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29 Jan 2008 : Column 32WH—continued

11.38 am

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I join my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing the debate. He has already given a good analysis of some of the causes of teenage pregnancy and a clear exposition of what he believes are some of the solutions. I agree that factors such as binge drinking and the early sexualisation of children are increasingly becoming matters of concern. Such factors also make it more difficult for the Government to meet their target of halving teenage pregnancies.

My hon. Friend highlighted the stigma attached to teenage pregnancy, which is a difficult issue. Once somebody is pregnant and decides to go ahead with the pregnancy, it is important that they have support from people within their school or community. In the 1980s, particularly in some of the media, teenage mothers were stigmatised and demonised through stories about them becoming pregnant to get council flats and so on. We obviously do not want to return to such attitudes, but at the same time, there is the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda raised about its being acceptable and almost normal—the done thing—for young mothers in some areas, particularly on some of our more deprived estates, to be teenage mothers. There is a tricky balancing act.

I know people who had babies when they were teenagers. They have done a good job bringing up their children—great kids who are now teenagers themselves—and they are doing all that they can to stop them going down the same path as they did, because they know that it was incredibly difficult. Although they brought up decent kids, their lives have been fairly chaotic and they have always struggled to make ends meet. They have taken on jobs and then had to give them up because of child care or relationship issues—often, the relationship with the father of the children causes huge problems in their lives as well—so they know that it is not easy. As I said, they are desperate that their children do not go down the same path.

One of the things that the speakers so far have highlighted is that above all we must address the whole concept of young people’s emotional health and well-being. I agree. The Government highlighted that in their 2006 document, “Teenage Pregnancy: Accelerating the Strategy to 2010”. We must deal with the development of social and emotional skills, and I shall speak briefly about two projects that aim to do that.

Hengrove school in south Bristol—it is not in my constituency, so I have not had an opportunity to visit it—introduced a lunch-time and after-school drop-in service in September 2005. It is staffed by a school nurse, a child and adolescent mental health worker, a nurse from the Brook advisory clinic, an adviser from
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Connexions and a drug and alcohol worker. There were nearly 2,000 visits in the first year, mostly from 14 to 15-year-olds, and about a third of the visits were from boys. A third of the consultations were about sexual health issues. The service is anonymous: it does not ask for pupils’ names or record the visit within the system in any way. There are plans to roll the service out to the rest of the city. Projects that start to address the issues before a pregnancy occurs—before it becomes a problem—are really important.

Another Bristol project helps young mothers once they decide to continue with their pregnancy. The Meriton centre, which is a referral unit for young parents, provides education at GCSE level and also some post-16 education for about 75 young girls from the age of 13 upwards. I had the opportunity to visit the centre a few months ago to present awards for qualifications. The centre also offers vocational and personal enrichment courses, and it has an on-site nursery so that the babies can be looked after while the girls are studying.

A debate has been going on for some years about whether it is better to educate teenage mothers in separate referral units or whether they should be kept in mainstream schooling. Dr. Nona Dawson of Bristol university carried out a study in 2003 and concluded that it was better to take young mothers out of mainstream education because of factors such as bullying in class, particularly by boys, difficulties in arranging child care and teachers not taking the girls’ aspirations seriously and, in effect, cold-shouldering them. She came to the view that units such as the Meriton centre were a better way of educating teenage mothers.

The Meriton is incredibly successful. It has twice made it on to Ofsted’s list of outstanding providers of education. Last year’s report stated:

It has an

and it offers

One should bear it in mind that most of those young mothers arrived at their situation because they had more or less dropped out of mainstream school anyway. They would not have achieved good GCSE results, or any GCSE results at all. It takes a while for the Meriton to convince them that it is worth attending, but within six to eight months on average, and despite having given birth in the middle of that period, they achieve qualifications that are broadly average for Bristol.

Chris Bryant: The project that my hon. Friend refers to sounds similar to Books and Babies, which is just outside my constituency but serves it. It is a wonderful project, and I have been impressed by the staff there. They have enormous dedication and, I suppose, personal love, but one of the difficulties is that the services stop when the mother reaches the age of 16. A big difficulty for 16 to 18-year-olds is that it is difficult to get adequate child care facilities at many schools and colleges.

Kerry McCarthy: I am aware that child care is an issue. The Meriton offers post-16 education. It is important that support is offered at least until the age of 18.

