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Teenage Pregnancy: Regional Variations

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 19 April 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered regional variations in the rate of teenage pregnancy.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am pleased to have been able to secure this afternoon’s debate; it is timely, because data published by the Office for National Statistics in March showed a steady decline in the average rates of teenage pregnancy in England and Wales. Those data have been widely celebrated, and rightly so. Teenage pregnancy is a huge barrier to opportunity; it creates lifelong and entrenched disadvantage. The causes and consequences so often overlap—deprivation, family breakdown, low aspiration, intergenerational worklessness, mental health difficulties, poor educational attainment and poor school attendance.

Despite the welcome fall in average rates, England and Wales still has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in western Europe, so we must guard against complacency. An average is just an average and often masks extremes and regional variations. It is not really enough to say, “We are going in the right direction.”

Although high rates of teen pregnancy are closely correlated with deprivation, teen pregnancy should never be accepted as inevitable in any area, because that would fail the young people affected, many of whose lives are already profoundly insecure and who may see motherhood as a positive way out. Those are the young people most in need of help and support.

Hon. Members will share my commitment to improving the life chances of young people in our constituencies, so I would like briefly to talk about the situation in Telford. Back in 1998, Telford had a teen conception rate of 64 per thousand. It is no doubt good news that it has fallen to approximately 32 per thousand—it has halved, so the situation in Telford is much better than it was. However, in 1998 the rate of teen pregnancy in Telford was 36% higher than the national average, but today it is 42% higher, so rather than getting better, the gap between Telford’s teen pregnancy rates and the national average is getting worse.

I would argue that high rates of teen conception are not inevitable. My constituency lies in the heart of Shropshire. Although Telford is in the worst-performing decile of local authority areas, more affluent rural Shropshire, which surrounds Telford, is in the best-performing decile, with some of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the country. Based on that fact alone, it would be too easy to argue that deprivation, poverty, health inequality and all that causes those difficulties cannot be improved. Naturally, many demographic and social factors play a part, and I fully accept that it is difficult to find a like-for-like comparison, which is why an average does not tell us that much. Equally, it is too often assumed in the most deprived areas that nothing much can be done. Good things get better and bad things get worse if they are not tackled actively.

There are some individual success stories in local authorities, which other local authority areas could learn from, and I will mention a couple. In 1998, Leicester had a teen pregnancy rate of 64 per thousand. That fell to 25 per thousand in 2014, which is close to the national average. Similarly, Caerphilly had a rate of 70 per thousand in 1998, which has also fallen to about the 25 per thousand mark. In Hammersmith and Fulham, a similar decline has been experienced, with the rate falling from 70 per thousand to 22 per thousand, which is just above the average.

There are plenty of examples of how high teenage pregnancy rates can be tackled over time, but I want specifically to draw attention to the model in the London borough of Wandsworth, which has been a success story that other local authorities would do well to look at closely. In 1998, the rate of teen pregnancy there was 71 per thousand. Wandsworth is now outperforming the national average, with a rate of 19 per thousand. That has been achieved through a true commitment to focusing on teen pregnancy. It was not just a statement in the joint strategic needs assessment. Teen pregnancy was treated as the No. 1 indicator of how the local authority was performing, and all partner agencies took that view. There was a clearly defined plan, with achievable goals, a teen pregnancy unit, outreach work and early intervention to identify the young people most at risk and provide support to address multiple causes and raise self-esteem. There was a genuine commitment and a belief in improving the life chances of those least able to help themselves. Young people’s aspirations were built up and their resilience was strengthened to help them to make informed decisions and fulfil their potential.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, not least because Torbay, my constituency, has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the whole of the south-west region. Does she agree that the statistics show the importance of having leadership at local level, given the wide variation between local authorities, let alone regions? For example, the rate in my constituency is very similar to that in the north-east, yet only a few miles away West Devon has one of the lowest rates in the entire country.

My hon. Friend eloquently makes the point that I hope to have made by the end of my speech. Torbay does indeed stand out as a stark example of the significant regional variation across the country. He rightly says that one would not necessarily expect that, given the demographic and age profile of his constituency.

The way the success was achieved in Wandsworth was that resources were targeted at the young people aged 15 to 17 who were most likely to become pregnant, such as young people in care and care leavers, those with disrupted family relationships and the children of teen parents. We had a debate earlier about young people in care, and I want to highlight the fact that a quarter of young women leaving care are either pregnant or already mothers. Too often they are trying to fill the emotional gap from growing up without a family of their own, and sometimes in a chaotic succession of different placements. Yes, teenage pregnancy has fallen nationally and across Europe—that tells us a lot about a changing world, with young girls routinely aspiring to jobs and college and a better future—but we need to do everything that we can at local level, as my hon. Friend mentions, to help young women on that path.

