envisage that at that young age and cannot believe that that could be the consequence of their actions.
We need to find ways to get the message over. Sometimes that needs to be done on a one-to-one basis. The healthy schools initiative is an important part of that, but it needs more investment, especially for school counselling services. Proper places have to be set up. The ones that I visited in my constituency are nice places to be in. They are in the colours that create an environment in which young people feel comfortable and at home. They do not feel threatened by those places. However, there are always two or three other chairs in case someone wants to bring their mum or dad along. I find that young people would rather bring another 13 or 14-year-old along with them. We need to get around the fears about bringing mum or dad along. It should be a partnership across the community so that the feeling of safety that they need to tell us about their problems is engendered in the school.
I applaud the schools in my constituency that have embarked on the healthy schools initiative because it has made a difference to some aspects of health. What they have dealt with is laudable. I have no complaint about educating people about not smoking, not drinking, eating properly and having proper exercise. All those things are good, but we are still a little squeamish about saying to young people, "These are the things that could happen to you if you don't protect yourself."
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The House might think it a little mad of me to reveal this, but I sent two 30-year-olds into my constituency to buy condoms. I thought that a woman of my advanced years would not be credible, and perhaps I should have found someone younger, but those people went for me. They could not find them on display anywhere. They went into chemists, the local pharmacy, pubs and supermarkets and found that they had to ask someone for them. I should explain that it is a semi-rural constituency, and there is only one smallish supermarket that has them in stock, which says something about the supply in areas such as mine.It was of great concern to me that when they came back they said that they could not find one place where they could pick up condoms, take them to a counter and pay for them. What are we saying to young people about the availability of one of the best methods of protecting themselves? We are making it extremely difficult for them to protect themselves. I put the matter to the primary care trust in my constituency and asked it what is being done. We have a good teenage pregnancy strategy, and that obviously goes a long way to dealing with some of the sexual health problems that come from sexual encounters, especially if the core message is the use of condoms.
It seemed to me that the sexual programme was not complete. In some places, counselling services are provided by GPs on top of what is available at a minority of schools. There seems to be a need to make more available the very means that young people require to protect themselves. If they cannot pick up a packet of condoms from the counter, they have to go to somebody and ask for help. That may be somebody whom they trustfor example, the school nurse, their local GP or someone at one of the new centres that is being set up around some of the new GP practices, with the help of the PCT. However, with all the new services that are available, young people have to pluck up the courage to ask.
I send out a plea not only to the manufacturers and distributors of condoms but to all retailers as well to think again about their policies about where they place condoms. The reason I have been given about their placing of these products is the risk of pilfering. As a result, they make them difficult to pick up. They may consider pilfering a high price to pay but it is a higher price to see some young people whose lives are devastated by an early sexual encounter. My plea may not be best placed with the Secretary of State, but I hope that my words are heard by those outside the House who can help us in a collaboration between medicine producers, condom producers, all pharmacies, all suppliers and all the efforts that we are putting in through the House, local education authorities and health services so that people's lives are not endangered in future and people can have the future that they richly deserve.
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