Previous Section Index Home Page

29 Jan 2008 : Column 25WH—continued

I was interviewed on Friday by ITV, and the journalist’s first question was, “What is the nature of the problem?” I told him, and he said, “So, what causes teenage pregnancy?” He then burst into fits of laughter, because he realised the intrinsic problem with his question. However, there are some root causes of teenage pregnancy, and they are where we need to do much of the work.
29 Jan 2008 : Column 26WH
First, in every conversation that I have had with youngsters in my constituency, they have said that their access to high-quality information about sex and relationships—I shall say only that phrase, “sex and relationships”, because the issue is not just sex—is minimal. None of the kids to whom I spoke had ever spoken to their parents about sex, which is very different from other countries in Europe, where most children receive their first information about sex and relationships from their parents—the right place.

Secondly, very few of those youngsters in the Rhondda said that they had effective—or, indeed, any—sex and relationship education in school. Some cited the single biology lesson in which they, as they put it, were taught how to put a condom on a cucumber, but none cited anything other than that. Indeed, some of the girls said that, when they had their first period, they did not know what was happening to their body, and that nobody had explained it to them. The situation was reflected in the Ofsted report in England, and in the Estyn report in Wales. Both said that, while there have been improvements in recent years in sex and relationship education, far too many schools still do not do it, do not do it well, are not prepared to do it, refuse to do it, or—more importantly, as many would say—start far too late.

There is no point starting sex and relationship education once youngsters are already having sex, and the truth is that, whether we like it or not, between one third and one quarter of young people in the UK have had their first sexual encounter before their 16th birthday—considerably earlier than in other countries in Europe. All the evidence suggests that good sex and relationship education is not just about the biological facts, but about putting sex in its context of relationships, commitment and personal development, and about giving kids an understanding that they have so much self-worth that they can make a choice for themselves about whether to delay their first sexual encounter, and say to a boyfriend, “No, I don’t want to have sex,” without the boy running away or the girl being thought of as frigid. All those issues are important, but they will work for youngsters only if education starts early enough—before they engage in sexual activity—and is consistent enough. It should not be just one lesson; one cannot do sex and relationship education in a single lesson.

Mr. Allen: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Chris Bryant: I shall, but my hon. Friend knows that he has to be brief!

Mr. Allen: My hon. Friend says that young people need the mental, social and emotional wherewithal to make the best of sex and relationship education. Does he therefore accept that that wherewithal comes from much earlier in the life cycle than when one is a teenager, or aged 10 or 11—that it starts almost from birth itself, and from proper parenting skills?

Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The country in Europe with the lowest teenage pregnancy level is Holland. Which country in Europe starts its sex and relationship education at the youngest age? The answer is Holland. Of course, education must start at an age-appropriate level. One is not going to go into everything at the age of six to 11, but many people say to me that, for a parent, it is difficult to start talking to
29 Jan 2008 : Column 27WH
one’s child at 13 years old about such matters if one has not started talking to them at seven or eight about why mummy and daddy love one another, and so on.

In Britain, we have tended to fight shy of sex and relationship education. I suspect that the Government will later say, “We think that sex and relationship education is very important; we are training another 2,000 specialist teachers, and we are determined to improve it.” However, the truth is that many schools just will not take the issue seriously unless we are prepared to put it on a statutory basis, so that, by the time every young girl gets her first period, she understands what is happening to her body, and so that every young person has all the information that they need to make good choices for themselves, such as delaying their first sexual encounter and not engaging in risky sex.

There are other root causes. Many young people drink a lot of alcohol now, and one worrying statistic is that girls, according to the latest figures, own up to binge-drinking more frequently than boys. All the good intentions that one may have at the beginning of an evening—about not sleeping with somebody, or about sleeping with them only if contraception is used—fly out the window at the end of the evening when everybody is drunk. We must do more to tackle the terrible problem not just of under-age drinking, which might be a couple of pints, but of serious binge-drinking among youngsters. There is also a lack of contraception and good advice for many youngsters in many areas of the country.

