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Young people are already surrounded by constant barrages of sexual images on television, in films, DVDs and magazines, and on advertisement hoardings—in fact, almost everywhere they turn. Clothing designed for pre-teenage girls often makes them look like provocative young adults. Sex and relationship education in schools should be used as an opportunity to redress the balance. Girls in particular need real-life warnings about the risks that they are taking with their emotional and physical health, and their future career and employment prospects. If the father of the child is
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an under-age boy, there will be no wedding and he will not be in a position to provide a home or financial support. The parents of the girl have to step forward, as from this point on full responsibility must be assumed by the girl and she will need their support as never before. How much better it would be if the parents had had the opportunity to divert their daughter from that course of action by being involved at a much earlier stage.

Under-age girls run a very real risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, which may have a long-term impact on their reproductive lives. Almost 90 per cent. of the children aged between 13 and 15 seeking treatment for sexually transmitted infections are girls. In north-east London, the incidence of chlamydia is one of the highest in the country. That sexually transmitted infection is different in that it is symptom-free, so girls are usually unaware that they have it until much later in life when they are married and have fertility problems that mean they are unable to have a planned family. That often leads to years of distressing fertility treatment with very unpredictable results. One of the main contributory reasons to that condition is too early sexual activity.

Pregnancy often comes unexpected and unplanned and the girl, who is still a child herself and still at school, finds that her life has suddenly taken a different course. A child who has been engaging in adult behaviour suddenly faces serious, life-changing decisions when she does not have the adult skills or resources to cope. Many parents are unaware that their child is sexually active and the news that she is expecting a child of her own comes as a huge shock. The girl may seek advice elsewhere, for example from her GP, a health centre or a family planning service, to avoid facing the music at home.

Advice on abortion may be provided and accepted without the parents’ knowledge. Just a few weeks ago, I received a letter from a constituent who had been required to leave his place of work, find a chemist and buy a tube of antiseptic cream, go to his son’s primary school where the child had grazed his knee, apply the cream and then return to work. Apparently that procedure was too risky to be undertaken without parental involvement. We live in a contrary world that rates the application of cream to a grazed knee, or a visit to the dentist, for which parental consent is also required, as a greater risk than an abortion on a minor.

For parents, the discovery that their daughter had an abortion that might have been avoided if they had not been kept in ignorance can be an even greater shock. The long-term emotional and physical impact of an abortion can be serious, and it is the parents who will provide care and support for their daughter. Those same parents might well have decided to support their daughter in bringing up her child, once they had overcome the initial shock of discovering their child’s pregnancy, and had had time to reflect.

That brings me to the main purpose of the Bill. The provision of lots of sex information has not worked, so sex information should be replaced with sex education. In education about the real risks involved and the likely outcomes, the advice to under-age girls should be to abstain, to wait, to delay, and to resist, rather than to
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use contraception and believe that they will not come to any harm. Parents need to be part of that process. In 1984-85, under the Gillick ruling, and more recently in the United States, where parental involvement is required, the evidence showed that the number of unwanted pregnancies did not go up, but the number of sexually transmitted infections went down.

The decision to provide contraception or abortion advice or treatment to under-age children must involve the parents. It is the parents who have full responsibility for, and the greatest interest in, their children’s health and welfare and the closest long-term personal bonds with them. Parents have the best opportunity to guide their children to resist peer pressure, and to make wise decisions about their sexual behaviour and their future reproductive lives. Quite simply, parents have not just a right to know, but a need to know.

There is an important caveat in the Bill to protect a child whose parents might be violent or abusive. In those circumstances, where the child finds herself in need of advice, practitioners may appeal to the courts, in camera, for a decision to be made. The Bill would be an important step in trying to reduce the number of unwanted teenage pregnancies and abortions among under-age children. It attempts to do that by strengthening families and entitling parents to be involved in making important decisions.

12.42 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I oppose the motion and urge the House to decline giving the Bill its First Reading. The proposals made by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) raise serious issues to do with child protection and patient confidence, and that is aside from their potential impact on the sexual health of the part of the population concerned. I speak from the perspective of a medical practitioner and a long-standing member of the British Medical Association’s medical ethics committee. I place on record the fact that my partner works in sexual health policy for a charity that deals with the subject.

