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3 July 2006 : Column 581

We are trying to ensure that women have access to abortion services as soon as possible. Primary care trusts have a performance indicator designed to encourage them to assist women to have access to early abortions. However, we know that some of those taking part in the debate disagree with any abortion. We have also carried out an audit of the gaps in access to contraception for women, and the point has been made this afternoon about access to better sex and relationships education and information for young people so that situations do not end in an unwanted pregnancy for which an abortion may be the only solution for the individual concerned.

Ann Winterton: Is it not a fact that the more her Department spends on sex education, the greater the level of sexual activity among the young? Is it not time to think of such issues differently, because the objectives are not being achieved?

Caroline Flint: Despite some of our best efforts, the provision of sex education is still patchy, although there is some very good practice, both in and outside schools. In fact, most young people do not want information only about sex. Most of those under 16, the hon. Lady will be pleased to know, are not having sex, but they do want information about the changes to their bodies as they grow up and how to cope with peer pressure during puberty. Much of the work that we do on teenage pregnancy also takes into account issues of low self-esteem. Young people need the confidence to not feel pressurised into having sex, but if they are going to have sex, to do so safely. I wish that the picture was as clear-cut as the hon. Lady might like to imagine, but relationships hardly ever are. We could certainly do more to improve sex and relationships education.

Dr. Evan Harris: The Minister is correct to say that there is no call from the royal colleges or the BMA to reduce abortion time limits, and it is fair to recognise that. However, nor is there any opposition from those bodies to a review. The public want a review, and the Minister obviously thinks that public opinion is important, because she followed the public consultation on the changes to donor anonymity, despite the opposition of the BMA. The Minister has to recognise that in the end it will be a matter for Parliament, and many of us feel that it would be timely to address it in this Session, after 16 years, rather than wait for the next Session.

Caroline Flint: This afternoon has been an opportunity for all views to be aired on the issue, as was the hon. Gentleman’s Adjournment debate last year. I am sure that the discussion will continue. It is important that we understand how many women are having late abortions and why. For example, some women cannot be screened to see whether the baby they are carrying is likely to have severe disabilities until very late in the process, and they may also need some time to think about what to do—which might be not to have a termination. The timing can mean that women have to make very difficult decisions. I do not think that any of the 124 women who have been through that have taken it lightly, and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury made that point well.


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We must also consider the science—what is and is not possible. I heard on the radio recently about the scans taken of foetuses that appear to be walking or sucking their thumbs, but some of those scans were taken at 12 weeks, so we need to think about what points people are making and whether the debate is about the wider issue of access to legal abortion, and not just time limits. I am sure that we will come back to the issue, perhaps next week in Committee and in future debates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East asked about definitions of embryos and gametes, which he feels are inadequate. We have announced that we intend to ensure that the definitions used in the legislation are fit for purpose, taking account of the rise of new technology. That is a primary reason for reviewing the legislation. For example, we will ensure that all embryos outside the body are covered by regulation. However, we have made it clear that, in common with the Science and Technology Committee, we have no intention of altering the 14-day limit for embryo research.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) raised the important issue of access to fertility services. There has been quite a debate about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority publishing its own document on different clinics and what they provide. There were calls from across the Chamber—and, I think, from the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough—to look at success rates. The picture is not clear, because obviously the results very much depend on the profile of the people coming through. As with anything, we do not necessarily want a league table; we just need to be mindful of the issue. Having said that, it is fair that people seeking IVF and support should have some understanding of what they should be looking out for in a good clinic. That certainly should be part of the commissioning process.

I have been exploring further how we might improve the commissioning process for IVF services, both within a primary care trust and perhaps among a group of PCTs in an area, to see how they might commission such services and get better value for money, and perhaps better outcomes and understanding, too. I am pleased to have supported a new project by Infertility Network UK, which we provide with core funding, on ways in which it can work with PCTs to ensure that fertility patients’ voices are heard when decisions about services are made locally.

I am so pleased that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire mentioned the link between chlamydia and infertility. I have been trying to get the Department and non-governmental organisations to think much more closely about the connections between those two issues, and about why the screening programme for chlamydia is so important. We should do whatever we can to prevent the likelihood of future infertility, and one of the ways we can do that is through better screening for chlamydia; another is by people practising safer sex more regularly.