A debate of this kind must touch on solutions to problems, and as the causes are so complex in this case, we have to accept that the solution is not straightforward either. More advice on contraception is helpful, but it will not tackle the issue if it is the only tool in the box—if only it were that easy. It has become fashionable to see universal sex and relationship education as a silver bullet and the panacea to high rates of teenage pregnancy, but I think we can all accept that teen pregnancy is a far more complex social and emotional issue than that, and more advice on contraception alone will not fix it. We have to address the specific needs of the young people most likely to be affected, so the focus and concentration has to be on the at-risk groups—those most in need—in order to improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged young people.

Building stronger families and early intervention support for struggling families is part of the solution. We need also to recognise that looked-after children have different health and education needs from others. We mentioned in the debate earlier today the mental health of children in care, and that is a determinant in this complex issue. Also, school is not always a fixed certainty in the lives of the young people in question, so sex and relationship education at school will not necessarily tackle the problem if school attendance is a problem in itself.

One aspect of the marked regional variation is that we can identify young people who will be affected. An example is a young person who has been in contact with the police, or who does not like school and has been excluded. Young people not in education, employment or training are another group who are among the most likely to be affected by teen pregnancy. We have also touched on the role of a disrupted childhood and difficult relationships within families.

I pay particular tribute to the Government for their life chances strategy. I want to see a continued focus on championing stronger families, and addressing teenage pregnancy in the areas and groups where the rates are highest should be the overriding priority in achieving that goal.

My heart swells to hear my hon. Friend speaking so warmly about the Government’s priorities. Placing families at the heart of policy and decision making is our stated aim, recognising that strong family relationships are fundamental to any and every outcome, be it prosperity or health outcomes. I think she would agree that it is not just the young girl, her extended family and the father of the child who are affected by teenage pregnancy; the child coming into that situation will suffer the same potential social inequalities. This is a generational issue that we must champion.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The rates of teen pregnancy among children of teenage parents are extremely high, so we should take the opportunity to target the groups that we know are more likely to be affected. By any measure, teen pregnancy rates are a primary indicator of an unhealthy society, and it is right that local authorities are charged with addressing the issue. I say to all local authorities, “Please don’t take your eye off the ball.” Whatever challenges a particular area may face, let us not accept it as some sort of immutable fact that can never be turned around. Some local authority areas with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy have been successful in bringing the rate down to below the national average, whereas many other local authority areas have not. It is essential that local authorities look closely at what they are doing and whether it is good enough. It simply is not acceptable to say that teen pregnancy is an inevitable consequence of deprivation and that there is nothing more to be done.

There are local authorities that have brought about real change, and there are others where local politicians have sometimes parked this sensitive issue. I ask the Minister to do everything he can to encourage local authorities that are performing less well to learn from the outstanding examples that I have mentioned. Does he agree that some local authorities should explain publicly why they are not making better progress? The life chances of young people depend on how their local authority addresses the issue, and I urge all local authorities where teen pregnancy rates have not come down closer to the national average in recent years to reassess why they are not doing what they should be doing and how they could do things better. We all owe it to all our children to ensure that they have strong life chances and the potential for a better future. Addressing high rates of teenage pregnancy in places where they are at the extreme end of the spectrum is essential to achieving that.

I was expecting a few more hon. and right hon. Members to participate in this debate, which is important to me as the Member for Strangford and for a great number of Members who would probably wish to participate but for whom there are many other distractions in the House today, with votes and other commitments. I am sure that those who are not here wish that they were and will read Hansard tomorrow.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this debate. I have some comments on the Northern Ireland perspective, and it is disappointing that the research on regional variations in the rate of teenage pregnancy has nothing on Northern Ireland. Perhaps that will change when we have other debates on similar issues. Teenage pregnancy is a public health concern in both the developed and the developing world.

Hopefully most of us in the Chamber have had the joy of holding our own babies in our hands when they were first born. The birth of a new baby in the world is a joy. Today we have had the chance to see the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) with her new baby boy, and not a person passed by without a smile on their face and without congratulating her on the birth of her firstborn. Seeing a new life in the world, loved by their mother and by everyone, is a joy.

When we talk about teenage pregnancies, we must recognise that many of those who become pregnant have a strong, loving relationship to their babies, the new additions to their family. In my constituency office, I have the privilege as the Member for Strangford to engage with many of those young mothers, helping them get the housing benefits, care, nurseries and other support that they need. Those are some of the things that we do. This debate is not meant to be about judging teenage pregnancies in any way; it is about what we can do to help and assist. My contribution will be along those lines, and will focus on how we can assist those young ladies who are teenage mothers.