The hon. Lady failed to mention the current rules, and to say what guidance exists for health care professionals in this difficult subject. For example, before providing contraception to young people, health professionals must consider whether the patient understands the risks and benefits of the treatment and the advice given, and must discuss with the patient the value of parental support. Doctors must encourage young people to inform parents of the consultation, and if the patient is unwilling to do so, they must explore the reasons.

It is important for persons under 16 seeking contraceptive advice to be aware that although the doctor is obliged to discuss the value of parental support, the doctor will respect their confidentiality, if necessary, and the fact that they are unwilling to involve their parents, for the reasons given. Before providing contraceptive advice, the doctor must also take into account whether the patient is likely to have sexual intercourse without contraception, and assess whether the patient’s physical or mental health, or both, are likely to suffer if the patient does not receive contraceptive advice or treatment.

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Finally, the doctor must consider—this is the key test—whether the patient’s best interests require the provision of contraceptive advice or treatment, or both, without parental consent. It is consideration of the patient’s best interests that must govern a doctor’s behaviour in those difficult circumstances, rather than ideology or unsubstantiated concerns about the public health policy impact of that important requirement for confidentiality, such as those expressed by the hon. Lady.

The guidelines to which I have just referred are the Fraser guidelines and stem from the Gillick ruling in 1985. At the time, the then Conservative Government recognised that the Law Lords deemed their guidance lawful. They instituted a review of their policy and guidelines as a result of the ruling and no significant change was made. The guidelines that I have set out are broadly those supported at the time by the Conservative Government and the then Health Minister, Barney Hayhoe.

When the guidelines were challenged again in the Axon case, the current Government welcomed the fact that their guidelines were clearly upheld. The position that I have set out is supported by the British Medical Association, a number of children’s charities and people involved in the delivery of sexual health advice to young girls.

The hon. Lady said little or nothing about the principle of clinical confidentiality and the rights of children in some circumstances to that confidentiality. She said little or nothing about the potential effect of her proposal on the welfare of individual patients who may be at risk of abuse if their confidentiality is not respected including, on rare occasions, from their parents, sadly. If she seriously thinks that it is an acceptable policy to invite a vulnerable young girl to apply to the court for permission for her parents not to be told when she has clear concerns about her safety, she misunderstands the real world in which some people exist.

It is only on rare occasions that parents are not told or that young people do not involve either their parents or another adult in seeking advice. It is on those rare occasions that we have to have concern, not just for rights and principles, although rights upheld in British common law as well as in human rights law mean that we must have regard to the safety of individual patients. As Brook Advisory Service points out, a father can say, “If you come home pregnant, you’re dead.” That is not just a rumour; it can happen, and we must be very careful when considering the welfare of young girls in that situation.

The hon. Lady based her arguments on claims that I believe to be contentious: that sexual health would be improved if girls were threatened with their private lives being opened up to their parents without their consent, come what may. The evidence for this is poor; I note that her speech lacked any significant references to peer-reviewed literature. On the contrary, there is evidence that there is a deterrent to access by the threat of parents being told. Brook Advisory Service, a frontline provider, did a survey of its clients, two thirds of whom said that confidentiality was the single most important factor that affected whether they were
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willing to seek help. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has recognised the real concerns that exist in this area.

There are problems in the current strategy—I accept what the hon. Lady says—but she must recognise the real dangers that exist. As BPAS says,

That is rare, but it is the experience of some. The Bill is also opposed by the Faculty of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

If the hon. Lady were saying that the Government’s sexual health strategy had not been as effective as we might have liked and that targets may well be missed, we could agree. If her issue was that we wished to reduce all sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancies and teenage abortions and, importantly, seek to raise the age of first intercourse, we would agree. The best approach, however, is to continue to improve access to contraception as well as the quality of sex education. I believe—and others support the proposal, including some of those whom I have mentioned—that sex education should be part of the national curriculum. There should be much more effective, earlier access to information in age-appropriate language. It is true that young girls face a barrage of sexualised images, and they are under increasing pressure to sexualise at an early age. I regret that and, indeed, I condemn it, as does everyone on our side of the argument. The answer, however, is not more ignorance, which is what the hon. Member for Upminster has prescribed: it is more information. Other European countries have shown that the earlier provision of clear information in age-appropriate language reduces the number of sexually transmitted infections, pregnancies and abortions, as well as —and this is significant—giving girls and boys the power to resist peer pressure and, in the case of girls, to resist boy pressure, as they have the self-confidence to deal with those difficult negotiations in their teenage years.

