[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I hope that, like me, having done lots of research on this subject, you will have discovered how important it is and why it is so important that we are debating it this afternoon. I hope that there will be commitments from the Government on concrete action.
Last Thursday, Sir Al Aynsley-Green published on Opendemocracy.net a fantastic letter describing what goes on elsewhere to address problems caused by drinking during pregnancy. The title of his article is “If you could prevent brain damage in a child, would you?” Everybody is going to answer yes to that, but are we preventing brain damage in children? At the moment, there is a large question about whether we in this country are doing enough to prevent such brain damage.
I am going to give the Minister a bit of warning about what I am looking for from her in this debate. I should like her to reiterate the Government’s advice for pregnant women. Is that advice not to drink at all during pregnancy? Will she say what actions the Government are taking to ensure that women and their partners are fully aware of the risks and that society as a whole is aware of the risks? What is her view of and attitude to the potential for mandatory labelling of alcohol products, as in France?
I understand that, at the moment, the Government say that women should not drink at all during pregnancy, but that, at the same time, they say that women who do not want to stop drinking altogether should have only one or two units a week. Some would say that this is contradictory advice. We will return to what the advice should be and discuss whether there should be different advice and whether there is indeed a safe limit.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he accept the recent evidence that suggests that even moderate drinking has an effect on IQ in babies and that the wise advice is that there should no drinking at all during pregnancy?
My hon. Friend makes a point about whether there is a safe limit, and I will discuss that. From the evidence I have looked at, my conclusion is that we cannot possibly say that there is a safe limit and that the advice should be no alcohol during pregnancy.
The National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome UK tells us that there is no way to know for sure what impact drinking alcohol might have on an unborn baby. The same point is made by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. According to the NOFAS, alcohol could have different effects at different times during pregnancy, and it might affect one baby but not another. We know that heavy drinking and binge drinking during pregnancy could increase the risk of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, but, as I say, we do not know what the safe limit is. My hon. Friend makes the point that the best advice is to abstain completely. According to the NOFAS, at any stage of pregnancy a woman can benefit her baby by avoiding alcohol.
Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is an umbrella term that covers foetal alcohol syndrome, alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders, alcohol-related birth defects, foetal alcohol effects and partial foetal alcohol syndrome. When a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol in her blood passes freely through the placenta into the developing baby’s blood. Because the foetus does not have a fully developed liver, it cannot filter out the toxins from the alcohol as an adult can. Instead, the alcohol circulates in the baby’s bloodstream. It can destroy brain cells and damage the nervous system of the foetus at any point during the nine months of pregnancy. Those findings have been backed up by research done around the world.
The effects on a child can be mild or severe, ranging from reduced intellectual ability and attention deficit disorder to heart problems and even death. Many children experience serious behavioural and social difficulties that last a lifetime. Although alcohol can affect the development of cells and organs, the brain and nervous systems are particularly vulnerable. We cannot see the neurological brain damage that is caused, but there are a number of invisible characteristics in babies born with FASD, which include attention deficits; memory deficits; hyperactivity; difficulty with abstract concepts, including maths, time and money; poor problem-solving skills; difficulty learning from consequences; and confused social skills. There are also a number of possible physical effects, including smaller head circumference, linked to smaller brain size and brain damage; heart problems; limb damage; kidney damage; damage to the structure of the brain; eye problems; hearing problems; and specific facial characteristics.
Some studies suggest that 1% of live births in Europe are affected by FASD. Many children born with FASD are not diagnosed or do not receive a correct diagnosis, which makes calculating the prevalence of the condition extremely difficult. Because there is no proven safe level for alcohol consumption during pregnancy, the only risk-free approach is to avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy, when trying to conceive and when breastfeeding.
In considering whether a child has FAS, it is also true that they can be very loving, friendly, gregarious, outgoing and trusting—all good traits—but without a sense of balance, these traits can often leave them open to being taken advantage of and abused by others. It appears that there is no cure but there are actions that can help, including early diagnosis; support for families; health monitoring; therapy and medication; support and safety at home; strong boundaries and routines, allied to flexibility from carers; simple instructions; and training and support in social skills. Above all, prevention is key. There should be better awareness so that fewer women drink in pregnancy, and that means providing more advice and support for vulnerable groups of young women. Drinking among young women has increased, so there needs to be better understanding among young women generally.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the work done by Gloria and Peter Armistead, from my constituency, who founded FAS Aware? They have a two-pronged approach: educating young women in schools about problem drinking and providing a wonderful booklet for teachers and pupils on diagnosing and working with children with foetal alcohol syndrome. Gloria was awarded an MBE for her work in this area.
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the excellent work done by her constituents. I, too, praise them and many others who have done such good work to raise awareness of the condition, the risks and the need for action.
On greater awareness, the Education Committee is about to start an inquiry into personal, social and health education. What better subject for children at school to learn about than the dangers of drinking in pregnancy? I hope that my comment is taken on board by my fellow Committee members when we consider what to look at during that inquiry.
Al Aynsley-Green describes sitting in a class of seven–year-olds in Canada:
“‘What do you never drink when you have a baby in your tummy?’ asks the facilitator. ‘We never drink alcohol, Miss,’ chorus the children.”
That level of awareness at that age is in stark contrast to anything that happens here. He then mentions a conference in Toronto on prenatal alcohol exposure, attended by several hundred scientists, clinicians, lawyers, parliamentarians and lay people. Emily is 16 years old and has severe learning difficulties. She stood alongside her twin sister, courageously describing what it is like to be affected by the alcohol drunk by their Russian birth mother before they were adopted by their Canadian family. Emily described social isolation, bullying, fidgeting, impulsivity, distractibility, loud noise intolerance and poor concentration, which makes learning difficult.
Canadians take the impact of alcohol before birth seriously. Federal and provincial governments are convinced that prenatal alcohol causing foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is the most important preventable cause of severe brain damage in childhood. It affects affluent families and aboriginal people. Less badly affected children exhibit poor behaviour in their schools and communities and populate the prisons. Canadians express incredulity that the economic cost, let alone the human cost of the syndrome, has not been grasped by politicians in England.
In that Canadian classroom, the children might well, if my Canadian experience is anything to go by, have also been shouting, “And no drugs and no smoking too.” That is important. I know that the debate is not about that, but it is linked, is it not?
Indeed it is. Awareness of the dangers, particularly of smoking during pregnancy, is much higher. Why, when we know what we know about smoking and the damage it causes to the unborn child, would we not ensure that the same awareness is in place for alcohol?
We have known about the dangers of alcohol to the foetus for a long time. Judges 13:7 says:
“Behold, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and now drink no wine or strong drink”.
Aristotle wrote about the effects of women drinking during pregnancy. Sir Francis Bacon advised women not to drink during pregnancy. The gin epidemic saw a rise in birth defects in Britain in the 1700s. The infant death rate was 20% higher for alcoholic women in prison in 1899 as compared with the rest of the population. Distinct facial characteristics were noted by French researcher Dr Paul Lemoine—I apologise for the pronunciation—who studied families where mothers drank a lot in pregnancy. The term “foetal alcohol syndrome” was first used by English researchers Jones and Smith in 1973.