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Let me briefly give a flavour of what the Meriton is doing. I have been given various reports published by the centre and some of the achievements make inspirational reading. One young girl says that she attended a teaching assistant course—I believe that six young mothers have now qualified as teaching assistants. She wrote that she now has a job in a school and is working with a young boy in year 4 who is mildly autistic. One senses that she feels that she is making a difference to that young boy’s life. She has a job that she values, and she feels that she is contributing something.

The Meriton also offers sports leadership courses that involve teaching netball and rounders at primary schools. It has linked up with the university of Bristol law department, where real-life law cases are discussed and the girls are taught to analyse social issues. The centre put on a performance of “The Wizard of Oz”; there are sports activities and it produced a radio show and is helping to build a catering van for the farms for city children project. All sorts of good things are being done—it is not just about getting GCSEs. The centre is also undertaking work to educate other young people about the realities of young parenthood.

There is an organisation in my constituency called the single parent action network—a national organisation that receives a significant amount of lottery funding—which works with older single mothers. Again, the self-esteem they get from being involved in projects, gaining qualifications and receiving hands-on support and life coaching is incredible.

It is a real shame that we are talking about helping people only once they get into difficulties. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley referred to that point. We need to look at what organisations such as the Meriton and the SPAN study centre do to build people’s aspirations, boost their self-esteem and help them cope with life, to determine whether we can do something to reach young women in particular, but also young boys, whose attitude is incredibly important. We must try to learn those lessons and build them into our school curriculum at a much earlier stage.

11.48 am

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this important and timely debate. I fully endorse his comments and the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) and for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy).

I acknowledge that County Durham and my constituency, the City of Durham, do not have the worst teenage pregnancy rates in the north-east. The rates are on a downward trend, but I want to contribute to this debate because it is important that we continue to focus efforts on securing greater reductions in the number of teenage pregnancies. The reasons for doing so have already been outlined.

It is worth reminding ourselves that, although teenage parenthood can be a positive experience—we need to note that, and I echo the comments of my hon. Friends about not stigmatising all teenage mothers as bad or failing mothers—we know that the experience frequently brings with it negative consequences for the teenage mothers themselves and their children. Not only are there negative health consequences, including mental
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health problems, but problems with longer-term health outcomes. Teenage mothers are also more likely not to continue with education, to have no qualifications by the age of 33, to be in receipt of benefits, to be on a low income and to experience housing difficulties.

Young fathers, as we have already mentioned, are similarly affected. It is important that, when we talk about teenage mothers, we must remember that there are teenage parents, too, and we need to focus a lot of our attention on young men as well as on young women.

There are negative consequences for children, in terms of low birth weight and higher mortality. There are lower breastfeeding rates among the group about which we are talking. There is also a higher risk of poverty, poor housing and poor nutrition, and, significantly, a greater likelihood of the children of teenage parents becoming teenage parents themselves. Clearly, we should stop that cycle, if at all possible.

Figures for my area have been reducing ahead of the local target and a great deal of credit for that has to go to the local tackling teenage pregnancy partnership board. Hon. Members have already explained that, if this multifaceted issue is to be tackled, a number of agencies, as well as parents, will need to respond. The local partnership board in Durham includes the primary care trust, Connexions and bodies dealing with health, housing, education, youth and community services and the voluntary sector, which specifically target this issue. The board is overseeing a strategy that concentrates on the key issues, including sex and relationship counselling—it puts those two things together—and that approach is being rolled out in respect of sex education in all the schools. However, the work does not take place only in schools. Schools are important and a key point of contact for the group that we are talking about, but so are other settings, such as doctors’ surgeries or youth projects.

There is also a strong focus on building self-esteem in both the young men and the young women who fall into the at-risk groups. There is huge evidence that, where young people’s self-esteem and aspirations are raised, teenage pregnancy rates are reduced dramatically. There is also better support, both for teenage mothers—it is important that they are supported—and those in the high-risk groups. Looked-after children have been defined as a significantly at-risk group, and there is a specific project focusing on young people in care and working with young women in care to try to reduce teenage pregnancy rates. Ongoing consultation is carried out with young people in the area involved. Because all the agencies have bought into the partnership board, they have made it a priority, in all their work, to reduce teenage pregnancy rates. Clearly, this has to happen if there are to be successful outcomes locally.

I pay tribute to the work of children’s services in County Durham and the way in which that department has worked with the PCT to bring effective children’s centres into the city. Three new children’s centres have been established in the past year and another two are planned. These centres are important, because they are a local focus, not only for work with teenage mothers, but for work with the at-risk group. They operate early intervention programmes, through Sure Start, and they have a worker who reaches out to the high-risk groups,
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including young men. That work is having a certain degree of success locally. Health visitors based in the children’s centres are working with young mothers and fathers and encouraging the groups involved to talk more widely in the community, not necessarily about the disbenefits of the situation that they are in, but about what hard work it is to bring up children, particularly in limited material circumstances where there is a high level of poverty.

