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26 Nov 2008 : Column 280WH—continued

I have one minor criticism of the Government, but I must preface it by saying that this Government, and above all the Minister, have done incredible things in the relevant area. The criticism relates to the space that schools and head teachers need to teach the subject
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effectively. If they teach SRE and social and emotional development effectively, they will be able to improve their scores. It is not a matter of either/or. It is not possible to crank up achievement without doing something with the raw material and helping youngsters to get better socially and emotionally so that they have the ability to learn.

I ask the Minister to think carefully about ensuring that when we introduce PHSE—I hope it will be called something that mums can understand, and I suggest life skills, not SRE, PHSE or any of the acronyms that we have to confuse people—heads know that they have the space within the curriculum to cover it effectively. That would be a fantastic contribution.

Are parents adequately trained? Are teachers adequately trained? I must agree that no, often they are not. We need to spend much more money on ensuring that teachers are comfortable in talking about sexual intercourse, contraception, abortion or relationship-building, rather than knocking out a few things on the photocopier, handing them out and sending the kids home early. That is no good for anyone. Equally, parents, too, sometimes need to feel a little more relaxed so that they can talk spontaneously to their children about such matters.

The hon. Gentleman threw in several ideas that would complement what the Government are doing. It is not a matter of either/or. By all means, let us see whether we can get David Attenborough to do a documentary. I do not have a problem with that. Perhaps the Minister can take that idea away and ask Sir David to do a video. We are doing a great video with single mums in Nottingham, funded by One Nottingham, the organisation that I chair. We are going to do one for absent fathers too.

Why should not absent fathers know that there is a consequence, and a benefit consequence, to their actions? Perhaps we have gone in the wrong direction in the past six months in letting people off the hook. That word of mouth has gone and young people—young boys, certainly—have been allowed to think that there is a free hit here. If they think there is no free hit, there is more likely to be the self-discipline, even after a few drinks, that most people manage to achieve.

I am outstaying my welcome, Mr. Gale, so I shall finish on this note: the choice put in hon. Members’ minds by the hon. Gentleman—he made his case honestly and forthrightly, and should be respected for doing so—is between education and ignorance. From my standpoint, I believe that the more people know and the more they understand, the more they will make the right life decisions. The less they know and the less they understand, the more likely it is that my statistic of 218 teenage mums in a year will go up rather than down.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not lose his edge, but I hope, too, that he understands why, in this instance, some of us strongly disagree with him.

3.21 pm

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I am grateful to have the opportunity to follow two interesting speakers. The first was my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who bravely raised an important issue. The second was the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who may have put his finger on the core of the problem. However, I shall try to put it in a slightly more tactful way than the hon. Gentleman.

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There certainly is a problem in our society at the moment, with young women’s pregnancies being caused by young males—as we heard, not always once but sometimes on multiple occasions. The children are effectively being brought up by the state. Those who are parents can imagine how difficult it must be for young, inexperienced teenagers to bring up children on a deprived council estate.

I always try to avoid using the term “single mother” or phrases such as “out of wedlock”. They are rather emotive, and I assume that all hon. Members would agree that it is completely unfair to stigmatise someone who happens to be a single mother. There are all sorts of reasons for women ending up as single mothers. Indeed, most single mothers do an extremely good job in bringing up their children. We are not talking today about single mothers; we are talking about a particular problem that is confined to deprived estates, where people are having more than one child.

People make mistakes. Women can become pregnant because of one-off mistakes. We should not be too judgmental about that, either, as I suspect that many in this room will have been in the position of waiting for a phone call to find out if they were about to become parents rather sooner than expected. That is life. That is reality. However, some young people living in deprived areas think that it is perfectly reasonable, acceptable or even normal to have one child after another, often by different fathers. That is unacceptable, and society needs to be able to say something about it—and not only to those young women but very much to the young men. That is the sort of problem that we are trying to address today.

The question is whether more sex education in schools is the answer. It is obvious from the trade in statistics that we heard that more sex education is not the answer. There is no statistical evidence to suggest it. The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) asked what the link was between less sex education and lower pregnancy rates. That question needs to be directed at the Government. They will not be able to show a link. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North spoke of the increase in under-age pregnancies and babies being born out of wedlock in his constituency, but the reality is that there is far more sex education now in his constituency than there was 20 years ago, so the answer is not more sex education.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I am sorry to have missed the start of the debate, although I watched the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on the annunciator screen, and I congratulate him on securing this debate.

Is the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) saying that the answer to the problem of unwanted teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases is more ignorance? That is the opposite of what is being proposed, with more information being given through sex and relationships education.

David T.C. Davies: No, the answers to dealing with more teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease were eloquently put by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. We need to look at the benefits system, the over-sexualisation of society and changing the culture in which we live, and not simply employing more sex education workers to do what they presumably have not been doing very well for the past 20 years.

