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House of Lords

Thursday, 10th July 1997.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Southwark): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Reproductive Health

Viscount Craigavon asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What priority is being given by the Department for International Development, in the context of the Government's policy on human rights, to the continuing development of projects on women's reproductive health.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the Government want to ensure that all people can realise their internationally defined human rights. Among those is the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health. The Government will give top priority to contributing to the OECD target of reproductive health for all by 2015 and a three-quarters reduction in maternal mortality by the same date.

Viscount Craigavon: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging and detailed Answer. Does she accept that many of us who have been in this field for many years are encouraged by the comments of her colleague the Secretary of State? Even before the departmental White Paper is published, she has placed on record--in her characteristic and forthright language--that she supports reproductive health and population measures as the core of her attack on poverty and also her emphasis on sustainability.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that comment. I thank him also for his contribution as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population Development and Reproductive Health. I hope and believe that we can look forward to more from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State at the Department for International Development on World Population Day. She will be making a speech later today on these important topics. It is important to note a story of considerable success for reproductive health in recent years. Around 57 per cent. of the world's couples now use some form of contraception as compared with only 9 per cent. 30 years ago.

Baroness Flather: My Lords, is the Minister aware that recent research from India shows that literacy, as a precursor to teaching about health issues, has failed? Will she make all efforts to encourage NGOs to link

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literacy to family health issues and family planning to make literacy viable as well as to bring forward the programme for health education?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the point is well taken. The fact is that literate women are better able to control their fertility than illiterate women. They are the potential for an engine of massive human development which will transform and enhance social arrangements. Education and health are the key to sound development. Women and girls need access to education if they are to improve and protect their sexual and reproductive health.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is not only literacy, but also the inter-relationship of mother and child health programmes and health programmes in general, together with overall economic development, that are central to success on this issue? We are therefore all looking to the White Paper to see how those are brought together in the interests of women and reproductive health.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, many factors are involved in this important matter, not least the question of resources. I am happy to say that the UK is the fourth largest donor in the field behind the United States, Japan and Germany. Indeed, the United Kingdom invested nearly £70 million in reproductive health last year.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, is the Minister aware that on this side of the House we are extremely pleased that the Government are continuing the valiant work which was carried out in this field by my noble friend Lady Chalker of Wallasey? Will she try to encourage the US, France, Italy and Belgium to desist from slackening their assistance?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I join with the noble Lord in his tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, for her valuable work in this field. Such work has brought home important achievements. The world's population was growing at a slower rate in the first five years of the 1990s than in the last five years of the 1980s. We shall continue to press our colleagues in Europe and elsewhere to keep up their donations in this important field.

Lord Rea: My Lords, as well as encouraging international action by other countries that have possibly fallen by the wayside in their contributions, can my noble friend assure us that of the good proportion of the funds devoted to primary healthcare and other health matters in the social sector generally, the part going to reproductive health will be maintained as it was under previous governments, and possibly even increased?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, sadly, the US--which was the lead donor in population assistance--cut its foreign aid bill in that respect. That has led to a rather more uncertain position. Nonetheless, the UK looks to the UN population fund--the

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UNFPA--to lead the global effort to ensure that adequate supplies of contraceptives are made available. I can assure the noble Lord that we shall maintain our own financial effort.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is important to watch not only reproductive health but also general health in terms of sexually transmitted diseases? Is she aware that many charities in this country--I declare an interest as chairman of Plan International--are raising money to help educate people in terms of sexual practices which are important in terms of sexual health and sexually transmitted diseases?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am aware of the point made by the noble Baroness. It is not just a question of the risk to mothers at the time of pregnancy, though that is still a real risk in many developing countries. Sadly, it is still the position that 1 million people die each year throughout the world as a result of treatable sexually transmitted diseases--diseases other than HIV and AIDS. It is important that funds are maintained for education on those matters as well as healthcare.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is a third strand in addition to health and education, hinted at by the noble Lord, Lord Judd? I refer to income generation targeted at women of childbearing age to provide additional income in the family. That is extremely important. I hope that the Minister will give encouragement to the voluntary sector which has targeted successfully programmes such as Care International.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, it is important that lines of income to the voluntary sector are maintained in the way the noble Earl describes. At the heart of the issue is the question of dealing with world poverty. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made that clear on a number of occasions. I hope and believe that we can look forward to the interesting speech she will be giving on that subject later today.


3.10 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they intend to take to support the closer integration of Romania into western institutions.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we are strong advocates of the enlargement of western institutions. With our European partners and bilaterally through the Know-How Fund, we are helping Romania to prepare herself for European Union membership as and when she is ready. We are also encouraging Romania to take full advantage of the opportunities for

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closer involvement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which were announced at the Madrid Summit on 8th July.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, will the Minister accept that it is a double blow to Romania to be denied early membership first of NATO and--very likely in the next two weeks--of the European Union, given that Romania now has effective armed forces under civilian control and a fully democratic and, what is more, a relatively clean government? Can the Government do more to press their partners to give more importance to Romania, which is the second largest country in eastern Europe, with a very delicate relationship with Hungary, and which deserves our support?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I do not wish to anticipate any decision in relation to EU membership. I have stated to the House that the Government remain strongly committed to helping Romania integrate into western institutions. Perhaps I may refer the noble Lord to what was said by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place yesterday in relation to Romania. He said,

    "I should say a particular word about Romania and Slovenia, whose applications were especially closely considered even though there was no consensus to invite them on this occasion. Both countries have indeed made remarkable progress. Romania's new Government deserve particular congratulation on the steps taken since they took office last November. A number of allies would have liked to see Romania and Slovenia included among those invited at Madrid. All, including ourselves, saw them as strong candidates for any future enlargement".--[Official Report, Commons, 9/7/97; col. 937.]

I believe that is encouragement.

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