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Children: Young Mothers

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many children have been born to mothers under the age of 16 during the most recent five-year period for which figures are available; and how many of those children were adopted at, or shortly after, birth.

My Lords, 2,940 children were born to mothers aged under 16 in England in 2007, which is the latest year for which data are available. That is 265, or 8 per cent, fewer births to under-16s than in 2003. In total, 15,283 children were born to mothers aged under 16 during this five-year period. No data are available on how many of those births resulted in the child being adopted.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that, for a Government who claim that every child matters, it really would be right for statistics to be collected on what happens to these children, whose future can be very much at risk? However, my main question is whether she is aware of a scheme that exists in some states in the United States called open adoption, under which the birth mother has the possibility of participating in the selection of the adoptive parents. Sometimes there is also an agreement for a reasonable and sensible degree of continuing contact between the birth mother and the child. Is that not a system that would greatly reduce the trauma of giving up the child, and therefore one that would help the birth mother to return to school and normal life and to have a normal family in the normal way?

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord has a point about the counting of children, and I undertake to take this up with my noble friend Lady Morgan, the relevant Minister. The noble Lord, with his vast experience of such matters, points to an interesting issue. It appears that in England there is no use of open adoption as it is practised in the United States. However, where a baby is relinquished for adoption, the birth mother may consent to the child being placed with specified prospective adopters or with any adopters chosen by the agency. Where it is in the child’s best interests for there to be ongoing links, including contact with the birth parents, the birth parents will be involved in discussions about how best to achieve this and help with agreed plans—for example, through practical or financial support. The noble Lord will fully appreciate that the main consideration is what is in the best interests of the child.

My Lords, does the Minister agree about the importance of school nurses in relation to unwanted teenage pregnancies? In the Choosing Health White Paper, the Government set a target of 2010 for having a full-time school nurse for each cluster of primary schools and its related secondary. How are the Government getting on towards reaching that target? Are there enough nurses in the pipeline doing the specialist community public health nurse qualification for school nurses, so that we have enough for the future?

My Lords, as usual, the noble Baroness makes a very good point. I am answering this Question on behalf of my noble friend the DCSF Minister, and I do not have those figures in my brief. In the Department of Health, we are focusing on that, and I undertake to write to the noble Baroness with those detailed answers.

My Lords, clearly, there has to be concern about the high level of teenage pregnancies, and we have to look for means by which we can reduce the level of those pregnancies. I appreciate that all the evidence shows that good-quality sex and relationship education in schools makes positive behavioural changes in young persons’ attitudes towards risky sex, and that the vast majority of parents support SRE being taught in schools. What progress has been made on the Government’s principled support for the introduction of PSHE, including SRE, as a statutory subject in the school curriculum?

My Lords, my noble friend points to a very important matter. We know that the provision of sex and relationship education is patchy, which is why we recently announced our intention to make it statutory, to increase the priority that schools give to this important aspect of young people’s education and to ensure greater consistency across schools. Sex and relationship education is a key part of a child’s education, and we hope that it will give young people the knowledge and skills that they need to make safe and healthy choices and, importantly, to work in partnership with their parents—so that parents have the confidence to have the discussions with their children necessary to make sure that young people are making the choices that we would wish.

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge the contribution made by community, voluntary and faith-based organisations that provide permanent and long-term placements for vulnerable children? What can be done to secure the financial future of some of these organisations in these very challenging days? I declare an interest as president of Family Care, Nottingham.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is correct to point out the important work in children’s services undertaken by the third sector. I worked with Action for Children for many years. We recognise the invaluable services that the third sector provides, which are important in improving outcomes for some of our most vulnerable children. At a local level, we contract with these organisations, which do a significant amount of work in this sector. As far as I am aware, that will continue. At a national level, in 2007-08 we made £500,000 available to all voluntary adoption agencies, in recognition of their need to provide advice and to maintain and develop their services for difficult-to-place children.

My Lords, despite the Government’s spending £280 million on a strategy to reduce teenage pregnancies, why has their number increased, with the UK having the highest teenage pregnancy rate in western Europe? Does the Minister accept that the figure of 8,196 pregnancies among those aged under-16 shows the Government’s complete failure to get to grips with the problem?

My Lords, teenage pregnancy is the cause and consequence of social exclusion and health inequalities. It is a complex and challenging issue.

My Lords, we are very disappointed that we have not met the target that we set ourselves. However, the British Government are about 20 years behind European Governments, because it seems that this issue was neglected in the1980s and 1990s.