There has been extensive preventive and clinical work in Canada, the United States and Australia. In 2007, Lord Mitchell’s private Members’ Bill called for it to be mandatory for alcohol sellers to display warning labels. That was seven years ago, and it has not happened yet. We saw recent success when legislation on smoking in cars with children present was passed. The Minister was heavily involved, and I commend her for her work on that. Perhaps we can persuade her to do the same on the labelling of alcohol.
At the severe end of the spectrum, there are some 7,000 live births of children with foetal alcohol syndrome each year in the UK, with three or four times as many babies born with the wider foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. There is, however, a suggestion of under-diagnosis, as symptoms are similar to those resulting from such conditions as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autistic spectrum disorder. The neglect of children who end up in care or being adopted can also produce behaviours that are similar to those seen with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The combined effects of neglect and FASD can make life difficult for children in care and those around them.
Diagnosis among some groups can be difficult. As the parent of two adopted children, I have no idea whether their birth mother drank during pregnancy. As a result, behaviours consistent with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which my children exhibit, could be due to neglect or alcohol consumption during pregnancy or both or neither. There is no way of knowing. The point is that we have to raise awareness, because we have to reduce risk. The education and development needs of this group of children are specialised. I refer the Minister to the research and ask her to look further at what is needed and just how demanding it is to enable children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders to achieve their potential, given their difficulties in learning and in relating to others.
In 2009, the National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome said:
“Teachers and teaching support staff will undoubtedly meet children with FASD in their classrooms. They need to know how to respond to their learning needs effectively, enable them to maximise their potential, improve their life chances and take their places alongside their mainstream peers as citizens…FASD now accounts for the largest, non-genetic group of children presenting with learning difficulties/disabilities. The difficulties that children face in the classroom epitomise that much-used phrase ‘complex needs’…Their unusual style of learning and their extreme challenging behaviour is out of the experience of many teachers”—
and support staff—
“and, as there is significant shortfall in guidance for teachers on how to educate children with FASD in the UK, teachers find themselves ‘pedagogically bereft’.”
We have to look at how we can reduce the number of children with FASD. Advice that says that someone may want to stop could and should be harder hitting. As my hon. Friend said, drinking while pregnant will harm the baby, just as smoking does. The private Member’s Bill introduced by Lord Mitchell in 2007 called for mandatory labelling. In 2005, the French Government made it a legal requirement for alcohol to display a warning for pregnant women on the container. The French research quoted the same dangers, research and risks as I have. Crucially, alcohol, according to the French research, can affect the brain at any stage of pregnancy. There is no safe level. The advice in France is that the safest option is no alcohol during pregnancy. That comes from the alcohol project manager at the National Institute for Prevention and Health Education. It faced a lawsuit in 2004, and later that year moved to change the law. In 2005, the law was changed. In France, it now says on bottles of alcohol that the consumption of alcoholic drinks during pregnancy, even in small amounts, may have serious consequences for the child’s health. There is also the symbol of a pregnant woman drinking in a red circle with a red line through the centre. Why do we not have that here?
The Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) was on the Health Committee in 2012. At that time, he was quoted as saying that there should be better warnings on the dangers of alcohol. He and others in the medical profession have warned of those dangers for some time, including those posed by drinking during pregnancy. He called for greater publicising of the dangers to raise awareness. As a Minister—along with his colleagues, whom he can advise—he is in a better position to act than he was in 2012.
Last week, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service raised concerns about the impact on pregnant women of the recent publicity on this issue, of which there has been a significant amount in recent months. The BPAS said that women are considering abortions because they fear they may have harmed their unborn child before they realised they were pregnant. It stated that occasional binge drinking was unlikely to cause harm to the baby. From the research I have looked at and the evidence available to us, it is true that binge drinking may not harm a baby, if it happens on occasion, but the trouble with that advice is that there is no way of knowing which babies will be harmed. The concern raised by the BPAS should not be taken lightly. It says that media coverage has caused panic among some pregnant women. That is the last thing that anyone who takes an interest in this issue wants, but, equally, there is a danger that playing down the risks of damage from foetal alcohol spectrum disorders could lead to some women continuing to drink, thinking it is safe when it is not. The BPAS points out that half of pregnancies are unplanned, so many women do not know that they are pregnant, meaning that many women will be drinking alcohol while pregnant. I agree that women should not be alarmed as there is nothing that can be done about what has already happened. However, if greater awareness of the risks can reduce the number of women drinking while pregnant in future, which is the experience in other countries, that must be a step forward.
My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful speech. He spoke of unplanned pregnancies. The high level of teenage pregnancies in this country is a serious problem. The number is reducing, but it is still high. Young women who may have been drinking and then become pregnant following unprotected sex and are unaware of that may carry on drinking on a regular basis and cause terrible damage to their babies.
That is an incredibly important point and is why what Sir Al Aynsley-Green and others have said about Canada is so important. We need to increase awareness among much younger children about the possible damage, so that at the very least young women have the facts available to them. Many other measures are needed to make young women, and young men, aware of concerns around teenage pregnancy.
In 2008, Lord Mitchell proposed that labels on alcoholic drinks should say, “Avoid alcohol if pregnant or trying to conceive.” Some will say that that will not necessarily help the women referred to by the BPAS who are not planning to become pregnant, but it will help those who are planning a pregnancy. I wonder how many other women will consider whether they should drink alcohol if they see the advice and how many men may reiterate the advice and increase awareness, which is what has happened in France. This is not just about women. Men have an important role to play in supporting women, and education of the dangers should target men as well as women. Lord Mitchell also gave the example of tobacco labelling as a good reason for making labelling a legal requirement and not a voluntary code. The damage done to children by alcohol and the damage done by smoking are both important and deserving of maximum attention. I mentioned before the Minister’s support for banning smoking in vehicles with children, so I hope that she will agree when it comes to the labelling of alcohol.
“Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and foetal alcohol syndrome are completely preventable intellectual and developmental deficits in individuals, resulting from maternal consumption during pregnancy.”
Those are the words of the National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. The time has come to listen to those words and for greater action to reduce the number of children who suffer from foetal alcohol syndrome and the wider spectrum of foetal alcohol disorders to ensure that women in particular have greater awareness of the risks and to ensure that children, families, school staff and all those trying to cope with the results of FASD get more of the support that they need. Some women become pregnant and do not drink alcohol and are giving the best protection against FASD. However, some women drink while pregnant unaware of the risks, and some drink while pregnant unaware that they are pregnant. A further group chooses to drink while pregnant and aware of the risks. Different strategies are required for each group, but it is clear that reducing the number of women who drink alcohol while pregnant is the right way forward and that should be where policy is directed. I have suggested labelling, greater awareness and education at school, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s suggestions.