Social conservatives must take on board many of the points that I have made so far, but social liberals must take on board what I shall say now. Although it is not true that girls get pregnant to get a flat, because 90 per cent. of teenage mums live in their parents’ home or their boyfriend’s parents’ home, there is evidence of planned teenage pregnancies. The girl to whom I referred earlier was either so careless about whether she got pregnant that she did not mind whether she did, or she wanted to get pregnant because she could envisage a sense of self-worth if she became a teenage mum. That element of teenage pregnancy—especially in areas where there are many teenage mums pushing their babies in buggies down the street, and there seems to be no stigma attached to being a teenage mum—is part of the problem.

We social liberals—I include myself in that group—must recognise that the mixed messages are bewildering for youngsters. There is not only the mixed message of one set of rules for boys and another for girls. There is also the message that when a young girl does not do well in school and has a tough time at home, there is relatively minimal support for her; but the moment that she becomes pregnant, there will be a child psychologist, a local nurse and the doctor. As many girls said when I talked to them in the Rhondda, everybody is suddenly their friend. They go from being the female equivalent of Billy-no-mates—Jenny-no-mates—to everyone in the school suddenly being their friend, because no one wants to appear judgmental. That is part of the difficulty, alongside the fact that television, teenage magazines and pop music all sexualise children at a very young age today.

29 Jan 2008 : Column 28WH

What should we be doing? The first thing to do is to help parents talk to their children. I am not a parent and probably never will be, but I know from speaking to others that starting to talk to their kids about sex and relationships is a difficult business. All the surveys show that many parents would welcome help and advice. The Government have produced advice online, and other advice packs are available, but in Sweden they send advice to every parent of a 13-year-old, saying, “These are things that you might consider doing: talking about sex, alcohol, drugs, smoking and your own personal lifestyle.” That is something that we should consider.

As I said, sex and relationship education needs to be much more comprehensive, and not just biological but about the emotional and perhaps spiritual aspects of sexual relationships. I also believe that, in the end, such education will have to be on a statutory basis, so that every school in the land provides it. Otherwise, it will not happen. We should also ensure that nurses in schools have a direct responsibility for spotting the girls who might be at risk and for counselling them about sex and relationships, so that they have a sense of self-worth.

We need a vibrant youth service in every area of the country, so that there are adult role models for youngsters to talk to about such things in an informal setting. We need to do more about supported housing, because all too often a young girl who needs a council flat will first be told that she can get one only if she is on her own and the boy is not there, so the dads are left out of the equation, which must be crazy. She is then dumped on a manky housing estate where there are a lot of other problems and given floating support such as someone coming to see her twice a week. No wonder such girls have mental health problems when their babies are two, because they do not have the personal resources to cope in such a situation. There should be supported accommodation, in which girls perhaps share cooking facilities, as has been tried in some areas. There should also be academic support, so that they can continue in education, medical support for the children, and an opportunity for the girls to get out to work when they are 18, 19 or 20. That might also help us to change the distressing fact that a large percentage of the teenage girls who become pregnant are already on their second pregnancy.

I have mentioned involving the dads, which is vital. One message that goes out resolutely to young dads is, “We don’t want you. We are not interested in you. The state isn’t interested in you, the girls aren’t interested in you—keep away.” That must be a disaster, and we must turn that message around.

Finally, we should help girls to get into work. That is not to say that every teenage mum should be working a full week by the age of 19, which would be crazy. In fact, it is quite probable that many of them should not work 16 hours a week, but if they are to have a chance in life, they need an opportunity to socialise not just with other teenage mums but with people in a work environment and to bring more money into the household. We need to make changes to the benefit system, so that more girls have the opportunity to do mini-jobs—perhaps eight or 10 hours a week—which the system currently penalises.