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Philip Davies: The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made the same point as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)—that it is either more education or more ignorance. That would make sense if we were starting from the year dot and trying to decide whether or not to introduce sex education. However, we have had sex education for 20 or 30 years and the problem has got worse, which indicates that what the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon proposes—more sex education or more ignorance—is not the real choice.

David T.C. Davies: I agree with my hon. Friend. As far as we can tell, there is no link between sex education and a reduction in teenage pregnancies, abortion or under-age sex—unless the hon. Gentleman can enlighten me further.

Dr. Harris: I think that there is evidence, and I am sure that we will hear of it in some of the summating speeches. More information and age-appropriate language early on—before the giggle factor prevents us transmitting that information—equips young people to resist peer pressure to have sex. We live in the society that we live in, and I regret some of its factors as much as the hon. Gentleman. However, given where we are, surely we must equip young people with knowledge and self-confidence; more ignorance is not the way forward, given the society and the media that we have today.

David T.C. Davies: I would be interested to go down that route, talking about Liberal Democrat policies and the sort of culture that we live in and how it may or may not benefit us. However, Mr. Gale, I suspect that you would stop me.

I am not against having some form of sex education in secondary schools, although I might differ slightly from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley on that question. My big concern is sex education in primary schools. As a father of three children under the age of 10, I think it completely inappropriate that primary schools should be expected to provide it.

It is a cliché, but I believe that schools should concentrate on reading, writing and arithmetic. The statistics given by my hon. Friend are indisputable. One in five people leaving school at the age of 16 is unable to read and write properly. A report in 2005 suggested that one in three children at the age of 11 was unable to state what a paragraph was, or put commas in the right place. That suggests to me that schools are not doing properly the job that we expect of them. I went to a state primary school in my constituency, and I was able to read by the age of six. The schools in my constituency attended by my children are good, but the schools in many areas are failing. We are now expecting them to undertake sex education as well.

It comes down to the fundamental question, what are the roles of the school and of the parent? I believe that the school’s role is to impart basic educational knowledge to children. It is the parents’ role to decide what young children should be taught about sex, and what their young children should be taught about the facts of life. It is not only the role of the parents; it is their right. That is why I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley for raising the subject today.

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3.28 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing this debate. However, I do not like the title, which is not a good starting point. I believe that we should never talk about sex and relationships, but always about sex and relationship education. The two must go together.

At times during the hon. Gentleman’s speech, I felt that I was living in a parallel universe, but I agree with some aspects of what he said. I am passionate about supporting the family, whatever shape or size it is. Family stability and loving relationships within the family are so important, and I certainly value the aspect of a family sitting around the table and dining together. On that point, the hon. Gentleman and I do not differ.

I, too, refer to some of the stark facts. I start with teenage pregnancy rates. The United Kingdom has the highest teenage birth and abortion rates in Europe. Rates of teenage births here are six times those in the Netherlands, nearly three times those in France and more than twice those in Germany. I have said before that the Government are to be congratulated on having a teenage pregnancy strategy, which seeks to tackle the causes and the consequences of teenage pregnancy. Teenage conception rates have fallen to their lowest level for 20 years, but we have a long way to go.

Until last month, the Government had resisted a commitment to make personal, social and health education, including sex and relationship education, a compulsory part of the national curriculum. I have raised this cause at every possible opportunity since being elected. Education must be a vital part of the teenage pregnancy strategy, and I welcome the Government’s conversion, at long last.

I was extremely distressed when the latest abortion figures were published. In Britain, the number of abortions performed on under-16s rose by 10 per cent. last year to 4,376. For under-14s, there has been a 21 per cent. increase, and half of all pregnancies in under-18s end in abortion. I am not an anti-abortionist, but having an abortion at such a young age cannot be a good start to life. We need more information on sexually transmitted infections. We cannot allow young people to remain in ignorance. Every statistic on most sexually transmitted infections shows that we have the highest diagnosis rate among women aged 16 to 19. Indeed, 12 per cent. of women in that age group are infected with chlamydia.

Today’s question is: cause and effect—which way around? Obviously I do not support the argument that sex education has led to the current situation. We have not had adequate sex and relationship education in this country, but of course other factors are at play. However, the key is quality sex and relationship education by trained teachers who wish to do it. We also need to involve other professionals and young people.

To counter the points made by the hon. Member for Shipley, we need look no further than the United Kingdom Youth Parliament survey, which throws light on the causal relationship. Twenty two thousand teenagers were surveyed, more than 70 per cent. of whom rated the teaching of sex education in school as poor, very poor or merely average, while only a quarter said that it was good. Furthermore, nearly half said that they had never been taught about the effects of teenage pregnancy and
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would not know where to find their local sexual health clinic. The survey also revealed that 55 per cent. of all 12 to 15-year-olds, and 57 per cent. of girls between 16 and 17, had not been taught how to use a condom, despite a Government recommendation on that issue.