As I said earlier, the Canadian federal and provincial governments are convinced that FASD is the most important preventable cause of severe childhood brain damage. The time has come for our Government to decide whether they agree with that statement and whether they will take the necessary action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on bringing forward an incredibly important debate at a pivotal time, when political parties are considering alcohol-related issues and how they might form part of our election manifestos. The problems are important to many people out there.
I cannot yet speak from my own experience, but I imagine that there can be no more exciting time for a family than when they are bringing a child into the world. There is all the expectation and preparation throughout pregnancy; there are the classes that future mums and dads go to, with varying degrees of enthusiasm; there is the need to make the home baby-proof for the arrival of the newest member of the family; and there is an endless amount of information read and digested in preparation for becoming parents. That is all part of the nervy but exciting process that millions of parents go through each year. They take every precaution that they can to ensure that they give their child the best and healthiest possible start in life. Why, then, is there an ongoing problem with children being born with foetal alcohol syndrome disorder?
FASD refers to several diagnoses of permanent brain damage and can vary in severity from case to case. It could affect up to one in every 100 babies in England. One thing that does not vary from case to case is the fundamental cause: pre-natal exposure to alcohol, or the alcohol intake of women during pregnancy. We need to be careful, as the hon. Gentleman said, that we do not demonise or frighten women who may have drunk before they realised that they were pregnant, but that is not a reason for us not to discuss the issue.
The prevalence of FASD is particularly concerning because the link between pre-natal exposure to alcohol and FASD is quite clear. Expectant mothers can prevent it by taking precautions when it comes to drinking alcohol, as of course many do. No expectant mother in possession of all the facts would wilfully jeopardise the health of their unborn child by not taking precautions, so why is FASD still a problem? I would respectfully say that one thing missing from the hon. Gentleman’s speech was the point that there is a generational issue here. Many people with children of child-bearing age will say to their young daughters, “I smoked and drank throughout my pregnancy and you turned out fine,” but there is a difference in consumption. My parents did indeed drink and smoke while pregnant with me, and I turned out fine, or so I would argue; my parents might disagree. Their level of alcohol consumption was different from the level that women are consuming these days.
FASD is at root poorly understood, and little has been done by way of meaningful study into it. Our understanding of the true scale of the problem is limited, and it is feared, with some justification, that those diagnosed with FASD are just the tip of the iceberg. Nobody knows just how bad the situation is, and how bad the rate of misdiagnosis is among children who display similar symptoms, such as those associated with autism. The misdiagnosis of a child’s symptoms can have a severe impact on their development, and that really needs to be addressed. Even with this relatively limited understanding, knowledge of what to do about FASD and awareness of the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy are patchy. There is so much conflicting information out there for expectant mothers, and so much uncertainty about what might be safe to drink and when. Some sources say not to drink at all. Some say that one glass of wine a week is fine. Some say that one glass of wine a day is fine. The messages are inconsistent, which is a major problem. That is not good enough, and while there is uncertainty in our understanding and in the messaging around FASD, nothing will change.
The all-party parliamentary group on alcohol misuse, which I chair, often discusses the lack of co-ordination in tackling alcohol-related harms. Whatever the topic, one of the key solutions to which we always return is raising awareness and education, which can succeed only if we know the facts. When it comes to policy, we talk of nothing being a silver bullet; in this instance, except in extreme cases, investing in a full-scale, holistic campaign to raise awareness of FASD, based on a full and proper study, is as close as we will get.
As often appears to be the case with alcohol and health policy, the Government could and perhaps should look to Canada for ideas and guidance on how to tackle FASD. In Canada, there is already much greater understanding of and emphasis on the risks associated with drinking while pregnant. As the hon. Gentleman said, warning statements are visible in pubs and clubs, and containers carry an explicit message about the dangers of drinking alcohol when pregnant.
The all-party group published a manifesto in August that set out key commitments that we would like all three political parties to adopt in their 2015 manifestos. One such measure was to support further health warnings on all alcohol labels. That commitment was considered rather controversial; as chair of the group, I got quite a lot of criticism for suggesting that alcohol bottles should carry better health warnings, as if that somehow infringed people’s civil liberties. In fact, having better information on alcohol labels enhances people’s liberties, because it gives them the right information.
I will not criticise the drinks industry fully, because it is trying to improve its labelling. It is strongly committed to having better labels on its products. The problem is the inconsistency in labelling, not least depending on whether the product was imported or produced here in the United Kingdom. Before the APG manifesto announcement, I looked at the wine bottles in my house; there were, for example, differences between French bottles of wine, which had a warning label and an image of a pregnant lady, and Chilean bottles of wine, which had nothing on them.
As the hon. Member for Sefton Central mentioned, other countries have labels that include the Surgeon General’s advice. We do not have anything as specific as a consistent message on all our alcohol products. While one might appear on some bottles of wine, there is no such warning on bottles of beer, given the assumption—untrue, as we know—that women do not drink beer or lager products. We need to learn a lesson from Canada, which has much better labelling, which is focused on pregnant women in particular and better targeted.
The APG manifesto also stated that we would like commitments to introducing mandatory training on FASD for all social workers, midwives and health care professionals. Interestingly, 23% of midwives are not aware of the guidelines on alcohol and only 59% were comfortable asking about alcohol consumption. People are nervous about asking pregnant women what their alcohol consumption is, in case that somehow offends them or perhaps concerns them unnecessarily, but we have to get to grips with asking the difficult questions, so that the right advice can be given to pregnant women.
If we are to understand FASD better and to reduce its prevalence, those who come into contact with pregnant women who might be drinking alcohol play a crucial role in making brief but important interventions to give good, accurate and consistent information. Ensuring that those people are trained sufficiently and are confident enough to make those interventions would be another welcome and logical step in preventing FASD, or at least in enabling us to spot the signs and give an accurate diagnosis.
I am conscious that the debate is on FASD, but I wish to touch on the wider problem of alcohol misuse. Without doubt, more needs to be done to tackle binge drinking and alcohol-related harm in the UK. It is not difficult to assume that, in a country where alcohol is consumed in large quantities, that might have some influence on the prevalence of FASD. If we can get our approach right to tackling alcohol misuse more generally from the start, especially with young women who binge drink, we could see a drop in the number of FASD cases.
I was surprised to learn that 18% of women still binge drink while pregnant. Binge drinking is defined as drinking six units or more in one session, which is two large glasses of wine. Until we have a thorough understanding of how little alcohol it takes to put unborn children at risk, we will not make adequate progress. Although some people will disagree with some of the policy measures proposed in the alcohol misuse group’s manifesto, the entire package of measures sought to address alcohol misuse as a whole. That is relevant to the debate, and I hope that the Government will consider that.
In conclusion, FASD is preventable and its prevalence should be reduced. As I mentioned earlier, save in some extreme cases, I do not believe that any women would jeopardise the health of their unborn child if they knew all the facts. It is therefore essential that we establish the facts and invest in resources now to raise awareness throughout our society. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say on where we are on developing a coherent strategy to tackle FASD, because it being poorly understood is not a reason to delay action. Let us put in the resources, get the issue understood and deliver meaningful measures, such as those outlined thus far today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, as you used to serve under my chairmanship.
