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Miss Kirkbride: Shameful.

Mr. Hesford: That was not a class-based point but, like one of Pavlov's dogs, the hon. Lady immediately shouts out. Dr. Gallatley was making the point of what she described as herd immunity--secured by a massive uptake in the immunisation programme; we have heard that MMR uptake used to be as high at 92.5 per cent. The figure is now below 90 per cent. Within herd immunity, certain people can hide behind sensible immunisation by a sufficient number of others, so that they can make so-called life style choices. That is worrying, because those are just the people--opinion formers--who should be sensible enough to stick with the programme and ensure that as many families as possible adhere to it.

I am not sure of the point of the motion or why we are debating it at this time. I am absolutely sure that, through my right hon. and hon. Friends, the Government are on top of the public health agenda. Far from being concerned about the Government failures that the motion suggests, the opposite is true. I commend my hon. Friend's work and look forward to working with her and others in future on this particular programme.

8.43 pm

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): I am grateful for catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I want to base my remarks on my views about the MMR vaccine. To that extent, I commend my hon. Friends on the Front Bench for bringing forward a motion that allows me to talk about my concerns relating to MMR and the public health debate on that issue.

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Before I begin, I am tempted to respond to the remarks by the Secretary of State, who made a typically gung-ho speech of the kind that he often gives to the House but which always contains some inaccuracies. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that all parties would like a reduction in the number of people who live in poverty and its elimination, which is a desirable outcome in terms of public health. However, the Government must accept that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening under Labour, just as it widened under the Conservative Government--for which they castigated us. I am not sure whether they are as successful in their aims as the rhetoric from the Treasury Bench would have us believe.

The Secretary of State pointed out that, back in the 1950s and 1960s, there were extremely poor outcomes for people in the lower social classes--much worse than today. One of the reasons for that is that many hundreds of thousands of people worked down the mines and that killed them; yet during the period of the changeover from coal to gas, it was the Labour party that was most vociferous in saying that the change should not take place. However, the change clearly had public health outcomes--sadly, because of the reasons that I outlined.

My concerns this evening are about the MMR vaccine. As you probably know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am promoting a private Member's Bill that I hope will receive its Second Reading on 9 February. It is about MMR--especially my desire that the Government should offer choice to parents so that their children can receive separate measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations. It is right and proper for the Government to offer choice; the Government were wrong to close the door on that choice when they came to office by failing to continue to licence the single vaccinations, which had been available, for those parents who--no matter what--will, for perfectly legitimate reasons, want a single vaccination programme. Parents should be allowed that choice.

The Government are reaping the consequences of their decision. One of the main reasons for the fall in the number of people being given the MMR vaccination and thus the reduction in inoculation throughout the general population is the fact that they are given only the MMR vaccination or nothing--they no longer have the option of a separate vaccination programme. That is a great mistake and one for which the Government will rue the day unless they decide--sooner rather than later--to accede to the demand for parental choice.

Dr. Harris: I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady's thoughtful remarks. If she saw evidence that the introduction by the NHS of more choice in that matter might lead to more deaths from measles or to more cases of mumps and congenital rubella disease, would she continue to say that the provision by the NHS of the choice of what appears to be a less effective treatment was a price worth paying?

Miss Kirkbride: I respect the hon. Gentleman in many ways--certainly as he is a medical professional--but I do not accept that there would be a price worth paying in the way that he puts it, nor do I accept that it is likely that he could show me evidence that would prove his point.

I think that the evidence that we have heard so far in the MMR debate is flawed--a belief shared by many parents and which causes them to fear the

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MMR vaccination. The hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hesford) asks why we are holding the debate. It is obvious to most hon. Members--even to the hon. Gentleman's colleagues on the Government Back Benches--that we are holding the debate because immunisation rates are falling to the point where we are in serious danger of an epidemic of measles. That could have extremely serious consequences.

The way to boost immunisation rates so that children escape the possibility of catching measles is to offer parents the choice of separate vaccinations if they want them. That would lead to an increase in the number of immunisations. The MMR vaccination should also be available for those parents who are happy with it.

The issue is fundamentally one of parental choice. It is about the nanny state saying, "You will have this vaccination or you will have nothing at all". Parents are not prepared to be bullied or patronised in that way. They must be given choice. They take difficult decisions on behalf of their children and do so with the best interests of their children at heart. It is not good enough for Ministers to say that they do not like that and that they have their own reasons for thinking that such choice is unacceptable or that it may lead to dangers. I do not accept their premise that it is more dangerous to offer single vaccinations. On the balance of probability, the greatest danger at present is that children are not being vaccinated at all. To boost rates by giving some vaccinations, because parents can choose the single vaccine programme, clearly has major public health benefits.

I should like to put on record--the Minister would upbraid me if I did not do so--the fact that I am a big supporter of the public inoculation programme; it has been hugely successful and has transformed childhood mortality during the past 50 years--and increasingly so, as medical science has progressed. However, we should not blindly accept that every inoculation programme is fine and must not be questioned. The volume of circumstantial evidence--I fully accept that it is circumstantial, but it is worrying nevertheless--that exists about MMR is a cause for concern. That is one reason why I am pressing ahead with my Bill.

I understand why the Government have pursued a public information programme, costing £3 million, but they would have been better off putting that money into proper research that would truly allay parents' fears about the MMR vaccine. They should not assume that if they keep telling parents, they will eventually be believed. I am afraid that the public do not respect politicians--or, indeed, medics--to the extent that they are prepared to accept on trust a view expressed by either of those professions.

The Secretary of State mentioned the BSE saga. I am afraid that we have to bear that in mind because when the BSE difficulties first arose, politicians and the chief medical officer said that there was no cause for concern and no reason to believe that BSE causes CJD. The truth is that we still do not know whether BSE causes CJD; we cannot prove it. We can say the same about the link between BSE and CJD as about the possible link between MMR and autism. There is no proof that they are linked, but some people believe that they are. Many people believe that BSE and CJD are linked, but some people believe that there is a link with MMR that causes autism in some rare cases.

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Since I decided to proceed with the private Member's Bill, I have received a huge postbag from anguished parents who are very upset that they do not have a choice. Parents, health workers and teachers have told me the story of their children. They have said that the personality of their children changed following the MMR inoculation. I do not know whether those changes are linked to the MMR vaccination, but I am happy to accept that the visible symptoms of autism occur at roughly the same time as the MMR vaccination. The problem is that a growing body of parents are concerned because they believe that there is a link.

Research has been undertaken by maverick, but nevertheless respectable, professionals into the possible link between the MMR and autism, so we should ask questions. It is wrong that the Department of Health does not take the issue more seriously if it wants to strengthen public confidence in the MMR vaccination.

Dr. Harris: The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) clearly supported single vaccines on a pragmatic basis, which we can discuss, but he explicitly rejected the possibility of a link between MMR and autism on the evidence that he had seen. Is the hon. Lady saying that part of the motivation for her promoting single vaccines is that she fears that there may be a link and that she is not satisfied with the evidence that there is no link between MMR and autism or Crohn's disease?

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