Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 304-319)


24 OCTOBER 2007

  Q304 Chairman: Good morning. Welcome to the last oral evidence session of our Science and Technology Select Committee's inquiry into the scientific developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967. Could we welcome the Rt Hon Dawn Primarolo, MP, Minister of State. We understand you are under the weather, but thank you very, very much for coming. There is a lot of interest obviously in this session. Could we also welcome Dr Fiona Adshead, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, and Paula Cohen, the Assistant Director of Legal Services. We are delighted you are able to join us because I think you have some interesting questions to answer this morning. Minister, before we start, could I say that this has been an interesting inquiry, ahead of what we expect will be very hotly contested amendments to the Tissues and Embryos Bill. We have taken a vast amount of evidence from sources here, on the Continent and in the United States. This Act was first passed in 1967 and amended in 1990. Is it fair to say that the 1967 Act needs major revision because it is out of date?

  Dawn Primarolo: Good morning, Mr Willis. I hope that my voice will hold up this morning. I have a bad cold and I feel like I am the public health minister for coughs and diseases spread diseases! With regard to the 1967 Act and answering questions on that, I am going to confine myself entirely to what Parliament has decided in changes to the 1967 Act and whether or not that currently works. There have been suggestions, particularly from other organisations, that the Act could be improved around a number of points. There is discussion around the time limits—it is a matter for the House and I know this Committee is considering it—and there are also issues with regard to whether—

  Q305  Chairman: I am coming to all those matters, but, briefly, do you feel that the Act as it currently stands does not need amending?

  Dawn Primarolo: The Act as it currently stands works as Parliament intended and it works well within those guidelines, yes. It is of course for Parliament to decide, Mr Willis—it is not for me—whether or not they want to make further changes.

  Q306  Chairman: Do you think Parliament should in fact have a view on this, given that it was 1990 when it was last debated? It is such an important issue. It creates an enormous amount of interest on all sides of the argument.

  Dawn Primarolo: It is an important issue and there are views expressed by a wide range of views and very passionately. The Department of Health's view and the advice to me—and that is why there are no proposals from the Government to amend the Act—is that the Act works as intended and does not require further amendment at the present time. But, because of the existence of a free vote on these matters, there have been a number of attempts to change the 1967 Act which have not succeeded, apart from the 1990 amendment, and there are opportunities again.

  Q307  Chairman: Let us get down to some of the detail now. In terms of collecting data on abortion, how does the Department do that so that we know the data is accurate and informs not only the professions and the interest groups but Parliament.

  Dawn Primarolo: Are you talking about the number of abortions, age, all of the data I give in PQs? The Chief Medical Officer has a notification system that comes through the Healthcare Commission.

  Dr Adshead: Essentially, as you will be aware, we collect information as part of the Act. There are notifications to the Chief Medical officer. We rigorously scrutinise those and we send back, on average, about 5% of the forms that we receive in order to get further information, where information is necessary, and we use that to monitor the Act.

  Q308  Chairman: What worries me, Dr Adshead, is that the information you are collecting does not in fact deal with, for instance, mental health.

  Dr Adshead: The notification form has information on why the doctors feel that the termination is necessary and it does allow us to distinguish between physical health and mental health reasons. The form of opinion (as I believe it is called) does not distinguish between the two. So there are two notifications systems: one which is submitted to us by the practitioner who performs the termination and the other which gives the opinion—which is the two doctors' signatures. That is the one which does not distinguish between the two forms. The practitioner who performs the termination does distinguish.

  Q309  Mr Flello: Good morning. Do you see a standard response on these forms? Do the same sorts of words get put on the forms, which might suggest that somebody has not thought about it but has just put the phrase they always use?

  Dr Adshead: The Act requires that doctors who both sign the opinion form and obviously fill in the notification form need to do so in good faith. As you will be aware, the General Medical Council has a code of practice around this. Clearly, the form, by its very nature, is standardised because it has different data items on it, but it would be outside the terms of the Act if the doctors were not acting in good faith and had seriously considered this.

  Q310  Mr Flello: With the greatest of respect, that was not my question. My question is: What do you see coming back?

  Dr Adshead: We obviously see, at an aggregate level, and we publish statistics that come from the notification forms. If we had any sense that we did not feel the Act was being carried out in the form in which Parliament intended, then obviously we would investigate that.

  Q311  Dr Spink: Has there ever been any instance of you feeling that—ever, in the thousands and thousands of abortions that take place every year, one instance?