I have been interested in this subject for a long time. I am a trustee of the National Children’s Centre, which is based in my constituency, and part of the initiative to form a new children’s commission. Also, for quite a long time, I was Chair of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families.
I have to say one slightly party political thing: I still deplore the smaller emphasis placed by the coalition Government on children’s issues. We have a junior Minister, but we should have a Secretary of State and a whole Department. I thought that the Department for Children, Schools and Families was a breakthrough Ministry, and I am sorry that it is much diminished, although I have a lot of respect for some of the ministerial team, as colleagues know. Today, however, there is relative neglect of children’s issues.
I have some practical experience of children: three daughters, one son and nine grandchildren under the age of 10. We are quite a tribe when we are all together. When my wife and I had children, we were aware that we should not drink too much—she said that she should not drink too much—but my generation thought that a little bit of alcohol was all right. That was wrong, but luckily we survived and had healthy children. My daughters, however, never drank during pregnancy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) made a brilliant speech, but the speech by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) was also thoughtful. She mentioned the growing consumption of alcohol by women. Only the other day, I chaired a session—one of those irritating breakfast meetings—by the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, or PACTS, on women and alcohol, and it was explained to us that the likelihood of a man being caught for drink- driving has plateaued for some years, but the figures for women are going up fast.
A senior policewoman from one of the home counties, or perhaps Hampshire, stood up at that breakfast meeting to say, “We have done a study of all the pubs by going in and asking for a small glass of wine, and they all said, ‘No, we only do medium and large.’” Three large glasses of wine in a pub is a bottle of wine. Many of the women pulled over by the police, according to that policewoman, would say, “I have only had two glasses”, but that means that they have had two thirds of a bottle of wine. With the drinks industry trying to increase sales, many more women are drinking high levels of alcohol. Is that binge drinking? Most of the people whom we describe as binge drinkers would not think that they were binge drinkers. Yes, they have a couple of large glasses of wine, but they have learned to feel that that is relatively normal.
There is one point I will take issue with. Why not scare people? When we campaigned for seat belts, against drink-driving and on the dangers of smoking, there had to be a bit of fear. We have to change the culture. If someone went into a pub now and said, “I’m only going to have a couple of pints, and then I’m driving home—I’m a better driver when I’ve had a couple,” they would be excluded from the pub and their local community, because that is not acceptable. We have to have a little element of fear to get over the message that people who drink while pregnant are damaging their unborn child. The message has to be very strong; it has to be from the Department of Health and all the other Departments, and it has to be loud and clear.
Let us not pussyfoot about on this—you and I do not pussyfoot about, Mr Turner. Let us be honest: people from more disadvantaged backgrounds—poorer people—drink more than other people during pregnancy. That is the truth, and we have to accept it; otherwise we cannot get the message across. Of course, a lot of middle-class women drink, but more middle-class women tend to give up drinking when they are pregnant. However, a lot of people who have copied middle-class role models over the years and who are drinking are not seeing the danger signs during pregnancy.
The point about women from disadvantaged backgrounds is right, but is my hon. Friend aware of some of the research from the United States? In some studies, mentoring of women in at-risk groups has led to something like a 50% reduction in drinking during pregnancy in cities across America. Does he agree that that is the kind of bold action we need here?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I love that sort of idea, because it is holistic. We have to go right across the piece—mentors, health visitors and GPs. GPs should wake up. For goodness’ sake, what are they doing if they are not telling pregnant women, “Do not drink when you are pregnant.”? I despair when I see the level and quality of advice from some GPs, who should be telling women in very firm terms about the damage they could do to a little child.
I apologise for missing the opening comments in this important debate. The hon. Gentleman mentioned GPs. Does he agree that it is important that there should be clinical leads on FASD in each part of the country? I met the clinical lead on FASD in Worcester, along with Richard Procter of the FASD Trust, to talk about the issue. We should build up clinical leads, so that they can make sure that best practice is shared among GPs and other health groups. That is one way we can make sure that there is a better approach to this issue.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but he tempts me to make the political point that getting a message to local health people now is very complex. I used to be able to pick up the phone to one person—the trust’s chief executive—and have a conversation about health in Huddersfield. Now, I have to make about seven phone calls to get any sense of a holistic approach to anything. I admit that that is a bit of a snide reply, but we must make things as holistic as possible.
We must get the drinks industry involved. Why do we not have the sign that my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central mentioned—the red slash across the pregnant woman with the glass of wine? Why can we not, as we did with the tobacco industry, get industry, the pubs and the restaurants on our side? Why can we not get the schools on our side? Where are the schools in all this? We must tackle this issue across the piece, and we must have one consistent message: do not consume alcohol, drugs or tobacco when pregnant.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on bringing this issue forward for consideration. The debate is long overdue. Now is a good time to air this matter, and Members have done that. I am pleased to also be able to make a contribution.
Foetal alcohol exposure is the most important preventable cause of severe brain damage in babies and children. For that reason, we should debate the issue and highlight it. Drinking while pregnant can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight. Furthermore, children with FAS have distinct facial features as a result of their mother drinking alcohol.
FAS can result in hearing problems, mouth and teeth problems, a weak immune system, epilepsy, liver damage, kidney and heart defects, cerebral palsy and other muscular conditions, height and weight issues, and hormonal disorders. Those clear health issues are preventable, which is why the debate is important for a number of reasons. First, as all the Members who have spoken have said, we should educate people. However, there is also the saving to the NHS from promoting prevention, and I will return to that.
The effects do not stop with those I listed. The invisible effects include attention deficit, memory deficit, hyperactivity and difficulty with abstract concepts such as maths, time, and money, to name just a few. People can also experience difficulty solving problems, as well as poor judgment, immature behaviour and confused social skills. We have to question why any mother would want to drink during pregnancy if she was made aware of all those horrendous effects.
Normally, there is no way of preventing a genetic condition from passing from parents to children. This is the only disorder that can be completely prevented by the mother’s actions. We therefore have to educate mothers and ensure they are aware of the issue. Some mothers may not be fully aware of the impact of what they are doing, which is why we have to look at this much more generally.
Most women are aware that they are not advised to drink alcohol when pregnant. For example, a 2007 report by the British Medical Association—a much respected organisation—concluded that women who are pregnant or who are considering pregnancy should be advised not to consume any alcohol. However, I fear that women are not always aware why they are advised not to drink or just how serious the dangers are for the unborn baby.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) referred to the need for the drinks industry to take specific issues on board. He also mentioned the need for GPs to—this is not a pun—harp on more about this issue and to be more aware of it. It is important that the serious dangers for the unborn baby are underlined.
When a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol travels directly across the placenta to the foetus via the bloodstream, and the physical impact is clear. The foetus’s liver is not fully formed and cannot metabolise the toxins out of its system quickly enough. That leaves the foetus with a high alcohol concentration in its body, which causes a lack of oxygen and of the nutrients needed for the brain and other organs to grow properly. Those are the medical facts about what happens. If those were known to all pregnant mothers, I believe they would take steps to ensure they did not drink.