The United Kingdom has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the whole of Europe. The most recent data show that teenage pregnancy rates in Northern Ireland continue to fall, including—I will qualify this later on—in my own constituency, where they have been relatively high in the past. Ours is still the third highest of all the constituencies in the Province, so my constituency still has a health issue to address. Health is devolved, so the Minister does not have responsibility for replying on that, but hopefully he can take note of my contribution.

Northern Ireland’s teenage pregnancy rates are now at a record low, according to the most recent figures released by the Department of Health in the Province, with a fall in teenage pregnancy rates of 37% in the last 10 years. That is a significant decrease, and I believe that it is caused by some of the policies that we have adopted. In December 2008, when I was in the old Northern Ireland Assembly and made some inside contribution to the relevant debates there, the regional sexual health promotion strategy and action plan was launched and set a target to reduce the rate of births to teenage mothers under 17 by 25% by 2013. We have exceeded that, and the target has been well beaten. The figures have gone the way that the NI Executive and Assembly desired, and the strategy undoubtedly played a large part in that.

I will mention a bit about that, if I can. Better sexual education and availability of contraception have helped drive down the rate of teenage pregnancy in the Province, and although the overall fertility rate in Northern Ireland has been falling, it is most welcome to see it falling more significantly where we want it to do so. Regional variations in teenage pregnancy rates are apparent, but within those, there are also key socioeconomic variations. The hon. Member for Telford referred to some of the reasons for teenage pregnancies, and I am sure that other Members who speak will comment on them.

As we have heard, there are many explanations for the variations in teenage pregnancy. As the rate falls nationwide, we need to take note of those indicators and of similar research to develop a strategy that can work nationally. I have always said that it is important to do so. I bring a Northern Ireland perspective to this debate, and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) will bring a Scottish perspective. We bring our perspectives to add to the debate and show that where what we are doing can be replicated in other parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we should do so. If we see something being done in England, Wales or Scotland that can help us, we in Northern Ireland will look towards that as well. That is why I am commenting about how we can work together.

The factors involved in teenage pregnancy can affect anyone, regardless of where they are in the country, so they should be at the core of identifying how to reduce teenage pregnancy rates further and support teenage mothers. We want to support them. We want them to have the support that we as Members of Parliament can give, and that the Government, society and families can give as well. The hon. Member for Telford mentioned the effect on families, and we need to look at that as well.

The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting points. He referred to the potential to learn from other areas and he gave examples of the progress that has been made on the strategy in Ulster. Can he give a couple of examples of specific actions that have made a difference?

I am coming to that if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me. He always makes a valuable contribution in his interventions. He and I seem to always attend these debates. Whatever they are, we are here together to make our contributions. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I will come on to the issues.

Within the main council area that dominates my parliamentary constituency, teenage pregnancy rates are the third highest—unfortunately—in Northern Ireland. Although there has been a decrease of 37%, I represent the area with the third highest teenage pregnancy rates in Northern Ireland. It is important for me to learn from other Members—to learn from their experience and understand their knowledge can add to the research that I have done so that I can take that back to Northern Ireland and to my constituency of Strangford.

Progress has undoubtedly been made through personal education. Families and those who are close such as brothers and sisters—probably more sisters to sisters or mothers to daughters—is something that we perhaps should focus on more. Sometimes relationships break down between parents. Young girls can find themselves at a loose end and sometimes things happen. Things happen for many reasons. They can happen because of what has happened at home or because of what is happening in society. They can happen because of peer pressure as well. Those are issues that Government cannot legislate for, but which we as parents need to do something about. We need to encourage the people who have influence to do likewise. When it comes to some of the things that we have done, I can point to the education plan, setting a target for reduction, and the availability of contraception. We have to address those issues. Sometimes we have to be aware that young people will want to do their own thing, but sometimes we have to be aware of what we can do as a society.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s points on the availability of contraception and appropriate advice. We tend to assume that we are talking in the main about unplanned teenage pregnancies, and that is not always the case. Does the hon. Gentleman think that we should do more to show that the role of parenting is a hugely challenging one? It is very rewarding, but challenging and costly—emotionally, financially and socially. Do we do enough in that regard?

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention and for her wise words. We in this Chamber will say yes, we have done our bit, but many of us here could perhaps do that wee bit more. People could be more conscious of where their children are at night; what they are doing; who they are with and what their peers are doing. I see this in my advice centre all the time; I see some of the issues. I am not here to criticise or to point the finger. That is not what this is about. This is about saying how we and Government can help and assist young people. We should aim to try and enable people to see how we can reduce teenage pregnancies, which we have done in Northern Ireland in significant numbers, but we need to do more. When it comes to whether people can do more, yes, they can. I have three boys—three young men. One is married and one is about to get engaged. If the third boy leaves it until the age of his dad, he has 10 years to go before he gets married, as I was married at 32.

