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House of Lords

Wednesday, 20th January 1999.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

Teenage Conceptions

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in 1997, the conception rate for 13 to 15 year-old girls rose by 11 per cent. over the figure for 1996; and, if so, what action they propose to take to reverse this trend.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I believe the figures to which the noble Lord refers may be those first published by the Office for National Statistics in March 1998 relating to conceptions in England and Wales. For 1996 those showed a rate of 9.4 conceptions per 1,000 girls aged 13-15--an increase of approximately 11 per cent. over the 1995 rate of 8.5 per 1,000.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer. Does he agree that every child, boys as well as girls, by the time they reach the age of 14, ought to have a clear picture of the grim realities of single motherhood and of the problems that flow from it, both for the mother and the child?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Yes, my Lords, there is a case for effective sex and relationships education in schools. But it is also important to help children prepare for parenthood. The noble Lord will be interested to know that a joint working group of the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment is examining the approach that can be taken in this area, particularly in relation to schools.

Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, do the Government have any plans for assisting girls in this age group in schools; for example, through the school nursing system where numbers, I am led to believe, are declining?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the whole area of sex and relationships education in schools is an important issue. I am the first to acknowledge the important role of school nurses in providing the right kind of support education to young people in schools. I also acknowledge the role of teachers and health visitors. There are examples of very successful projects where health visitors have entered schools to provide the right kind of support to teenage girls.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that the Government will not pursue the tactic of making contraceptives, including the "morning after" pill, widely and readily available to very young girls without informing their parents, who

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are after all responsible for the well-being of their daughters? Is he aware that evidence indicates that such a tactic does not cut back, but increases, early pregnancy?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am sure that no one in this House could possibly condone under-age sex. It is worth making the point that the great majority of girls in schools are not sexually active. However, a minority are. We must recognise the need to provide education, advice and, where appropriate, contraceptive services to young people.

On the more general issue of the availability of sex and relationships education in schools, evidence indicates that well-designed education, far from encouraging sexual activity, plays a key role in delaying sexual activity and improving the uptake and appropriate use of contraceptives, with the consequent avoidance of sexually transmitted infections.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, will the new committee that is to examine these matters also take account of the European figures? Other parts of Europe have a better record than the United Kingdom in this matter.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that is an important issue. If we examine the rate of teenage conceptions in this country as compared to other countries in Europe, we find that our rate is twice that of Germany, four times that of France, and seven times that of Holland. There are lessons we can learn from other countries, not merely in relation to the availability of family planning services and education in schools but also in regard to relationships between parents and children. In some other countries there are more successful approaches to discussing these issues.

Lord Stallard: My Lords, the Minister referred to the question of education. Does he accept that one reason for the problem is the constant under-rating of the need for Christian education on these and other moral issues in schools throughout the country together with the Government's failure to curb the proliferation of pornographic and foul language programmes on television and the many hundreds of magazines that are available to youngsters?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Yes, my Lords, when one examines the availability of magazines such as those suggested by my noble friend and the peer group pressure that young people are sometimes under, one realises the tremendous challenge that we face in trying to reduce what is a very high teenage conception rate in this country. As regards a proper programme of sex and relationships education, we encourage schools to provide that education in such a way as to have due regard to moral considerations and the value of family life.

Baroness Young: My Lords, is the noble Lord able to give a breakdown of the figures to show whether it is possible to establish how many of these young girls

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are repeating a cycle of deprivation and are themselves the daughters of young mothers? In addressing that point, will he emphasise the importance in all sex education--or personal and social education, as it seems to be called today--of stressing to young people that a marriage is the proper situation in which to raise a family and that that is a very positive attitude to put forward to young girls?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I agree that marriage provides a strong foundation for raising children, but I believe that many other kinds of relationships can be equally successful. To 13 or 14 year-old girls, concepts of marriage may seem rather remote. I believe that it is necessary to deal with the issues in the broader context of support and counselling about relationships.

With regard to the noble Baroness's first question, I do not have figures available to show the relationship, but I will see what I can find out. Certainly, I believe there is some evidence that the cycle of deprivation in which young girls have children can be passed on from one generation to another. That is one of the key elements of the work on which the Government are focused.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, I accept much that my noble friend Lord Stallard said. However, in these difficult matters of ethics and sexual conduct, will all those concerned with sex education bear in mind that Christianity is not the only religion practised in this country and that there are many people of no religion who have strong ethical and moral codes? Perhaps we should be a little broader in our concepts.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Yes, my Lords, I very much agree with that.

Rail Freight Proposals

2.45 p.m.

Lord Cadman asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they consider that Railtrack plc's apparent lack of plans for the provision of "piggyback" freight facilities in the context of the upgrading of the west coast main line will undermine their policies in respect of the transfer of freight from road to rail.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Government remain committed to the development of rail freight to help ease congestion on the roads and reduce pollution. So far as "piggyback" is concerned, my colleague, John Reid, the Minister of Transport, had a useful meeting with the chief executive of Railtrack in November at which the "piggyback" scheme and other rail freight upgrade proposals were discussed. All would require significant amounts of government grants. No

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formal proposals have been received from Railtrack. Officials are exploring with Railtrack various aspects of the alternative schemes.

Lord Cadman: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Bearing in mind that the Government are committed to raising the cost of road fuels by considerably more than the rate of inflation, does the Minister not agree that the market for this kind of traffic is likely to increase rapidly in the future? How do the Government intend to ensure that Railtrack's stewardship of our railway infrastructure more appropriately reflects the demands to which it is likely to be put?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is the case that over the past few years the situation for rail freight has improved significantly after a long period of decline. The figures for last year and the first half of the current year show a 16 per cent. increase in freight kilometres, which is a healthy trend. The intention of the Government, in pursuit of their integrated transport policy, is to give the strategic rail authority the objective to promote the transport of freight by rail. In the meantime, as my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has announced, the shadow strategic rail authority will be able to make a start on strategic planning to this end.

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