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Emergency Contraception For Girls Under 16

Volume 621: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2001

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3 p.m.

Whether a parent has the right to know if and when a daughter aged 16 or below has been given the "morning-after-pill" by her school.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health
(Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, where a school nurse provides emergency contraception she works within the same legal framework and government guidance as other health professionals providing contraception to under-16s. They must always encourage the young person to involve her parents, but the nurses' professional code states that, if the girl refuses, confidentiality must be maintained unless there are serious child protection issues.

My Lords, can the Minister say how many school nurses are available to the 4,000 secondary schools on a daily basis? Does he not agree that parents can be made responsible for misdemeanours of their children in school and yet do not have the right—I believe that is the import of the Minister's answer—to know when medication is being given to their children aged between 11 and 15 years. Does the Minister agree with that?

My Lords, I do not have figures for the number of school nurses. I will find out if they are available and let the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, know. Certainly, nurses play a very important role. I believe that in relation to sex education they can play an invaluable role in advising young people.

No school would introduce such a scheme without full consultation with the parents. Existing government guidance to schools makes this clear. The guidance for health professionals issuing contraception to girls under 16 makes clear that they must, first, encourage the young person to involve her parents. At the end of the day, if that young person is not willing for the matter to be discussed with her parents then the health professional has to use his or her own judgment. Surely, that is the most appropriate way forward if young girls are to be encouraged to come forward to speak to nurses about these issues.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the Family Law Reform Act states very clearly that consent given by a young person of 16 is as valid as if given by an individual of full age? Further, does he agree that during my term of office on the General Medical Council in the 1980s that council agonised over this issue following the Gillick judgment? Eventually the council came to the conclusion that if a doctor were consulted by a young person under 16 about issues relating to contraception then it was the doctor's duty to try to persuade—particularly a young girl—to consult her parents about that matter. If that young girl adamantly refused to do so it was the doctor's duty to preserve her confidentiality even if he did then prescribe for her. Does the noble Lord agree that that applies equally to school nurses?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Walton, puts the matter accurately and effectively. The point I make is that the advice that school nurses and other health professionals can give to young people can often encourage the young people to have the confidence to go and talk to their parents. That is what we would all wish to happen. If that young person is not prepared to do so the school nurse and other health professionals cannot turn that person away. They have to use their professional judgment.

My Lords, perhaps I may follow up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Walton. Can the Minister confirm that the guidance issued to schools is entirely in line with the Gillick case decided in 1985, that the Government see good sense in that case and have no intention to change it?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. The circumstances that he mentions go back to the Gillick judgment and the Fraser guidelines, as they have been called. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that the Government have no intention of making any changes.

My Lords, did the Minister in his speech winding up the debate last night imply—when suggesting it did not matter whether chemists could judge accurately whether a girl asking for the pill was 16 or not because doctors gave contraceptive devices to girls under that age—that the Government intend shortly to abolish the age of consent or lower the age of 16?

My Lords, it is some hours since we had that debate. I do not recall making any such remarks. I made it clear that the minimum guidelines laid down by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society have to be followed by pharmacists in exercising their judgment in relation to the sale of emergency contraceptives to women of the age of 16 and over. Pharmacists who are in breach of those guidelines are subject to the disciplinary procedures of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. I fail to see how the noble Baroness could possibly take from what I said any intent to change the law on the age of consent.