We have to look at the issues individually. Society itself, but particularly the role of parents, is important. The hon. Lady is right. The role is critical and necessary. The Prime Minister has often said that families are at the core of society. I believe that as well, and that is where we need to start.

Although progress has undoubtedly been made, we cannot take our eye off the ball. With research ongoing, the Government need to keep on top of the issue of teenage pregnancies and work with the various bodies—private, voluntary and public sector—to continue the good work that has been done in Northern Ireland and elsewhere and to adapt to the ever-changing goals in the effort to address teenage pregnancies.

For me, the issue is knowing how we can do things better. The hon. Member for Telford referred to some of the reasons for teenage pregnancy. When we consider those reasons, we cannot ignore the variations and variables in the regions of the whole of the United Kingdom. The Department of Health has made clear what it has done to drive down the overall rate of teenage pregnancies and recognised socioeconomic variations. In June 2014, the Department amended the 2008 strategy to include the aim of reducing

“the gap in births to teenage mothers living in deprived areas.”

Identifying and targeting the population most at risk of an unplanned and possibly unwanted pregnancy is vital to both prevention and improving the accessibility and uptake of post-natal medical care. That is another issue that we have addressed. I hope that these comments are helpful and specific. Regardless of their background, all sexually active teenage girls are at risk of becoming pregnant. That fact cannot be denied. Teenage mothers are more likely to be in what are known as routine or semi-routine occupations—for example, sales and services operatives or low-grade administration. I am not doing those jobs down, but that is what the statistics say.

Research evidence from the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland suggests that risk factors include low self-esteem; poverty; low educational attainment; declining educational achievement; alienation and non-attendance at school; children being looked after by health and social care trusts; children of teenage mothers; a history of sexual abuse; mental health problems; and a history of offending behaviour. Those are all explanations for the variations in the rate of teenage pregnancy. When we look at these issues as we did in Northern Ireland, we can come up with a strategy. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) asked what we did. That is what we did, and it has made a significant contribution to where we are.

I again thank the hon. Member for Telford for giving us the opportunity to participate in this debate. When the shadow Minister speaks and the Minister responds, I hope that we will hear how we can address teenage pregnancy to an even greater degree, because there are many ways we can do that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this debate and for her very interesting speech.

When we are discussing teenage pregnancy, it is critical that we do not seek to stigmatise or hurt young women. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, every baby born should be celebrated and every mother supported. Having a baby at any age has its challenges, and we should always seek first to offer assistance rather than dole out judgment.

Since the SNP Scottish Government were elected in 2007, the rate of teenage pregnancies in Scotland has fallen every single year, and it has dropped by about 35% in six years. All the NHS board areas in Scotland have seen reductions in their rates of teenage pregnancies. In the under-20 age group, it has decreased by 34.7%; in the under-18 age group, it has decreased by 41.5%; and in the under-16 age group, it has decreased by 39.8%. All that has not happened by accident. The SNP seeks to give every young person in the country a good start in life, regardless of their circumstances. The Scottish Government and the Minister for Children and Young People, Aileen Campbell MSP, have been working to achieve the goal of making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up, and they are leading policy in early years intervention.

The hon. Member for Telford mentioned looked-after children in particular. I draw attention to the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland—CELCIS—which does great work. The Scottish Government have also worked in a number of different ways to support care leavers by giving them an entitlement to university and further training. There are lots of measures to build their self-esteem and make them feel like the valued part of society that they are.

At the weekend, the SNP pledged to give every newborn baby born in Scotland a Finnish-style baby box to ensure that families have all the things they need to start in life. That programme has been hugely successful in Finland in reducing infant mortality from one of the highest rates in the world to one of the lowest. Interestingly, infant mortality is 60% higher among babies born to teenage mothers, so the baby box has the potential to become an important intervention for this vulnerable group.

It takes time and effort to change the causes and history of teenage pregnancy, as the hon. Member for Strangford indicated. I recently visited the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Glasgow. It is doing interesting and worthwhile work to support young mums. It is piloting an intervention that was started by Yale University called “Minding the Baby”. A health visitor and a social worker work with teenage mums from around seven months into pregnancy until the child is two. That very intensive model has resulted in benefits in improved attachment and better parenting skills. It has raised the self-esteem of the young women involved and had a wider effect on their families. Some have younger brothers and sisters who have seen a benefit in their family after teenage mums went through the programme, so there is a wider benefit to society. I was also delighted to hear that through the programme, a number of young women have been supported to breastfeed. That demographic has a low uptake of breastfeeding, but the babies gain a huge and significant benefit.