We believe that stem cell research offers enormous potential to deliver new treatments for currently incurable illnesses, such as chronic heart disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. We want to encourage
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research exploring all sources of stem cells, including embryonic stem cells. In the March 2005 Budget, the Chancellor announced the establishment of the UK stem cell initiative, a taskforce charged with developing a vision and a costing strategy to make the UK a global leader in stem cell research. It is undoubtedly the case that frustrated scientists in the US who want to do the world some good through such research are coming to Britain to share their expertise and to be part of such an important scientific development, which brings hope to so many thousands of people, and so many future thousands of people, too.

The hon. Member for Windsor made a point about the decision to remove donor anonymity. We took account of the views provided in response to a public consultation and a further targeted questionnaire sent to clinics and, through them, donors. The fundamental matter was whether it was right to perpetuate the situation whereby donor-conceived people were denied information held on a national database about their donor. Following consultation, we decided that it was not. Again, that is an issue about the rights of donor-conceived children to have some information about their own life and background. We asked some other questions about that in relation to the consultation and we have also been looking into wider issues around information, which we are hoping to share in the near future.

We have had a wide-ranging debate. Clearly, there is an interest in the subject in the House, of which I have taken note. I have also taken note of the many different points that hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised. As I said before, we should be proud that we have a law that has done a huge service to the development of policy on the subject, both on science and social grounds. However, we have to reflect social as well as scientific changes, and we have to reflect on the best way to get a regulatory authority that has some flexibility, while considering fully Parliament’s oversight role for the future.

I thank everyone for taking part in the debate, and I very much welcome having had the chance to respond to it.

Question deferred, pursuant to Standing Order No. 54 (4) and (5) (Consideration of estimates).


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Electoral Commission

[Relevant documents: Oral and Written evidence, taken by the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, on Electoral Administration, HC 640-i and 640-ii.]

This Estimate is to be considered in so far as it relates to the Electoral Commission (Resolution of 27 June).

Motion made, and Question proposed,

7.45 pm

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): This is the first occasion on which the House has ever had a general debate on the work of the Electoral Commission. As the House will know, the commission is entirely independent of Government, so the opportunities for private Members to initiate debate about its work are limited. I am therefore particularly grateful to the Liaison Committee for agreeing to provide time for this debate. I know that the Electoral Commission prizes the fact that it is directly accountable to Parliament through the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, for which I answer in the House, and has very much welcomed this first general debate on its work.

The House will see from the Order Paper that the Constitutional Affairs Committee has drawn attention to the evidence it took on electoral administration, which is one of the many facets of the work of the Electoral Commission. I shall say more later in my speech about how the various strands of parliamentary scrutiny of the Electoral Commission fit together, but I would like to make it clear at this stage that it is not the intention that the debate be restricted solely to the commission’s work on electoral administration, important though that issue is.

The debate is particularly timely because, five years into the Electoral Commission’s life, it is a good time to take stock of its record and to consider where its priorities should lie for the future. The Committee on Standards in Public Life recently began hearing evidence in its inquiry focusing on the Electoral Commission’s mandate, governance and accountability. I know that a number of Members on both sides of the House have already given evidence to it. I know, too, that the electoral commissioners themselves are taking this opportunity to consider the future direction of the commission, and that is entirely right. This debate will provide an opportunity for a wider cross-section of the House to make known its views on the Electoral Commission, and I hope that both the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the commissioners will take the views expressed into account when reaching their conclusions.


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Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I am having some difficulty understanding section 16 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which outlines the arrangements for the transfer of the functions of the parliamentary boundary commissions to the Electoral Commission. Could my hon. Friend explain why the Committee on Standards in Public Life has anything to do with delaying that actually happening?

Peter Viggers: The committee is not delaying that; the Government have given power to enable the transfer to take place, but the proposal to make the transfer has not yet occurred. I will refer to that point later in my speech.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life, to which my hon. Friend referred, played a decisive part in the establishment of the Electoral Commission. In November 1997, the Prime Minister extended that committee’s remit by adding to its existing terms of reference:

In the committee’s fifth report, on the funding of political parties in the United Kingdom, published in October 1998, it recommended the creation of a

to underpin its recommendations relating to party funding.