I accept that reform is needed, but in an area different from the one proposed by the hon. Lady. We need easier and fairer access to services, and we need better access to sex education. It is regrettable that the only private Members’ Bills that are introduced on the subject seek to limit access to services, rather than improve them. There is a challenge for all Members to seek to liberalise the law on sex education and access to those services, rather than to constrain it.

The hon. Lady’s proposal—I accept that it is well intended—is the wrong way forward. I urge the House to oppose the measure, and to refuse to give the Bill a First Reading.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

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The House divided: Ayes 87, Noes 159.
Division No. 076]
[12.51 pm


Amess, Mr. David
Ancram, rh Mr. Michael
Baldry, Tony
Benton, Mr. Joe
Binley, Mr. Brian
Bone, Mr. Peter
Brady, Mr. Graham
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Burrowes, Mr. David
Butterfill, Sir John
Campbell, Mr. Gregory
Carswell, Mr. Douglas
Cash, Mr. William
Chope, Mr. Christopher
Clappison, Mr. James
Clarke, rh Mr. Tom
Cormack, Sir Patrick
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey
Crabb, Mr. Stephen
Davies, Philip
Dodds, Mr. Nigel
Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M.
Drew, Mr. David
Duddridge, James
Duncan Smith, rh Mr. Iain
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias
Evans, Mr. Nigel
Evennett, Mr. David
Fox, Dr. Liam
Francois, Mr. Mark
Gale, Mr. Roger
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Gray, Mr. James
Greening, Justine
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Hague, rh Mr. William
Hammond, Stephen
Hands, Mr. Greg
Harper, Mr. Mark
Hayes, Mr. John
Hermon, Lady
Hoban, Mr. Mark
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Howarth, Mr. Gerald
Jackson, Mr. Stewart
Jones, Mr. David
Kawczynski, Daniel
Leigh, Mr. Edward
Lewis, Dr. Julian
Lilley, rh Mr. Peter
Luff, Peter
MacNeil, Mr. Angus
Mates, rh Mr. Michael
McCrea, Dr. William
McGovern, Mr. Jim
McGrady, Mr. Eddie
Paterson, Mr. Owen
Pritchard, Mark
Pugh, Dr. John
Randall, Mr. John
Redwood, rh Mr. John
Reid, Mr. Alan
Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm
Robathan, Mr. Andrew
Robertson, Hugh
Robinson, Mrs. Iris
Robinson, Mr. Peter
Rosindell, Andrew
Russell, Bob
Scott, Mr. Lee
Selous, Andrew
Simpson, David
Spelman, Mrs. Caroline
Spicer, Sir Michael
Stanley, rh Sir John
Steen, Mr. Anthony
Syms, Mr. Robert
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, David
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew
Wallace, Mr. Ben
Watkinson, Angela
Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Wiggin, Bill
Wilshire, Mr. David
Wilson, Mr. Rob
Wilson, Sammy
Tellers for the Ayes:

Ann Winterton and
Jim Dobbin

Abbott, Ms Diane
Allen, Mr. Graham
Anderson, Mr. David
Anderson, Janet
Austin, John
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Baker, Norman
Barron, rh Mr. Kevin
Begg, Miss Anne
Bercow, John
Berry, Roger
Betts, Mr. Clive
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta
Blunkett, rh Mr. David
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Borrow, Mr. David S.
Brown, Mr. Russell
Bruce, rh Malcolm
Bryant, Chris
Buck, Ms Karen
Burden, Richard
Burgon, Colin
Burt, Lorely
Butler, Ms Dawn
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair
Clark, Ms Katy
Clegg, Mr. Nick
Cohen, Harry
Cooper, Rosie
Corbyn, Jeremy
Creagh, Mary
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Cummings, John
Davey, Mr. Edward
David, Mr. Wayne
Davidson, Mr. Ian
Davies, Mr. Dai
Dean, Mrs. Janet