Overall, 55 per cent. of respondents said that they had been taught about teenage pregnancy, leaving just less than half who had not. Many of the young people to whom UKYP spoke while carrying out the survey felt that they knew about how having a baby could impact on their lives, but knew little about the development of a baby in the womb and about the impact that pregnancy could have on their bodies. Most alarmingly, as has already been alluded to, 61 per cent. of boys and 70 per cent. of girls over the age of 17, and 43 per cent. of all the children surveyed, reported having not received any information at school about personal relationships.

A study earlier this year by UNICEF, and further work by the National Children’s Bureau and the Sex Education Forum, reinforce those points. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has also produced some very interesting material. A snapshot of calls to ChildLine in May 2008 showed that nearly 50 children a day call because they feel under pressure to have sex or lack basic knowledge about sexual health, relationships, pregnancy and puberty. Children as young as 12 call to talk to a counsellor because they are worried that they might be pregnant and lack the facts about safer sex, sexual relationships and peer pressure. Some girls say that they feel pressurised into having sex before they are ready.

Those callers to ChildLine, like the rest of us, live in a highly sexualised culture and are influenced by media and marketing, but they are not being equipped to deal with the pressures. Alcohol also comes into the equation. Young people sometimes use alcohol to cope and become more vulnerable as a result. Their lives are complex, and they need knowledge, advice and support to help them to avoid engaging in sexual activity that they later regret.

I declare that I am an ambassador for the NSPCC and the views that I shall put forward are not only those of the NSPCC, but very strongly mine. Children need to learn from an early age about appropriate behaviour and how to stay safe in relationships. PSHE needs to receive dedicated teaching time to enable teachers to use different strategies to help children and young people to develop the necessary skills. That should help young people to build their self-esteem and make informed choices in later life. Children and young people should be given the opportunity to gain some understanding about abuses of power and inappropriate and dangerous relationships, and learn what support is available. They need to understand why it is not appropriate to tolerate abuses of power within a relationship, and should be given clear examples of such behaviour, such as child abuse, rape and domestic abuse.

I believe passionately that sex and relationship education should begin at five. Much has been made in the press about sex education for five-year-olds—“condoms for five-year-olds!”—but I shall explain why I believe that it should start at age five. During deliberations on the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the police parliamentary scheme, in which I participated—I spent time with the Metropolitan police’s child protection unit—I learned a great deal about things that I did not know even happened.
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For example, a child living in an abnormal family does not know that they are living in abnormal circumstances, because they do not have a yardstick by which to measure normality. I came across an example of a child brought up in a household where pornographic material was being made and assembled. That child went out into the street and engaged in a sexual activity with a dog. I rest my case! We need appropriate education at five describing what normal touching is and what normal relationships are.

As education progresses we must emphasise qualities within relationships, such as self-esteem, self-respect, respect for others, honesty, choice and so on. We must give young people the ability to make their own choices and have the confidence to say “no”. I have some more examples: one 16-year-old boy told ChildLine that he had had unprotected sex with a girl for a dare and was now concerned that he might have caught a disease. A 14-year-old girl said that her boyfriend wanted to have sex with her, but that she did not know how to do it. Another young girl rang to say that she was worried that she was pregnant after she did not dare to say “no” to sex with her boyfriend in case he dumped her.

We must not underestimate the importance of those points. Members will gather that I have been passionate about this issue for a long time. However, the answer is not just sex and relationship education, but in the whole PSHE programme. A range of health issues must be taught relative to age, maturity and understanding, including emotional and health well-being, diet and exercise, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, careers and safety. Sex and relationship education is just one part of that—but never should it be just sex education, without the “relationship”.

Working with parents is vital. I would not imagine such education being introduced without full parental consultation. Schools should run individual schemes. Work force training is also vital, because no teacher should have to teach a subject on which they are not confident. Furthermore, we must make full use of professionals and young people. I commend the Government on setting up the committee. It delays the introduction of that sort of education, but this time they are right, because it will ensure that the content and any exemptions are firmly discussed.

3.39 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, on this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing it. He always speaks powerfully on behalf of his constituents and is always willing to put his point of view, for which we should applaud him.

My hon. Friend correctly identifies the worsening problems that we face in this country, and the fact that many parents want a close involvement in this part of their children’s upbringing. He referred in some detail to examples from Italy and Holland. He rightly pointed out that family structure and stable family environments can do much to help children have a better start in life and to help them make good decisions about the way in which their lives will develop and progress.

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