All the agencies involved agree that the main task is to sustain the downward trend and they agree that that is the biggest challenge, because a group of people remain almost stubbornly resistant to any efforts made to try to reduce pregnancy rates. However, we have to consider further what needs to be done to tackle the problem with that group. I should like to link that thought with some of the discussions that we were having yesterday about extending apprenticeships and vocational education. Those at greatest risk of teenage pregnancy are disengaged from education at an early age and they feel, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda outlined graphically, that there is nothing for them and no other future for them except to go down the route of having a child who will love them and who they can love back, giving a meaning to their lives.

We have to raise aspirations and, if we are to do so with the group involved, we have to engage them in education and training in a way that we have not done previously. That means ensuring that those who already have a young child or are pregnant do not leave education and that various packages are worked around their needs, with flexible education, training and part-time employment available, or support through the benefits system, allowing them to continue their training.

We want to prevent that group from becoming teenage parents in the first instance and that means having education that means something to them. Rolling out apprenticeships is important and so are the diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds. We need to offer wider-ranging education and support packages for those who are seen to be failing at an early stage. We also need much more investment in young people’s services, so that those involved are better connected locally, because although young people can get support sometimes, it is not clear where they should go in the first instance. There needs to be a clear point of contact for all young people, so that they can get a wide range of support services when they need them.

I echo the comments made by my hon. Friends. We live in a society that is sexualising young people very early and in which it seems easy for lap-dancing clubs to get licences, but difficult to stop them from being licensed. We need to broaden our focus on teenage pregnancy and look at some of the wider societal issues. However, we should not stop focusing on the specific issues that affect young people. We need all the policies that we can put in place to raise aspirations and keep our young people in education for as long as possible.

11.58 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). This has been an interesting debate and I have not heard anything in hon. Members’ speeches that I disagree with.

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The United Kingdom had the highest level of teenage pregnancy in western Europe in 1998 and, as far as there are up-to-date comparable statistics, we are still in the same position. However, the Government have to be praised for having the first teenage pregnancy strategy, which is attempting to co-ordinate and tackle both the causes and the consequences of teenage pregnancy. Teenage conception rates have fallen to their lowest level for 20 years. This morning, we have heard about some excellent projects, but—there is a big “but”—back in February 2007, the Office for National Statistics issued figures on teenage conception rates in England for 2005, which showed very little improvement on the previous year, and even a rise in the number of under-16s becoming pregnant.

The big question for the Minister is whether the strategy’s targets will be achieved. They are to halve the under-18 conception rate by 2010; to get a downward trend in the under-16 rate; to increase the proportion of teenage parents in education, training or employment by 60 per cent. by 2010; and to reduce their risk of long-term social exclusion. There must be general agreement that progress towards those targets must accelerate.

It is interesting to note the variations between local authorities, and it makes sense for the Government to work with what might be perceived to be the worst-performing local authorities in terms of targets, because it is sensible to share good practice, but there must obviously be respect for the particular needs of local communities. I remember the figures for my area being announced in 1998 and the feeling of great shock at the figures for the whole of Dorset because, unexpectedly, they were relatively high.

Much work has been undertaken in my area, and Bournemouth and Poole primary care trust has made steady progress in reducing under-18 conception rates. I asked the PCT what were its most effective measures. The first was outreach work to target young people at risk—for example, women with chaotic lifestyles, looked-after children and known sex workers. The second was condom distribution in particular settings, such as youth centres and Connexions centres, and—I emphasise this—where a trained professional was on hand. An additional measure was working with a group of local pharmacists who issue morning-after pills. They have been trained by the PCT, and do follow-up work and monitoring. If the user gives permission, they can be referred to a specialist nurse.

Chris Bryant: In my constituency, if the morning-after pill is obtained from a chemist rather than a family planning clinic, it costs £23.80, and for many young girls that is simply not an option. A scheme has been introduced whereby the chemist provides the pill free and the cost is refunded. Would the hon. Lady like that scheme to be extended more widely?

Annette Brooke: We must face up to the problem. The idea of the morning-after pill is unpalatable to many people in the wide world, but when we hear about binge drinking and its consequences, we must find practical solutions as well as changing the long-term situation. Local tots-to-teens programmes are rather good in changing or influencing attitudes.

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