There is an undeniable correlation between deprivation and teenage pregnancy. Dundee is often mentioned very negatively in that light, but there has been significant progress. Over the past decade, Dundee has seen a 58% drop in teenage conception rates. That is credited to the close working of schools and the local health board and the valuable work of family-nurse partnerships. It is also credited to education. Dundee has a young mums’ unit, which keeps young women in full-time education, meaning that they do not lose out on their education—that vital piece of the jigsaw in moving out of deprivation.

The hon. Members for Telford and for Strangford mentioned the impact of sexual health and relationships education. The House of Commons Library research mentions in relation to England that it is unclear what obligation there will be for schools in England to provide sexual health and relationships education should the Government’s full academisation plans go through. The SNP sees the value in that education and urges the Government to clarify whether new academies will have an obligation to provide sex education in schools. It would be utterly unacceptable for schools to offer no sex education whatever.

The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned prevention and young men, who have an important role. It is not just up to young women; young men have a serious role in teenage pregnancy.

A very significant role. If young men and young women together are not educated about sexual health and relationship more widely, we are missing an opportunity to impart important lessons about consent and respect. Leaving it to chance is hugely damaging, as we can see with the ongoing investigations in Parliament into harassment in schools and the higher education sector.

Sexual health and relationships education is very much part of the curriculum in Scotland. My son is five. His primary 1 class has just been learning about human bodies. We should not be daunted by these issues as parents or politicians, because serious issues such as consent can be taught at a young age. It can be as simple as stopping tickling a child when they say no. That is consent, and we need to think about these things more widely.

In Scotland, we updated our national guidance on relationships, sexual health and parenthood education in December 2014. That guidance puts into practice the commitment made in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 that the Scottish Government would actively promote the rights and wellbeing of children and young people. Education in schools should equip children and young people with information to help them keep themselves safe. Giving children and young people the knowledge and understanding of healthy, respectful and loving relationships and the opportunity to explore issues in a safe environment protects them from harm and promotes tolerance. Young people have the right to comprehensive, accurate and evidence-based information to help them make positive, healthy and responsible choices in their relationships.

Dr Alasdair Allan, our Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, said at the end of 2014:

“The issues covered by RSHP can be seen as the building blocks to how pupils look after themselves and engage with people for the rest of their lives. These classes allow pupils to think about their development and the importance of healthy living surrounded by their peers who will have similar experiences to them…The guidance recognises the professionalism of teachers, the expertise they bring to making lessons age appropriate and an invaluable addition to discussions that parents are likely already having with their children at home.”

Finally, I come back to my point about poverty and deprivation and the correlation with teenage pregnancy. In its most recent statistics, which are from 2013, the Information Services Division notes:

“There is a strong correlation between deprivation and teenage pregnancy. In the under 20 age group, a teenage female living in the most deprived area is 4.8 times as likely to experience a pregnancy as someone living in the least deprived area and nearly 12 times as likely to deliver their baby.”

The UK Government’s welfare cuts and sanctions are increasing poverty—that is the context in which this debate exists—and will not help the teen pregnancy rate. In particular, I draw Members’ attention to how young people aged 18 to 21 will lose access to housing benefits from next year. Centrepoint and Shelter have expressed concerns about the impact that will have on young people. One exception to that policy is where people of that age are parents. When the Government begin to make policies that take age and particular things into account and certain groups lose out, that will have a consequence. My concern is that by excluding that group from housing benefit, the Government perhaps encourage young people in particularly desperate circumstances to make huge life decisions for the wrong reasons, and that would be a seriously retrograde step.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

I would like to end my speech as I began. In our deliberations about teenage pregnancy we should not stigmatise, and in responding to the debate on behalf of the SNP I hope I have not done so. It has certainly not been my intention. We must do all we can to support young people, teenage mums and dads and their babies, and to invest in their future.

It is an honour, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this debate, which allows us to acknowledge the achievements made in addressing teenage pregnancy rates and to recognise that there is still a lot more to do, as she did so eloquently in her speech. I also want to acknowledge the excellent contributions of the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who brought important perspectives from Northern Ireland and Scotland respectively.

Research shows that 61% of children born to teenage mothers are at a higher risk of infant mortality and that, by the age of 30, teenage mothers are 22% more likely to be living in poverty than those who gave birth at the age of 24 or over. I know that that is not universal, but those are the statistics. The fact that 21% of women aged between 16 and 18 who are not in education, employment or training are teenage mothers shows that teenage pregnancy is not only a cause but a consequence of the educational and health inequalities in our society. That is why we cannot sit by and ignore this situation, especially given that we still lag behind western Europe on our teenage pregnancy rate. Although it was welcome news that England last month achieved the long-held target of a 50% reduction—it actually achieved 51%—in the under-18 conception rate between 1998 and 2014, this is no time to be complacent. We must ensure that the positive work that has been done does not go to waste and that the trends do not flatline or worsen.