It is clear that alcohol should not be consumed even when couples are trying to conceive—the hon. Members for Sefton Central, for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and for Huddersfield all referred to this—because a woman may not be aware that she has become pregnant in the initial weeks of the pregnancy. It is in the first three months of pregnancy that drinking damages babies’ organs, and it is during the first six to nine weeks that babies’ facial features are formed, so mothers who drink in that three-week window are more likely to have babies with deformities. Again, no mother wants that to happen. The question is how we ensure these things do not happen, and I am sure the reply from the Minister, by whom I am always impressed, will help us feel a bit more reassured.
The problems I have just set out are another reason why it is vital that women do not consume any alcohol at all at any point in their pregnancy, and that includes when they are trying to get pregnant. Perhaps the saddest thing about FAS is that it is the biggest cause of non-genetic mental handicap in the western world, but it is the only one that is 100% preventable.
In response to a question in October 2013, the Minister referred to the Government’s strategy. When she replies, perhaps she can give us some indication of what point the strategy has reached. There must be a way of measuring its success. Is it measured on the figures the Minister has? I would be keen to hear her thoughts on that.
The number of diagnosed cases of FAS has tripled since records about the condition were first kept 16 years ago. In 1997-98, there were 89 cases, by comparison with 2012-13, when there were 252, so clearly there is a problem. Figures for the UK are unknown at present, but international prevalence studies in the US, Canada, Finland, Japan, Australia and Italy show that at least one in 100 children is affected. That would mean between 6,000 and 7,000 babies a year born with FASD in the UK.
It is little wonder that figures show 98% of midwives agreeing that FASD and the dangers of drinking during pregnancy are a subject that should be mandatory for all practising midwives. I agree. Some midwives feel that the subject is taboo, and that they should not mention it. According to the figures, only 59% of midwives are comfortable asking pregnant women about alcohol. They should not be uncomfortable about something they do to prevent disability in a baby. The subject should be on the table for discussion early in pregnancy, to make sure that the mother knows.
The issue is a serious one, as the figures show, where there can be serious consequences. As has been noted, FASD is the only non-genetic handicap that is completely preventable. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to raise awareness of foetal alcohol syndrome. Some UK statistics are worrying, indeed. For example, recent analysis carried out at Brighton and Sussex university hospitals showed that between 80% and 90% of women of childbearing age drink regularly; 25% of people aged 18 to 25 and 21% of those aged 26 to 44 drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week; and 15% to 20% of those continue drinking during pregnancy, even though they know it is dangerous. Those are truly shocking figures about a serious problem, but I believe they would drop if more campaigns about FAS were started. I appreciate that the economic climate is difficult, and it is not always easy to fund new campaigns, but it is estimated that it costs us £2.5 million, based on 813,000 births each year, to help those who are living with FASD. Surely any short-term costs that would help to raise awareness and drive down the number of sufferers would be a long-term benefit, both financially and socially.
Canada leads the way in treating and campaigning about the dangers of foetal alcohol syndrome. For example, it is discussed in parenting programmes for four to 11-year-olds, ensuring that the message about not drinking during pregnancy is ingrained in the minds of the new generation. Not only that, but posters about foetal alcohol syndrome are displayed in various public places, including train stations, airports, surgeries and shops. We could do that, equally. Although large sums of money are set aside by various provincial governments each year, proponents argue that preventing FASD in just 10 babies a year saves enough money to fund the services. Undoubtedly that is the way forward for us in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
As hon. Members know, health is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and I want to ask the Minister whether consideration has been given to a campaign that would encompass the whole United Kingdom. We must address the issue in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I am pleased to take part in this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on obtaining it, and all the hon. Members who have spoken. They said intelligent things and we are all on the same side. My objective is to put as much pressure as I can on the Minister, to persuade her to take effective action.
Research at the Medical Research Council laboratory in Cambridge provided evidence that alcohol consumed during pregnancy causes irreversible DNA damage to offspring. I think that there is some evidence to suggest that the damage carries down to further generations; it is very serious. That was supported in the science magazine Nature in July 2011, and I immediately tabled an early-day motion drawing attention to the research and calling for the Government
“to bring forward serious and effective measures”
to counter alcohol consumption by women in pregnancy. I said that
“mild exhortations to pregnant women to drink sensibly”
were misguided and “wholly inadequate”.
Birth defects and learning difficulties affect thousands of babies every year, and the Government’s inaction has been nothing less than criminal. I have raised the issue in the Commons many times in the past decade, and the response of successive Ministers has been pathetic. Thousands of damaged babies have been born as a direct result of Government inaction, and the Ministers concerned should have that on their conscience and hang their head in shame. I do not include the present Minister in that, but certainly previous Ministers. They cannot say that they did not know. For its 2009 report on alcohol, the Select Committee on Health was informed by the Royal College of Midwives that 6,000 babies were born each year suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome. Later research by the Medical Research Council produced a conclusion that 7,000 babies were born each year with permanent genetic damage caused by alcohol. They were the most obvious and serious forms of damage, associated with facial disfigurement and mental retardation, but more recent research has recorded that even moderate consumption of alcohol in pregnancy causes reductions in IQ. It is entirely possible that the persistence of poor academic performance in many children and the significant behavioural problems in schools, and later adult crime, are due largely to foetal alcohol damage. I strongly suspect that that is the case.
There have been persistent reports from the Government of minuscule figures for foetal alcohol syndrome cases, in the low hundreds rather than the thousands. I suggest that the malevolent influence of the alcohol industry is at work and that the hidden hand is pulling strings somewhere, somehow, just as has happened with the tobacco and, more recently, the gambling industries. For a true picture, the Government should look, as many other hon. Members have said, to Canada, where for years there has been a massive and effective campaign against alcohol consumption in pregnancy. Even seven-year-olds there are warned, as we have heard, and are fully aware. There are big poster campaigns and every medical practitioner warns mothers about the danger to their babies from drinking. I urge the British Government simply to imitate what has been done in Canada, and to avoid the situation of denial that has gone on for so long.
Exposure to alcohol before birth is the cause of brain damage in children that could affect, as has been said, one in 100 babies in England; that is 7,500 a year. Actually, however, we think that that is the tip of the iceberg—the obvious cases. As to marginal reductions in IQ, who knows? There may be people whose mothers drank in pregnancy and who go to university, but perhaps they could have been Nobel prize winners rather than school teachers. Reductions in IQ at every level are possible. The effects may not be evident when those in question are still reasonably intelligent; but perhaps they would have done better without the damage. For many people, of course, things are far worse.
Seven years ago, Lord Mitchell, in another place, introduced a private Member’s Bill to require specific warning labels on all drinks containers, as happens in the USA and Canada. I have such a bottle of wine at home, whose label states:
“According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects.”
