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International Development: Sexual and Reproductive Health

Volume 819: debated on Monday 28 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to make investment in sexual and reproductive health and rights a priority in their International Development Strategy.

My Lords, the Government will publish a new international development strategy this spring that will guide our work for the coming decade and beyond. It will align our development work with the aims and objectives of the integrated review and will continue to prioritise women and girls through support to educate girls, empower women and end violence, including by strengthening sexual and reproductive health and rights and working to end female genital mutilation.

My Lords, UK investment in sexual and reproductive health not only promotes health and well-being across the whole of life but also leads to improvements in education, gender equality, political stability, economic development and, indeed, environmental sustainability, so it is a very worthwhile investment. Sadly, SRHR and family planning programmes are extremely disproportionately impacted by the cuts to UK aid. Can my noble friend the Minister reassure me that we will retake our place as a global leader on this issue, that SRHR will be an explicit priority in the upcoming strategy and that funding will be returned to previous levels of around 4% to 5% of ODA as part of the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to restore funding to women and girls?

I thank the noble Baroness for her campaigning on this issue. Sexual and reproductive health and rights are central to achieving the UK Government’s manifesto commitment to end the preventable deaths of mothers, babies and children by 2030 and our ambitious commitments on girls’ education and Covid recovery. The Foreign Secretary has been clear that we will restore funding to women and girls. The UK plays a vital role in global partnerships and funds to support and strengthen the ability of countries to deliver life-saving maternal reproductive and child health services. We certainly regard ourselves as a world leader in this area and we will continue to be.

My Lords, global donor support for reproductive health fell in 2020 by $100 million to the 59 low and middle-income countries. That cut was driven by the UK cuts. The place on earth that is the most unsafe for mothers and babies is South Sudan, which I have asked the Minister about before, where one in 10 babies dies before the age of five, but the Government are discussing a new round of cuts for health support for women and babies in South Sudan. If the Government are proposing to restore funding, why are they proposing to cut further in South Sudan? Will the Minister please intervene to make sure that this does not happen?

My Lords, as I said, the Foreign Secretary has been clear that we are restoring funding to women and girls. I am not able to answer region-specific questions at the moment because that work is being done and until it has been completed and our spending review settlement translates into programmes on the ground, I am afraid I cannot go into the specifics.

My Lords, we know that the cuts this year have resulted in 9.5 million fewer women and couples receiving services. The noble Lord keeps repeating the assurances of the Foreign Secretary in terms of devoting resources to women and girls, but how much of that will be devoted to sexual and reproductive health? We want to know the answer.

My Lords, we will know the answer, but we will not know it until the IDS is published and the allocations are made and the programmes are chosen. As a principle, the Foreign Secretary has made clear that we are restoring funding and this House and the other House will be able to hold the Government to account against that promise.

My noble friend has said that this is important in order to carry through the Conservative Party manifesto. In that manifesto we committed ourselves to 0.7% for overseas aid. We have cut that, contrary to both morality and our manifesto. When can we expect that to return and us to have the shame removed?

My Lords, I start by saying something I have said many times: no one welcomes the cut from 0.7% to 0.5%. Notwithstanding that cut, we will have spent more than £10 billion on ODA in 2021. We will return to 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows. Based on 2020 OECD data, the UK will be the third largest ODA donor in the G7 as a percentage of GNI. We will spend a greater percentage of our GNI on ODA than the US, Japan, Canada or Italy, and forecasts fortunately suggest that government will be able to return to 0.7% on aid in the final year of this spending review.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister fully understands the impact of sexual and reproductive health in many parts of the world. There are large areas of the world where, if a woman is infertile, she does not have a roof over her head or a meal to eat; she has to abandon the family and is left completely without support. That is common and it is not just a matter of children and girls, but the education of a whole population and better infrastructure.

My Lords, we fully understand the importance of this area. That is why the Foreign Secretary has made the commitment that she has, and why it appeared in the manifesto. SRHR means that women and girls can have control over their bodies and if, whether and when to have children, giving them the choice to complete their education and take up better economic opportunities. In turn, the children will likely be healthier and better educated. It is central to the effective delivery of a country’s universal health coverage. Good quality maternal and newborn health services and survival outcomes are often used as a proxy for the strength of an entire health system, so we fully understand the importance of this area.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many countries have very inadequately staffed maternity services and pregnant women who have HIV can get stigmatised? Can the global fund help and make the situation better? Can the Minister ask it to do this?

The noble Baroness makes an important point. Every year nearly 300,000 women die from pregnancy-related causes, 2.5 million newborns die in their first month and 2 million babies are stillborn. Most of these deaths are avoidable with access to better health services to help mothers and newborns through pregnancy and delivery. The UK supports maternal and newborn health through global and country programmes, often integrated with wider work to strengthen health systems.

My Lords, last week I met young people who had been working on programmes on reproductive and sexual health with the International Citizen Service and VSO. That programme was pulled by the Government, meaning that hundreds of young people, here and in the developing country working with them, have now lost that opportunity to work on those issues and make a real difference in local communities. Will the Government commit to refunding that programme and making sure that VSO is able to continue the very valuable work it has been doing in this area?

My Lords, funding levels for individual programmes across the FCDO will be confirmed after the departmental planning process taking place over the coming months has concluded. I am afraid that is the only answer I can give, but I will take the noble Baroness’s comments back to the FCDO, where I am absolutely certain they will be met with a nod of agreement.

My Lords, when I joined the Foreign Office in 1982, I learned that there were only two seasons in government: spring and autumn. The curious thing is that each can last for longer than six months. Once again, the Minister has said that the international development strategy will appear in the spring. Can he at least give us a month?

I will go out on a limb and say that the IDS will be published within what is normally regarded as spring. I am afraid that I cannot give the noble Lord a date.

My Lords, improving sexual and reproductive health and rights is among the most cost effective of all development investments and would give personal, social and economic benefits, as well as helping to stabilise population growth and reduce poverty. I ask the Minister the same question as the previous noble Lord: when will the international development strategy be published and the Minister’s promises fulfilled?

I refer the noble Baroness to my previous answer. I very strongly agree with her comments about the importance of family planning for a whole range of issues, including stabilising the populations of relevant countries.

My Lords, how will the Government harness the expertise of international medical professionals within the SRHR programmes?

Most of our programmes across the FCDO are delivered through trusted partners on the ground. Where we do not have the expertise, we look for it. Health is one of the most obvious areas where that is important.