Although the overall rate has gone down for England, there are still wide-ranging variations—not just between regions but within them. For example, my own local authority, Sunderland City Council, has seen a 45% drop in the conception rate. However, just down the road, Stockton-on-Tees, in the same region, has seen only a 29% decrease between 1998 and 2014. That trend is replicated in all regions, with varying gaps and differences in the conception rate. A lot of that can be put down to local variations and the way in which the 10-year strategy, which was introduced by the previous Labour Government in 1999, was implemented by local authorities.

The strategy was informed by international evidence. A 30-point plan was launched to halve the under-18 conception rate and to improve the life chances not only of the teenagers who fall pregnant but of their children. The plan laid solid foundations for reducing teenage pregnancy by ensuring effective multi-agency work. In 2005, the plan was reviewed when it became apparent that the initial measures were not being implemented across the board. Instead, more prescriptive guidance was introduced. That review of the strategy’s actions was best described by Alison Hadley in a recent article in the Journal of Family Health. She said that the review was an understanding

“that high rates were not inevitable—even in deprived areas—if the right actions were put in place.”

That is the crux of the way that we should and must approach the issue of teenage pregnancy. It is not an inevitability of modern society, but it can be down to the inaction of those with the levers of power and their failure to implement the right interventions.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this debate. I do not know how many in the House have the experience that I had, but I was a mum at the age of 16. I come from a deprived background. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important things we can do is to ensure that people have the opportunity to break that cycle and enable them to go back to education or to bring their child up? That is one of the things that I found really depressing when I watched the ITV programme “Long Lost Family”. It is one of the heartfelt things that made me burst into tears. My son is with me; I was able to raise him as a teenage mum because of the intervention and support that I got as a mum. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vitally important that we do that?

I do, and I commend my hon. Friend for raising that matter. She talked about it in her maiden speech so movingly for those who were in the Chamber or who listened to it afterwards. It brings important insight into this House in debates such as this to hear someone speak from experience. She is right that we need to support teenage mums. This is not about stigmatising them. Obviously, sometimes it is about helping them to make different choices if they do not want to make a particular choice. We must support them and ensure that the statistics I just mentioned, which we are all aware of, do not become the reality for young mums and their children. My hon. Friend has obviously broken that cycle: she is here as a Member of Parliament. The cycle of deprivation does not have to be inevitable. As I said, it is not universal, but the statistics are not where we would like them to be. There are obviously exceptions that prove the rule.

In 2010, the Department for Education set out a bonfire of policies that saw specific budgets directed at local councils, such as for addressing teenage pregnancy, rolled into the early intervention grant, which has sadly been repeatedly cut year on year and is a shell of what it used to be. The Government have failed to build on the work set out by the last Labour Government, thereby threatening the success seen to date with their short-sighted strategy on early intervention.

Instead of the Government seeing local authorities as a problem, rather than a solution, we need a renewal of the thinking that we had between 1997 and 2010, which harnessed the co-operative relationship between local and central Government to address issues such as teenage pregnancy effectively. For instance, one of the key measures that followed through in both the initial strategy and the updated version, as the hon. Member for Telford discussed in her opening speech, was the necessity to improve sex and relationship education in our schools.

No one will be surprised to hear that I am a passionate advocate of age-appropriate sex and relationship education. I understand the real benefits that equipping children with the right knowledge and tools will have on their futures as they become adults. However, it is not just me who believes that; it is the young people themselves. As the Sex Education Forum found in a survey of more than 2,000 young people earlier this year on the sex and relationship education that they receive, one in five was reported as saying that it was bad or very bad, which is deeply concerning when young people still say that they are embarrassed to seek advice about sex or relationship issues and half of 15-year-olds do not know about the existence of local contraception and sexual health services in their area.

Many opponents of age-appropriate sex and relationship education say that it is the job of parents, not teachers, to teach their children about sex and relationships, which shows just how out of touch many people are with the lives of children and young people. The Sex Education Forum reports that 7% of 15-year-old boys and 9% of 15-year-old girls have no trusted adult in their life to whom they can go when they need advice on sex and relationships. Some of them are children in care, about whom hon. Members spoke in the earlier debate. It is for that very reason that I and other Labour Members support the introduction of age-appropriate SRE as part of statutory personal, social, health and economic education, and many Government Members are slowly coming round to that idea, too. The lack of sex and relationship education in our schools is a ticking time bomb that the Government must address, especially with their impending forced academisation of all schools, which will bring into question the survival of SRE in any form in our schools.

I am interested to hear some of the points that the hon. Lady has made so far. Does she agree that it is important that schools buy into any duties? It is important that we have SRE and that its delivery does not become like the requirement to hold an act of religious worship in the morning. It is nice that that is statutory, but it is far more honoured in its breach than in its observance.