That wording—“risk of birth defects”—is important. It is not just a matter of saying “Your baby might be affected.” Let us be blunt: birth defects are what we are talking about. My noble Friend’s Bill did not proceed, since when another 50,000 damaged babies have been born—at least. It could be many more. My most recent letter to a Minister on precisely that point was deflected with reference to a voluntary code. I get bottle after bottle of wine, which I drink in not-too-extreme quantities but in reasonable amounts, and none has a health warning on it, whereas in America every container has one. What the Government have been doing is feeble, irresponsible and cruel. All those responsible for such craven neglect should be burdened by guilt for the suffering that they have caused. I do not mince my words.
I shall not rest until we have a Minister—I hope it will be the present one, for whom I have the greatest admiration in many respects—with the courage and principles to do the right thing and propose compulsory health warnings on all alcoholic drink containers. We do not need to wait for more research before acting. The evidence is already to hand. A graphic report by Mencap shows that the nervous system particularly, among many other parts of the body, is affected from the third week of pregnancy—that is major damage. The central nervous system is the first part of the human anatomy to be damaged. Later, when the baby is more fully formed, the damage is more minor. The time to worry about is early pregnancy and the time of conception. The task is to persuade women not to drink at all when either they are at risk of becoming pregnant, or they choose to become pregnant; because it is in early pregnancy that the problems occur.
In Canada, when the campaign first started there was a serious increase in the number of abortions, with women tragically but understandably seeking to abort babies they thought might be damaged, so that they could start again without drinking to guarantee that their babies, when born, would not be damaged by alcohol. Recently, with the increase in awareness of FASD, we have seen abortions happening here for the same reason. For those with moral objections to abortion, it is perhaps even more important to make sure that all women do not drink at the time of conception or during pregnancy.
I have to say it is very unfair on women, because by and large men can get away with drinking without having to worry, certainly once they are middle aged and past child rearing, as I am—my children have all grown up and I have grandchildren. If I drink too much, it will affect only me; when someone drinks and has a baby inside them, it affects someone else who has no choice. That is a distinct difference. It is unfair on women who enjoy alcohol, but let us persuade all women that, yes, they can drink a glass of champagne when their baby is born but not at the time of conception or during pregnancy.
Much more needs to be done beyond labelling. There should be an advertising campaign, a statutory requirement for notices in all medical and drinking establishments, messages in schools to young girls and more. We must make sure that this scourge, which has affected hundreds of thousands of people—possibly, over time, millions—is avoided in future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) not just on securing this debate but on his excellent speech.
Before the debate, I was informed by Balance, the alcohol campaign in the north-east, that every day in my region at least one child is born with some form of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Bearing in mind that that number goes into the thousands across the country over the year, I felt it was important to take part in the debate. I will give a slightly different take on the subject and address an injustice in current law that relates directly to the debate, which is whether children with FAS should be entitled to compensation.
Hon. Members may be aware that there have been many cases where children with FAS have sought to secure criminal injuries compensation. Before 2012, it may have been possible to secure such a claim. However, I draw hon. Members’ attention to the 2012 criminal injuries compensation scheme, which says:
“A crime of violence will not be considered to have been committed for the purposes of this Scheme if, in particular, an injury…was sustained in utero as a result of harmful substances willingly ingested by the mother during pregnancy, with intent to cause, or being reckless as to, injury to the foetus.”
In plain English, that means no sufferer of foetal alcohol syndrome or any other disability developed in the womb as a result of the mother’s actions will be compensated, even when the harm caused was reckless or fully intended. That is surely an utter scandal and warrants our serious attention.
Some people may have been put off from campaigning on this issue by highly misleading news reports claiming that awarding compensation to FAS sufferers would criminalise drinking during pregnancy. That is not the case. Although we want women to stop drinking during pregnancy, criminal injury claims are dealt with in civil proceedings and as such do not affect the interpretation of criminal law; moreover, a conviction is not needed for compensation to be awarded. Perhaps the motivation hiding behind the rhetoric is that paying out to FAS sufferers would be expensive, but saving public money is not a good enough reason to prevent children with FAS from receiving compensation. Neil Sugarman, a solicitor acting for many children affected by FAS, put it well:
“Why should these children be in any different position to those damaged during their birth or babies brain damaged by being shaken when only a few days old? The life changing consequences are the same. Is it right that a foetus exposed to a process tantamount to poisoning should be treated differently in comparison with these other classes of brain damaged children? They receive compensation that helps them access much needed treatment and therapies not readily available on the NHS and helps to improve their quality of life in many ways.”
I believe that anyone suffering from FAS deserves compensation in the same way as any other child who sustains damage at birth. I hope that those who share my concern over the increasing incidence of this terrible condition will join the campaign for that section of the 2012 criminal injuries compensation scheme to be deleted. I hope that the Minister supports that call.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing this debate and on his powerful speech. I am delighted that hon. Members have had the opportunity to debate an issue that is often overlooked.
I pay tribute to those organisations that continue to campaign tirelessly on this issue. We have heard a number mentioned today, but they are worth reiterating: the FASD Trust, NOFAS UK, Alcohol Concern and Drink Wise North West, which has engaged with me in my role as a constituency MP. We have also heard a lot about the former Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, who is the incoming president of the BMA, and Lord Parry Mitchell, who have both done significant work on raising awareness of the issue.
I recently had the privilege of joining a conference organised by Drink Wise North West on the issue, where I heard not only about the vital work done by those organisations but about what needs to happen to improve diagnosis of both FAS and FASD and to improve support for children and adults who experience that and for the families who care for them. Most importantly of all—the issue that is the crux of this debate—I heard about what we can do to prevent it in the first place. I will deal with each of those subjects in turn.
On improving diagnosis, we have heard from a number of Members about the wide range of symptoms that people with FAS or FASD can experience. The difficulty in diagnosis means that we have no official understanding of the scale of the problem, with many cases misdiagnosed as ADHD, bad behaviour or autism. It is estimated that around one in 100 children are born every year in the UK with some form of the condition. Figures I uncovered through a parliamentary question reveal that the number of finished admission episodes where there was either a primary or secondary diagnosis of foetal alcohol syndrome are up 37% in England since 2009-10, with 252 episodes in 2012-13. As many hon. Members alluded to, those figures are only the tip of the iceberg.
I remember a report from the Home Office in the 1970s that showed that the rate of alcohol consumption in Britain was among the lowest in Europe; the only country where it was lower was Ireland. It would be simple to compare the number of birth defects in that period of time with the number now, to see the effects of alcohol consumption among women.
My hon. Friend’s remarks lead me to the challenge that the Government themselves admit in their alcohol strategy. They say:
“We do not have good information about the incidence of FASD, so it is likely that significant numbers of children are not diagnosed.”
In the response to my parliamentary question, there was no information about what action the Government intend to take to address that information deficit, so will the Minister confirm whether she has any plans to commission a much-needed prevalence study of FASD and foetal alcohol syndrome in England? Will she share with us her plans to improve diagnosis across the country?
Forgive me, but I will not: we must allow the Minister to respond, and we have just 10 minutes.