  Dr Adshead: A previous secretary of state asked the Chief Medical Officer to carry out a review based on concerns that appeared in the press about late abortions and that report was published. If there are any concerns that are brought to the Department, then we would act on that information.

  Q312  Chairman: We are coming back to this, because we really need to ask the lawyers a little bit about it. Minister, before I pass you on to Dr Spink, the Committee were concerned that on Sunday an article appeared in a newspaper which was giving your views about what this Committee was going to ask you. Do you feel that was a discourtesy to this Committee?

  Dawn Primarolo: I did not see the article. I do not know what the Committee is going to ask me, so I could not speculate. My evidence was published and the evidence is public, but I am here and I will do my best to answer your questions. Unfortunately, it is not always possible. There are lots of things that have been attributed to me on a whole range of things over the last two weeks.

  Q313  Chairman: These were direct quotes which you made to The Independent, which we had a concern about because it seemed to be prejudging what in fact the Committee would be asking you and the responses you would make. But you did not regard that as a discourtesy?

  Dawn Primarolo: No. If that is a discourtesy—it was in the evidence—obviously I would apologise to the Committee, but I have not speculated at all what the Committee might ask me because I do not know what the Committee might ask me.

  Q314  Dr Spink: You know about this issue because I emailed you about it on Monday before raising it on the floor of House as a point of order with the Speaker. The Independent quoted that: "On Wednesday, Dawn Primarolo, Public Health Minster will tell the Commons Committee ... " and it went on to say what you would tell us, and it said " ... said one official ahead of the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill's long passage through Parliament." Do you know who that official was?

  Dawn Primarolo: I am afraid I do not. Clearly, I had notice of the point of order that you raised and, as the Speaker said, with regards specifically to the question of the timing, that is in the evidence. I do not have that, and I would say that I do not feel that is any more information than was in the written submission, but, Dr Spink, if that has offended you or others—

  Chairman: I think we have made the point.

  Dr Spink: Could I follow that up.

  Chairman: No, I do not want to pursue this now.

  Dr Spink: I do want to pursue it, Chairman.

  Chairman: I do not.

  Q315  Dr Spink: Very briefly. Should you know who the official was?

  Dawn Primarolo: I do not—

  Chairman: Minister, I do not want you to respond because we have far too many things to get through. We have made the point.

  Dr Spink: Chairman, the official was not saying what the evidence said; the official was saying what the Minister was going to say, not what had been said in the evidence, so it was a discourtesy.

  Chairman: Dr Spink, please. We will ask the Minister, if she wishes to clarify that further, to do so outside this meeting. I really want to get on to the evidence now of our report. I have raised the issue which you asked me to do, and we now need to move on.

  Dr Spink: Chairman, you volunteered to raise the issue. I did not ask you to raise the issue, I think you will recall.

  Q316  Mrs Dorries: Minister, your records say that you are committed to the liberalisation of the abortion law. Do you think, given your opinion and the statements you have made or that your official has made this week, you are the right minister for the job, or that maybe somebody with a fairer viewpoint on this issue should be in your place?

  Dawn Primarolo: I am not here to discuss my personal views. I am here, as the Minister, to answer questions that the Committee puts to me about the information that the Department has. I am perfectly capable of giving that information, where I have it, to this Committee, and I will do so quite clearly.

  Q317  Mrs Dorries: Despite the fact that you have said you are committed to the liberalisation of the abortion law.

  Dawn Primarolo: With respect, this Committee is not about what I do or do not think as an individual Member of Parliament.

  Q318  Mrs Dorries: Minister, the decisions will ultimately be based around that.

  Dawn Primarolo: It is about my role as a minister in giving the evidence on the information that the Department has to this Committee so that this Committee can come to a conclusion. People may interpret that evidence differently. That is not for me. I am here only to give the Committee the information the Department has on the subjects that you have requested me to do so.

  Q319  Chairman: Perhaps I could raise a specific question from your evidence, minister. The Department's evidence noted that the Government is committed to increasing the ratio of early to late abortions. That is clearly what was stated. Will the Government take responsibility to make legislative changes that would make access to earlier abortion easier? Because that is a logical extension to what you have said.

  Dawn Primarolo: The Government has been pursuing that for some time. Eighty-nine per cent of abortions are carried out under 13 weeks now; 68% under ten weeks. In agreement with all those with whom we would discuss this in the medical profession, it is agreed that the strategy should be to ensure—because that is safest—that abortions are conducted as quickly as possible. Indeed, that seems to be very much the views expressed in the House when it has been debated. In that sense, the Department is committed and has ensured, through the Health Service, that wherever possible that early access is provided.

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