That is a very good point, because where sex and relationship education is compulsory in maintained schools, unlike in academies and free schools, there tend to be two elements: the biology and HIV/AIDS awareness, and then the relationship side. That is exactly the hon. Gentleman’s point. It has to be good-quality sex and relationship education, rather than just ticking some boxes.

The ticking time bomb is paired with the increasing sexualisation of young people, with recent freedom of information requests to local police forces showing that reported incidents of children sexting has skyrocketed by more than 1,200% in the past two years due to increased access to social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and even to dating apps such as Tinder, which is why it is welcome that the Women and Equalities Committee has announced today an investigation into sexting as part of its inquiry on sexual harassment among pupils in schools. I look forward to seeing what comes out of that inquiry.

It is high time that the Government took action and issued an update of the sex and relationship education guidance, which was published before the smartphone generation was even born. I hope the Minister can update Members on the DFE’s plans. I will not hold my breath, however, as when the opportunity came for the Government to take bold steps in introducing statutory PSHE and age-appropriate SRE following the most recent report of the Select Committee on Education on this area, it was blocked by no less than the Prime Minister. That was despite it being reported that many women Cabinet Ministers, including the Education Secretary herself, were strongly in favour of introducing this measure and were dismayed at the Prime Minister’s inaction.

Not only disgruntled Cabinet Ministers but the Children’s Commissioner, the Chief Medical Officer, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 88% of teachers, 90% of parents and 92% of young people themselves are in favour of introducing both subjects to the curriculum as statutory subjects. Yet again, the Prime Minister is putting himself on the wrong side of the issue when it comes to teaching our young people about life and the resilience to deal with what is thrown at them.

In conclusion, it is undeniable that we have made great strides forward on teenage pregnancy and those achievements must be celebrated, but there is still a long way to go. The Government must make clear their vision about how they will build on the important multi-agency, co-operative intervention work of the last Labour Government, and about how they will finally bring forward plans for PSHE and SRE that will make them effective tools in the young person’s arsenal and enable them to make informed choices in their lives.

As ever, Mr Chope, it is a delight to serve under your chairmanship.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) both on securing this debate and on her extremely well-judged contribution to it. Her contribution had at its heart something that I believe all Members could feel comfortable signing up to, which is the need to make sure that all children and young people, irrespective of their background, get a real and enduring chance to be the best that they can be, for themselves and—in the future—for their own families. I welcome the other contributions to the debate, by my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), and by the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson).

To underline the genuine importance of this agenda, my hon. Friend the Member for Telford reminded us that it was the Prime Minister who set out in a significant and perceptive speech in January his intention for the Government to make improving the life chances of the most disadvantaged children and families in Britain a central tenet of our work over the next four years. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Telford, I welcome that commitment to cross-Government work to tackle some of the deep-rooted social problems that exist, and, in doing so, to help to transform children’s lives so that they can meet their full potential.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, although teenagers might still have the highest rates of unplanned pregnancies, we have seen a steady and impressive decline in that rate, to the extent that there are now 50% fewer teenage pregnancies than in 1998. In fact, teenage pregnancies are at their lowest since records began in 1969. That is important progress, which has a significant impact on young people’s lives and improves their life chances, whether in Telford, Crewe or elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We heard about similar progress in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

However, although the rates are coming down, and doing so at a faster rate than elsewhere in Europe, they remain higher than in comparable western European countries. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, we simply cannot afford to take our eye off the ball, and as the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, there is certainly no room for us to be complacent. Reducing the level of teenage pregnancy must remain a high priority, not only at national but at local level. My colleagues in the Department of Health have recognised that by including teenage pregnancy rates as a key indicator in the public health outcomes framework.

How will that outcomes framework be supported to deliver what is required? As we know, since 2013 local authorities have had responsibility for commissioning sexual health services. To support local commissioners, Public Health England has a teenage pregnancy expert adviser, whose role is to provide support to national teams by integrating teenage pregnancy data, evidence and best practice into relevant work programmes. It is good to hear about areas such as Leicester, Caerphilly and Wandsworth—in particular, Wandsworth sounds hugely impressive—that are helping to add to that best practice. The expert adviser also provides Public Health England with a teenage pregnancy link to the Local Government Association and relevant Department of Health policy teams.

The Government also provide support by facilitating the sharing of information and learning with local areas about what works in reducing teenage pregnancy. We have heard contributions this afternoon that touched on exactly that point. Most recently, in March this year, Public Health England and the Local Government Association produced an updated briefing for councils—I have even come to this debate armed with a copy. It is entitled “Good progress but more to do”, which probably sums up the message that has come out of this debate. Having been around for only a few weeks, it has already been downloaded more than 5,000 times, which suggests both a high degree of interest in the subject and a welcome continued commitment at local level to actively do something about it rather than just look at figures on a page.