I know that the Government are doing many of the things that I have suggested, as are local authorities and primary care trusts—or, in Wales, local health boards—but
29 Jan 2008 : Column 29WH
the picture is patchy. In some areas it is a great success, and in others it is a terrible failure. The truth is that we have cut teenage pregnancy rates by 12 per cent. in the past 10 years, and perhaps we will be able to do more in the next few years, but we really need to fight harder to tackle the problem. The two key things are introducing statutory sex and relationship education in England and Wales and dismantling the mixed messages that effectively say to many young girls that it is a good idea to be a teenage mum.

There are challenges for social liberals and social conservatives alike. I know that there are challenges for social conservatives, because the Daily Mail disagrees with nearly everything that I have said. We must be resolute, determined and clear-sighted if we are to make a difference. I have set up the website, to which thousands of people have logged on, making recommendations, voting on what they think of other recommendations and saying which ideas are good or bad. If we halve teenage pregnancy in the Rhondda through that work and through what the Governments in the Welsh Assembly and here do, we will have done something significant to tackle the poverty and deprivation that has been handed down from generation to generation in my constituency.

11.25 am

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing the debate. I shall keep my comments brief, as I know many Members wish to speak on something that has an impact on every constituency, not just the Isle of Wight. There are more questions than answers, so I shall be glad to have the Minister’s view on a number of points that I shall make.

It is imperative that we separate the issues of under-age sex and under-age pregnancy from the more general one of teenage pregnancy. Surely, it is not the role of the state to put a stop to something that is legal. It may prefer to do so, but two people can have sex in their teens and be above the age of consent. It may be unwise, but that is different from being unlawful. Sex under the age of 16 is illegal, and under-age pregnancy stems from under-age sex. That is the matter that must be considered.

Young people need individual help, not group help, at the time when it is right for them, whether at the age of 10, seven or 14, rather than help that will be appropriate for some but not for all. Preferably, that help will be provided to children by their parents, who can give the best advice. Of course, I recognise that sometimes parents are not involved, so a second course is necessary, but I want children and parents to work together first.

Does the Minister believe that the state has a duty to prevent a legal activity just because it may lead to pregnancy in the post-16 years? I suspect that the Government are not considering changing the age of consent, so would it not be better for any strategy to tackle what is illegal—having sex under the age of consent—rather than the different matter of teenage pregnancy? It is interesting to see that the rate of teenage pregnancy, which includes figures both above and below the age of consent, has dropped recently, although it is still high when compared with that of other countries. I hope that we will learn from the Minister how far pregnancy rates have dropped for the
29 Jan 2008 : Column 30WH
above-16s, and, more important, for those in the age group below. Finally, I shall be pleased to hear the Minister tell us what plans exist to tackle under-age sex, which is the all-important issue.

11.29 am

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): I am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to this excellent debate, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). The interest shown in the debate, particularly from Labour Back Benchers, certainly demonstrates how seriously we take the issue.

In a former role, the Minister for the Olympics, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), once said that the best contraceptive for a young girl in her teens was a good prediction for her GCSE and A-level results. That seems to be a trite statement until we start to understand—as we are beginning to do—the complex nature of teenage pregnancy and what it can lead to. It is a dereliction of our duty as Members of Parliament not to understand that a pregnancy in teenage years is not something that we would want children to embark upon when they have the right choices before them and the right setting to make decent choices for their lives.

Of course the reasons why such pregnancies occur are complex. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda told us clearly that there are myriad reasons why a young girl may decide to become pregnant. That does not mean that such a decision has been made in a setting that is either nurturing or provides a sense of aspiration for the future. I utterly understand and respect that situation, and we need to tackle those issues seriously.

