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House of Lords

Monday, 9th February 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

Abortion Legislation

Lord Stallard asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have to introduce changes now or in the lifetime of this Parliament to the existing abortion legislation.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, the simple Answer to my noble friend is none. We have made it clear that any changes to the Abortion Act should be initiated by individual Members of Parliament and that decisions would be made on the basis of free votes in both Houses.

Lord Stallard: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Is she aware that my Question was prompted by reports of an interview with the Secretary of State for Health on about 19th January when he said that he would welcome a change in the law to make early abortions easier to get? As we already know that he has the support of 16 out of 20 members of the Cabinet, we would be grateful for the Minister's assurance that the Government have no plans for a change in the law.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. The views expressed by the Secretary of State for Health were his personal views. The Government's position is as I stated in my Answer.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the rights of the individual, as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, begin with the rights of the foetus?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, as I have said, every noble Lord and every Member of Parliament is entitled to his or her personal views on the subject. If it came to a question of renewed legislation, I am sure that we would have animated discussions on the matter which the noble Earl has raised.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, may I ask the Minister how many abortions are carried out each year and whether some people use them as a form of contraception?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, it is difficult to say whether anybody would use abortion as a form of contraception. I suspect that for most women involved in a termination of pregnancy it is a difficult and often tragic decision to take and that probably, if

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appropriate contraception had been available, they would have been happy to use it. That is one of the reasons why the Government are very much in favour of the fact that this week is National Contraception Week and why we are supporting the voluntary organisations involved in it. The total number of abortions for 1996 was 177,495.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, may I declare an interest as president of the Family Planning Association? Does my noble friend agree that the current provision of abortion services in the NHS is extremely variable in terms of access and quality? Does she see the new health improvement plans to be developed by health authorities as a way in which those services could be improved in the future?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, my noble friend is aware that one of our primary concerns in the NHS White Paper is to make more even the provision of all services across the NHS. I am aware that there are great differences in people's experiences in different parts of the country--not only with regard to abortion but in the whole area of reproductive health.

Beef Assurance Scheme

2.40 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question on the Order Paper standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Clanwilliam. I have been specifically requested to do this. The House will wish to know that my noble friend was taken ill this morning, but he made arrangements for my name to be included on the Order Paper in due time.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress they have made with the Beef Assurance Scheme to provide a register of beef herds that have not been exposed to BSE.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, without a live test for the disease it is not possible to provide a register of herds which have not been exposed to BSE. The Beef Assurance Scheme was introduced for herds with a very low risk of BSE in order to allow beef to be sold from animals between 30 and 42 months of age. The scheme now has 82 members.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. What steps are the Government taking to let consumers know about the Beef Assurance Scheme and to encourage the major supermarkets to use beef from the scheme?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, the scheme is devised for a specialist niche market. It is for herds which are raised naturally. It is not the Government's view that it is appropriate for a major marketing exercise. It is for

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members of the scheme to market it. On the whole, beef from the scheme is marketed locally and we believe that that is the right approach.

Baroness Nicol: My Lords, did my noble friend happen to hear an item on this morning's "Today" programme which indicated that a junior researcher had identified a spongiform difficulty in cows in Kent 18 months before BSE was formally identified? If that report had been acted upon, would it have made the problem any less?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I saw the report and I thank my noble friend for drawing it to our attention. Of course, what was reported occurred under the previous administration and we do not have access to the details. However, we are conscious of the terrible cost that has arisen--the cost to taxpayers, the most terrible trouble for farmers and many difficulties for a new regime inheriting the situation. That is why we set up the commission of inquiry under Lord Justice Phillips. I should like to encourage anyone who believes that he or she may have evidence which would be helpful in explaining the sad programme of events to submit it to the commission.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I understand from the Minister's earlier reply that the scheme in question has no connection with the attempt to get the European ban lifted. What progress is the Minister making with the Commission? It is apparent to everyone apart from the Commission and its scientists that the precautions taken in this country probably make British beef the safest in Europe.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, it is our view that the way to get the ban lifted is to demonstrate to Europe and the world what we believe; namely, that our beef is the safest in the world. For that reason we have introduced all the controls that have been introduced, not all of which have been popular with the noble Lord. We believe that that is the way to get the ban lifted. As the noble Lord said, the Beef Assurance Scheme had nothing to do with the ban; it was in existence to provide an extra market in the domestic market.

Algeria: EU Discussions

2.45 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking, as holders of the presidency of the European Union or otherwise, to assist in stopping the massacres in Algeria.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, we believe that in order to achieve anything in Algeria we must keep the Algerians engaged in political dialogue, discuss our points of view with them and discuss their concerns and requirements. My honourable friend the Minister of

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State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Derek Fatchett, led an EU troika mission to Algiers from 19th to 20th January 1998. The mission's report led to the conclusions that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary announced after the General Affairs Council on 26th January. These have given us a sound base on which to build. Future meetings of EU partners will discuss next steps which we hope will lead to a reduction in the conflict in Algeria.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that according to the Algerian ambassador, who was good enough to see me for over an hour on Friday afternoon, the reason that the troika was not successful in persuading the Algerian authorities to invite the rapporteurs on torture and extra-judicial executions was their belief that a resolution of the Commission of Human Rights was necessary before any such invitation was issued and that they would go to the commission this year with a statement, following which it would be possible to discuss the terms and conditions of such a visit? Further, will the Minister seek to persuade the Algerian authorities that that is the wrong way round and in order to arrive at a conclusion on these dreadful massacres that have taken place the commission first needs the advice of the rapporteurs, and if they cannot visit Algeria they should seek to report to the commission on such evidence as is available from such exiles, journalists, and any NGOs with an interest in the matter?

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