I move on now to improving support both for people who have a diagnosis and for their families. Many sufferers have special needs that require lifelong help, yet slip under the radar either because they are not diagnosed or because there are no services in place to support them. Lack of diagnosis for those who do not exhibit physical signs means that those children often receive no additional help from support services or at school. I recently met a head teacher, who said she did not have a single student in her school who had been formally diagnosed, but she was sure that some students were affected.
There is no systematic record of the needs of children with FASD and no official guidance on best educational strategies, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central said. There is just one specialist FASD clinic in the whole of England, which is run by Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. It is one of the few places that can confidently diagnose the disorder. It is a national clinic, supposedly serving the entire country, yet it is not commissioned by NHS England. Out-of-area patients must be paid for, and with a cost of £2,500 per patient, many local clinical commissioning groups refuse to refer. Worst of all, I understand that the clinic is not due to be commissioned beyond April 2015. What does the Minister intend to do to ensure that NHS England commissions services and that plans are in place to improve provision and to increase both the number and the spread of specialist FASD clinics? Without specific support, people who are affected are at higher risk of developing mental health problems, getting into trouble with the law, dropping out of school and becoming unemployed. That may come at massive personal cost and in turn produce a tremendous cost for society. The crux of this debate is how to prevent that.
I have highlighted how we need to improve diagnosis and support services. Let me reiterate a point that has been made several times today. FASD is entirely preventable. It is caused by drinking during pregnancy, but the information about the risks of drinking during pregnancy is wholly inadequate. The guidance is inconsistent and confusing, and women receive mixed messages. The Department of Health recommends that pregnant woman should avoid alcohol altogether, but that if they opt to have a drink they should stick to one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week to minimise the risk to the baby. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence advises women to abstain from alcohol completely during the first three months of pregnancy because of the risk of miscarriage. It then refers to the number of units that they should or should not drink subsequently.
People struggle to use units as a way of monitoring their alcohol consumption. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that very few people use units as a way of measuring their drinking or of monitoring their health. Is it any wonder that women are confused? What is the Government’s official advice and what plans does the Minister have to improve much needed awareness throughout the country?
It is not just expectant mums who are not being given the information they need. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) referred to health professionals and my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) referred to GP training. Earlier this year, I asked a parliamentary question about midwives, but the reply did not fill me with confidence. The issue involves not just women who have mental health or substance misuse support requirements, as the reply suggested; it involves all women, but the Government’s 32-page alcohol strategy makes just one reference to FASD, and that is not good enough.
Voluntary organisations do fantastic work and some local authorities—just some—are raising awareness locally. Some include FAS in their joint strategic needs assessment, but that is far from commonplace. What will be the Government’s concerted and co-ordinated response and where is their national drive? I struggled to find any information on the website of the Department of Health and I found nothing on the website for Public Health England. I would be delighted if the Government pointed me in the right direction.
We have heard a lot this afternoon about alcohol labelling. There is no legal requirement in the UK to display proper warnings about the harm of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. We have heard many references to Lord Mitchell’s Alcohol Labelling Bill, which sadly did not progress beyond the Lords. Today, it is still left to businesses to decide whether to display warnings.
As part of the Department’s responsibility deal, alcohol retailers and producers have made a voluntary commitment to put an agreed warning or a pregnancy warning logo on 80% of labels on bottles and cans. In June, the Minister responded to me saying that an independent market survey is under way to measure compliance. I am keen for an update on how that survey is going.
Many hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have said that the logos are very small, if they are there at all. They are difficult to see because they are just a few millimetres high. They go unnoticed by many people and fail to convey the seriousness of drinking during pregnancy. Many countries prescribe warning labels about pregnancy on all alcoholic beverages and we have heard about them this afternoon. They include Colombia, South Korea, France and South Africa. I would like to hear from the Minister when the UK will follow suit.
We have heard about other countries that are leading the way. Canada was held up as an exemplar for what it is doing on diagnosis, treatment and specifically prevention. It is spending millions of dollars, because it believes that that will not only prevent something that is very difficult for many people, but comes at great cost to society. It believes that preventing FAS in just 10 babies saves enough to fund all the comprehensive services that it provides.
Very few disabilities are preventable, but FASD is. The message about the risks must be loud, clear and consistent. No woman wants to harm her child, but we know that lack of knowledge about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy can have a devastating impact. The Government’s response to the problem must be thorough, coherent and carried through into effective action. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and what more the Government will do to address this serious issue.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken during this thoughtful and sometimes passionate debate. Many hon. Members have pursued the issue over many years. The time available is not too bad, but I will not be able to respond to every point, and if I fail to respond to a specific point, I will do my best to do so to hon. Members after the debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing this debate. It comes at an auspicious moment, because I understand that the National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome UK is holding its conference today. The hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) is passionate about the subject, but I take issue with his description of direct responsibility. Absenting personal responsibility for one’s body, and the life of one’s unborn child, is wrong. I am not saying that the Government do not have a huge responsibility to society at large to provide education, but to talk about direct responsibility is to miss the point that we want all adults to take responsibility for their health and that of their unborn children.
The fact is that other countries have taken that responsibility and acted, and they are ahead of us. We have more babies being damaged than they do. There is a responsibility on the Government—not necessarily on individual Ministers, but on the Government in general. That applies to both Labour and Conservative Governments.
I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that Governments have responsibility, and I will try to address some of the points that have been made. My point to the hon. Gentleman is simply that encouraging personal responsibility in any individual for their own health and particularly that of their unborn child is vital throughout life, not just during pregnancy. I put it on the record that we must encourage people to take responsibility for themselves. Let me mention an example given in the debate. Everyone knows about smoking. No one would knowingly damage their own child, and the damage that smoking can do is well known, but the most recent figures I have seen show that smoking in pregnancy varies throughout the country from 0.5% in one borough to more than 26% or 27% in other places. Even when people know about the damage being done, they do not always change their behaviour. We must always put personal responsibility in the frame.
The majority of people who drink alcohol do so responsibly, but it has been amply illustrated during this debate that too many women are unaware of the health risks. More generally, too many people are unaware of the health risks associated with drinking too much. It is important to remember that throughout the debate. Understanding what is a healthy level of alcohol to consume is vital because, as has been said, not everyone knows when they are pregnant. We understand that around 50% of people do not plan their pregnancy, so encouraging a healthy intake of alcohol and understanding the harm that it may do if taken in the wrong quantity is important. There are encouraging signs among the younger generation of a dramatic drop in smoking and drinking during the past 10 years, which is encouraging.
The focus today is on foetal alcohol syndrome and foetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Some hon. Members described facial abnormalities and a range of other conditions associated with alcohol exposure by the mother. Although there is wide international agreement on the diagnostic criteria for foetal alcohol syndrome, the criteria for diagnosis of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders are less clear, although other hon. Members have cited various pieces of academic research. For both disorders, the diagnostic features may not be clear until later in childhood, so yes, we do struggle with diagnosis and with accurate prevalence data. Prevalence figures for FAS are not routinely collected or recorded by the British Paediatric Surveillance Unit, although hon. Members might be interested to know that the World Health Organisation is leading a review on agreeing common diagnostic criteria to measure prevalence better internationally in future. That would be very welcome, and we are lending expertise to that review. There are limits on some of the data, even though we hope that they can be improved.