The committee also envisaged that its proposed commission would report on the conduct and administration of principal elections or referendums within six months of their taking place, advise the Government on the modernisation and revision of electoral law, be consulted by the Government ahead of changes relating to electoral law and administration, and act as the registrar of political parties.

Crucially, the committee envisaged that its proposed commission would be, and be seen to be, an independent and impartial body, the members of which would be chosen on a non-partisan basis and by means of a non-partisan procedure, while none the less being acceptable to the leaders of the main political parties. It also recommended that the commission’s budget should be set in such a way as to preserve its authority and independence.

The Government responded to the committee’s report in July 1999 and were altogether more ambitious about the role of the new commissions’ functions. They accepted the recommendation to establish an independent and authoritative Electoral Commission, but they went on to say:


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However, the Neill committee also made it clear that the Electoral Commission’s core functions would be those recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It stated:

The Government also saw the establishment of the Electoral Commission as an opportunity to re-examine the arrangements for the review of electoral boundaries. The committee has expressed doubts about the Electoral Commission assuming the responsibility of the parliamentary boundary commissions, but the Jenkins Commission on the voting system, whose report was published shortly after the committee report, had argued for greater co-ordination and for bringing that work under the Electoral Commission.

The Government therefore created in the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000—usually referred to as PPERA, but I prefer to call it the 2000 Act—the legislation that gave effect to the new arrangements for regulating the finance of political parties and a range of other matters: a statutory framework in which responsibility for both reviewing parliamentary constituency boundaries and local administrative and electoral boundaries could be transferred to the Electoral Commission. To date, only responsibility for local authority administrative boundaries has been transferred to the Electoral Commission.

Mr. Steen: I am great supporter of the Electoral Commission’s work—it has done a wonderful job—but does my hon. Friend agree that the boundary commissions are in a terrible mess. There are all sorts of boundaries commissions—local government, central Government and so on—and I cannot quite work out which one does what. Does he agree that the boundary commissions are already producing new boundaries for the next election that are not within the 70,000 electorate limit that has been recommended. Some are as high as 110,000, and some are as low as 30,000. Is it not about time that the boundary commissions’ work, which is failing, was transferred to a better and more competent body?

Peter Viggers: If the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice) should catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is possible that she might refer to this matter because she has laid down a timetable within which the work of the boundary commissions will not be transferred to the Electoral Commission, while leaving it open for it to be transferred at a later date. However, I would prefer to leave that to the Minister, who can speak with authority on it.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Part of the problem with the boundary commissions is that some of the seven criteria under which they operate are mutually contradictory, and we have had reference to one of them so far. Would anything in the rules of transfer allow the Electoral Commission to look at the criteria under which the boundary commissions undertake their work?


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Peter Viggers: The hon. Gentleman has made his point, but, if I may, I would prefer to leave that issue to the Minister, who can speak with authority on the matter. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his point.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Recently, entirely of my own volition, I provided to the Electoral Commission details of sponsorship of a number of visits that I had made overseas, overwhelmingly in the course of my then duties as shadow Secretary of State for International Development. However, given that one already has a responsibility to declare such interests in the Register of Members’ Interests, is there not a danger of duplication—I put it no more strongly than that—if by virtue of the 2000 Act, one is also required to make a declaration to a body that could perfectly well apprise itself of that information from a publicly available source?

Peter Viggers: It is not often that an hon. Member can give total reassurance to a colleague, but I assure my hon. Friend that the current legislation has now amalgamated the requirement to make a declaration to the House authorities and to the Electoral Commission and I share his relief.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Is it not fair to say that the Electoral Commission pointed out such duplication and was very happy for that change to be made?

Peter Viggers: Indeed, I confirm that the Electoral Commission was entirely happy about the change.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Peter Viggers: I must press on at this point.

I think that I have made the point that the 2000 Act substantially enlarged the original plan for an elections commission, which became the Electoral Commission and has been given very wide powers. The Government saw the functions of the new Electoral Commission


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