Devine, Mr. Jim
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H.
Doran, Mr. Frank
Dowd, Jim
Eagle, Angela
Efford, Clive
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Engel, Natascha
Ennis, Jeff
Flynn, Paul
Foster, Mr. Don
Gapes, Mike
George, Andrew
George, rh Mr. Bruce
Gerrard, Mr. Neil
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Gilroy, Linda
Goodman, Helen
Goodwill, Mr. Robert
Griffith, Nia
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hamilton, Mr. David
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Hancock, Mr. Mike
Harris, Dr. Evan
Harvey, Nick
Hemming, John
Henderson, Mr. Doug
Holmes, Paul
Hopkins, Kelvin
Horwood, Martin
Hosie, Stewart
Howarth, David
Howarth, rh Mr. George
Hughes, Simon
Hunter, Mark
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Jackson, Glenda
James, Mrs. Siân C.
Jenkins, Mr. Brian
Johnson, Ms Diana R.
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Jones, Lynne
Joyce, Mr. Eric
Keeley, Barbara
Keen, Alan
Keen, Ann
Keetch, Mr. Paul
Kennedy, rh Jane
Key, Robert
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Kidney, Mr. David
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Kramer, Susan
Lancaster, Mr. Mark
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Leech, Mr. John
Lepper, David
Lloyd, Tony
Love, Mr. Andrew
Mackay, rh Mr. Andrew
Mactaggart, Fiona
Mallaber, Judy
Marris, Rob
Martlew, Mr. Eric
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
McDonnell, John
McIsaac, Shona
McKechin, Ann
Milburn, rh Mr. Alan
Miller, Andrew
Moffat, Anne
Moffatt, Laura
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Morgan, Julie
Morley, rh Mr. Elliot
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Norris, Dan
O'Hara, Mr. Edward
Öpik, Lembit
Osborne, Sandra
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Pope, Mr. Greg
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Price, Adam
Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Raynsford, rh Mr. Nick
Rennie, Willie
Riordan, Mrs. Linda
Robertson, Angus
Robertson, John
Rogerson, Mr. Dan
Ruddock, Joan
Seabeck, Alison
Sheerman, Mr. Barry
Sheridan, Jim
Short, rh Clare
Simpson, Alan
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Smith, Sir Robert
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Stoate, Dr. Howard
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Stringer, Graham
Stunell, Andrew
Swinson, Jo
Tami, Mark
Taylor, Matthew
Teather, Sarah
Thornberry, Emily
Tipping, Paddy
Trickett, Jon
Vis, Dr. Rudi
Waltho, Lynda
Wareing, Mr. Robert N.
Watson, Mr. Tom
Weir, Mr. Mike
Williams, rh Mr. Alan
Williams, Mark
Williams, Stephen
Winnick, Mr. David
Wishart, Pete
Wood, Mike
Wright, Mr. Anthony
Wright, David
Young, rh Sir George
Tellers for the Noes:

Chris McCafferty and
Jenny Willott
Question accordingly negatived.
14 Mar 2007 : Column 296

14 Mar 2007 : Column 297
1.2 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that the draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 are due to be considered as a statutory instrument at 8.55 am tomorrow. That is causing great—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber when I gave a ruling earlier today on that matter. If he looks at the transcript, he will see my ruling.

14 Mar 2007 : Column 298


[Relevant documents: Ninth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2006-07, on The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the White Paper, HC 225-I, and the Government’s interim response thereto, available in the Vote Office. Fourth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2006-07, on the Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the Manufacturing and Skills Base, HC 59, and the Government’s response thereto, HC 304 (Session 2006-07). Eighth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2005-06, on the Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the Strategic Context, HC 986, and the Government’s response thereto, HC 1558 (Session 2005-06).]

Mr. Speaker: We come now to the main business. It will be helpful to the House to know that all Back Benchers will be limited to eight minutes. Because of the high number of applications made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, it is not a day to approach the Chair to ask whether they will be called. I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett).

1.3 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I beg to move,

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