On advice and prevention, let me talk about what Public Health England does. Its Start4Life campaign provides advice to pregnant women on establishing healthy habits to give their children the best start in life and to reduce the risk of poor health in future. One of the key behaviours covered in the campaign is focused on the consumption of alcohol and why it is best avoided in pregnancy. It promotes alternatives to alcoholic drinks during pregnancy and emphasises the negative impact that alcohol consumption can have.
In May 2012, we launched the NHS Start4Life information service for parents. That is a digital service that enables parents-to-be and new parents to sign up to receive regular free e-mails, videos and SMS messages offering high-quality NHS advice and information based on the stage of pregnancy and the age of the child. The service also signposts parents to other information about parenting, relationship support and benefits advice. Parents-to-be are encouraged to sign up to the information service for parents during their early contacts with health professionals. The take-up target was exceeded two years early, with 385,000 parents signed up to the service as of the end of last week.
Advice on alcohol consumption and other health issues during pregnancy is also routinely provided by health visitors, midwives and GPs. I think it is a fair challenge—
Let me respond to this point. I think it is a fair challenge to say that not everyone is administering that advice and that we can do more. A piece of work is going on to educate thousands more doctors about that, and a good question hon. Members can ask health leaders, when they meet them in their area, is “Are people routinely challenged, and is there a sense of concern in terms of talking about these issues?”, as has been voiced during the debate.
I turn to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which publishes clinical guidance that includes recommendations for doctors and midwives on the advice that they should give. As we know, the NICE antenatal guidance, which was published in 2008, gives further advice. I accept the point that there may seem to be some confusion. In my understanding, the honest truth—I have done a number of debates and questions on this, and queried it quite heavily—is that the reason for the mix of guidance is that there is a mixed clinical view. There is not a settled clinical view in all these areas, but work is under way.
In 2007, the chief medical officer for England published revised guidance on alcohol consumption during pregnancy. The advice is that women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should avoid alcohol altogether—in other words, adopt the precautionary principle. The CMO is overseeing a UK-wide review of all alcohol guidelines, so that people can make better informed choices. That review is under way and I can assure hon. Members that it will take into account any relevant new evidence since the guidelines were last published. I am aware that in some cases, experts have, over recent years, started to change their view, moving from a view about a lower-alcohol intake to one about a no-alcohol intake. All that emerging evidence will be put into the review.
I am interested in what the Minister is saying, but what is wrong with requiring all drink containers to have a health warning, as they do in America, Canada and elsewhere? What is the problem with requiring notices in every doctor’s surgery and every antenatal clinic that say: “Do not drink alcohol for fear of causing birth defects to your baby.”?
One of those challenges was touched on by the hon. Member for Sefton Central: there is some concern that a message that did not have clinical consensus behind it might cause undue alarm to somebody, bearing in mind the statistic, which has been quoted in the debate and which we believe to be true, that 50% of people do not plan their pregnancy. There is some concern about that. I accept the point that the hon. Member for Luton North makes—I think one hon. Member said that scare tactics should be used—but nevertheless that is a significant factor in considering this issue.
Let me finish off the point on the CMO’s review, because it is important and I am inevitably not going to get through all the points that I would like to make. That will be an evidence-led approach, considering whether current advice needs to be revised, and it is for people at all stages of their life, not just in pregnancy.
The reason why we need the consensus view and to get agreed guidelines—I see hon. Members shaking their heads, but I have to tell them that in so many areas of my life as Minister with responsibility for public health, somebody will say one thing in the newspapers in the morning, and by afternoon, experts will be all over every news channel disagreeing with it. We need to try to get, wherever possible, a consistent message, and that is exactly what the CMO-led review is undertaking to do.
May I just urge the Minister to look at what I and other Members have said about Canada, the United States and France, where there is labelling? Canada especially cannot believe that we are not taking this action. I urge her to speed up her look at the evidence and the research. Other countries are doing this, so why can we not?
Indeed, and I will pass on the message that Members would like to see the review speeded up. It has a whole range of the right experts on it, and I will undertake to supply to the review, in evidence, the Hansard of this debate, so that those hon. Members who have cited other research and made very forceful points can feel that those are being taken into account. The CMO’s guidance about avoiding alcohol while pregnant or trying to conceive is the message that we advise to be carried by our producers. If I can, I will come briefly to that point. However, I will undertake to ensure that the message is passed on to that expert review.
I have touched on some of the health professionals who are being trained. By 2018, around 60,000 doctors will have been trained to recognise, assess and understand the management of alcohol use and its associated health and social problems—that picks up some of the points about pregnancy.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and others—including the hon. Member for Sefton Central—mentioned the US model for early intervention; I think he was talking about the family nurse partnership, which we have adopted here. The family nurse partnership provides dedicated one-to-one support for young, at-risk, first-time mothers, and that will be expanded to 16,000 places by 2015. It is really important to make the point that although sometimes it is not possible to educate people for a first pregnancy, we can pick up second pregnancies. Although teenage pregnancy is at a 40-year low, the family nurse partnership is a very important programme based on an American model that has a very strong evidence base.
I will touch briefly on labelling in the bit of time I have left. We feel that the industry has a big part to play, and we are pushing it hard. We got an agreement from 92 companies, which committed to displaying warnings on drinking in pregnancy on 80% of bottles and cans by the end of last year. Subject to publication of the final independent market survey, we believe that just under 80% of bottles and cans had that information, and the warning is the CMO’s advice. Companies can either have a picture struck through of a pregnant women or carry the CMO’s advice, which is that women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should avoid alcohol altogether. There was some concern that that was not the message we were using, but that is the one that people who have signed up to the responsibility deal are using. We believe that is now getting more widespread market coverage. However, there is more that industry can do, and we are pushing them hard.
One thing that we could do is around duty. Personally, I would love to see the ability to vary the duty by alcohol content in wine, but it is difficult in an EU context. I do not quite know—I have never really had the answer to this—how the French managed to pass their law without suffering EU infraction, but I continue to ask the question and look into that. It is something that we are pushing to be able to do, because we want to see those warnings on as much alcohol as possible. My current understanding is that doing this through the EU would be a very lengthy process, because of the need to get that consensus.
In the 30 seconds I have left, I apologise to those Members whose points I could not respond to, but so many points have been raised. I will reflect further on what has been said in the debate and speak to the chief medical officer about it. I welcome the opportunity we have had in this debate to reinforce some of those points. There is an opportunity, when the revised guidelines are issued next year, really to put some information behind them. I am seeing the head of social marketing campaigns for Public Health England imminently—within the next week—and I undertake to have a preliminary conversation about what might be done, when the new guidelines are issued, to reinforce this very important message.