Unwanted conception leads to many problems, such as poor baby health and poor maternal emotional health. We have heard how isolation can lead to enormous difficulties and, of course, a poor economic outcome makes it hard to move on and recover from having a baby at such an age. However, it is not impossible to move on and many of us could tell lots of stories about fantastic women who have thrived and survived and gone back to college and done an amazing job for their children. We should not write off those women, but we should think about why they may lack the confidence to say, “I do not want to have sex at this age and I will not do so because I want to do well at school and show everyone that I can earn a living and be independent.” That is the situation we want women to be in and that is what we want for the future: self-confident, happy young people who do not feel driven into having sex at an early age, whether before or after 16. If sex is unwanted or not welcome at that time and women feel under pressure, we seriously need to address that situation.

Some adolescents need help in understanding the risks they are taking. They also need to understand their bodies and the way they work. In medieval times, it was acceptable for women to become pregnant at 15 or 16—we all know that happened—because that is when a woman is at her most fertile. Risk taking is much greater at that age and if we do not equip women—and, of course, the other part of the deal, men—with understanding, pregnancy will occur.

We must ensure that we inform younger children of the mechanics of pregnancy. I believe that we are now doing so and that there is no danger in informing
29 Jan 2008 : Column 31WH
children about how sex happens if it is mixed with clear information about relationships, respect and understanding. That is the recipe for excellent sex and relationship education in our schools. I certainly err on the side of compulsory sex education, but there is a quality issue in terms of its provision, which at present is incredibly patchy. I hope that the Minister will tell us how she will ensure that good authorities that are grasping the issue and doing well will share best practice with other authorities that are not doing so well.

In Crawley, we have had success in reducing teenage pregnancy rates and I am delighted. However, that was because the strategy was taken seriously. The constituency of Crawley is the most deprived part of West Sussex, which is a relatively well-off area, and that is reflected in the teenage pregnancy rates in the relevant tables. The focus of the strategy was on areas where most help was needed and it was delivered through the schools that were having the most difficulty and where the numbers of teenage pregnancies were higher than elsewhere. The strategy quickly led to a concerted approach from everyone who was able to provide sex and relationship education and it resulted in a huge reduction—20 per cent.—in teenage pregnancy rates from 1998 to 2005. I congratulate those who took part in that concerted effort, but we must not take our eye off the ball. It is easy to use the money that came with the strategy and the commitment of all those who had the opportunity to assist with it, but it takes concerted hard work to ensure that those figures continue to decrease.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda is right about the role of men and boys in the whole process and it is ludicrous not to include them. If a young girl decides to continue with her pregnancy, she needs all the support we can provide. After all, we want babies to be housed and to ensure that they have a good outcome in their lives. We do not want babies to be hampered or disadvantaged in any way because of their start in life. The work at Broadfield children’s centre is amazing. It has a fantastic breastfeeding peer support group where some teenage mums are helping other young mums who decided to continue with their pregnancy to breastfeed their babies to ensure that they have a decent start in life. There is also a father’s group where many young fathers come together to discuss what it is like to become a father and how it is not quite the easy path that they thought it would be. There are some excellent examples that show how teenage pregnancy rates can be reduced and how we can support teenage parents.

There are many different ways in which we can tackle the problems, some of which are not immediately apparent. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 makes a commitment that children in foster care can go to the school of the foster parents’ choice. Such children will not simply be consigned to a place in an unpopular school, which will help enormously with outcomes for children in foster care. The issue of teenage pregnancy is not just about education; it is about the care, help and advice that children receive—it is not just about health or parents but about all those things.

When preparing for the debate, I looked at the teenage pregnancy strategy review carried out by an independent research team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and it was clear that good practice is
29 Jan 2008 : Column 32WH
truly reaping rewards in some areas. Such good practice gives young girls confidence in their future and enables them to think properly about their choices. I hope the Minister will say that she wants more of that good practice and that she wants that strategy to be embedded in all our communities. With the revival and renewal of the Connexions service, we have a great opportunity to deliver good sex and relationship education. I certainly hope it will flourish in the future.

Next Section Index Home Page