As I am a Minister in the Department for Education, it would be remiss of me not to set out what the Government are doing to improve education standards for all children. As we have heard, education has a key role to play in keeping children on a positive path in life. I know from having visited Holmer Lake Primary School in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Telford that she believes strongly in the power of education to change lives. She will be aware that we have published a White Paper setting out how we will seek to achieve educational excellence everywhere. As the Secretary of State set out in the White Paper, it is imperative that we extend opportunity to every child, whatever their background. That is why we are completely committed to ensuring that all pupils receive an excellent education.

Since 2010, 1.4 million more children have enjoyed an education in a good or outstanding school. To support that, we have taken a number of measures to drive up performance: matching failing schools with strong sponsors; driving up the numbers of national leaders of education to support other schools, from 250 in 2010 to more than 1,000 last year; and providing schools with significant extra funding to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils through the pupil premium, which is worth £2.5 billion this year. We have protected that funding at per-pupil rates for the duration of this Parliament.

We must of course build on that, so that all children and young people receive the same standards of education enjoyed by those in the best schools. We acknowledge that some parts of the country suffer from acute problems and will need additional support for all children to achieve their potential. The White Paper identified areas of the country where low school standards are exacerbated by low capacity to deliver improvement. To support improvement in those parts of the country, we will designate achieving excellence areas, where we will work with local leaders to diagnose the underlying problems and then target our national programmes to help them secure sufficient high-quality teachers, leaders, system leaders, sponsors and governors. We will trial that approach from September this year and roll it out more widely from September 2017, with the aim of delivering lasting improvement to standards in those areas.

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that in order to ensure that all children can benefit, we must keep absences from school to an absolute minimum. Overall absence rates have followed a general downward trend from 6.5% in 2006-07 to 4.6% in 2014-15. Although we have made progress, with almost 200,000 fewer pupils regularly missing school than in 2010, we must keep our foot on the gas.

Why is that important in the context of this debate? With regard to educational underperformance and teenage pregnancy, my hon. Friend rightly pointed out that there is a correlation between teenage conception, deprivation and low educational attainment. In 2013, the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions, funded by the Department for Education, published a research report on teenage pregnancy in England. The report set out the evidence on the relationship between deprivation, low prior attainment and likelihood of teenage conception and maternity.

The research found that girls who are eligible for free school meals and girls who are persistently absent from school are more likely to become teenage mothers, both because they are more likely to conceive and because they are more likely to continue with their pregnancy. Researchers also found that girls who attend higher-performing schools are less likely to conceive, and that deterioration in academic performance between key stages 2 and 3 is associated with teenage pregnancy. Girls who make slower than expected progress during the early years of secondary school are significantly more likely to conceive, and to continue with the pregnancy after conception, than those who progress as expected.

Free school meals eligibility, persistent absenteeism and slower than expected academic progress during early secondary school can therefore be thought of as key individual risk factors associated with conceiving as a teenager and continuing with that pregnancy. That is exactly the sort of evidence-based research that we need to proliferate around the system so that those at local level can gain a much better understanding of what works.

As such research demonstrates, various risk factors are associated with increased teenage pregnancy rates, including educational underachievement. Schools can help all children to make better decisions in their personal life through high-quality teaching of personal, social, health and economic education. Unfortunately, time precludes me from rehearsing the many arguments of the past few weeks and months on the role of PSHE in equipping pupils with the knowledge and skills to make safe and informed decisions and in preparing them for adult life.

I think we can all agree that we want to equip young people and children with such skills. To achieve that, we need to ensure that PSHE is of the highest quality possible. That is why, with the support of the PSHE Association and after consultation with a wide variety of agencies and PSHE practitioners, we have produced a suggested programme of study, based on the needs of today’s pupils and schools. We have said that we will keep the issue under review, as we set out in our response to the report of the Select Committee on Education. We will do that in all seriousness, to ensure that as the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West rightly said, we provide children with the arsenal that they require to meet many of the harder challenges that life throws at them when compared with our own childhoods, and at a much younger age.

Much is going on in government, including the provision of support for children in care and care leavers so that they are ready and prepared for adult life. The number of mothers who were previously looked-after children has declined over the years between 2011 and 2015, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Telford reminded us, about 20% of female care leavers become teenage parents, so we need to do even more. That is why we have committed to deliver real reform of social care services. We have our £200 million social care funding programme, as well as the Pause programme, with funding from the innovation fund, which I urge hon. Members to look at carefully. Pause breaks the cycle for the many young mothers who have repeated pregnancies only to have the child removed from their care, which we need to stop in future.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).