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The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): The social exclusion unit report published in June 1999 set out our plan to halve the number of teenage pregnancies and help more teenage parents into education, training and employment. Implementation is progressing well. The latest figures show a 7 per cent. fall in pregnancies among girls under 16.
Helen Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and add my welcome to her to her new post. Can I assume from her answer that she agrees that one of the keys to breaking the cycle of poverty and disadvantage associated with teenage pregnancies is education, and that the current situation, where many young mothers get only a few hours of home tuition a week, is not satisfactory? Will she ensure that there is some joined-up government on this issue so that we have proper education and child care policies in place to keep teenage mothers in education and to allow them to move into work, which will benefit them and their children?
Mrs. Roche: My hon. Friend is right to say that this is a key issue. The best possible way of breaking the cycle of deprivation and helping those young women is to get them either into work or into education. We are making good progress. I do not pretend that it is an easy matter or that there is some magic solution, but there are a number of things that we can do. For example, we are testing how best to provide child care for teenage parents to help them return to education or work. We are also targeting the 48 local education authorities with the highest teenage pregnancy rates in order to enable young mothers to get back into education. Currently, 31 per cent. of teenage mothers are in education, employment or training, compared with only 16 per cent. in 1997.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): The Government accept that the teenage pregnancy strategy will have to operate alongside the strategies on HIV and sexual health. However, the HIV strategy was announced in 1998 for publication the following year, and the sexual
Vernon Coaker (Gedling): Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue of teenage pregnancy too often focuses on teenage girls, and that we ought to focus also on teenage boys and the part that they play? If we want to tackle teenage pregnancy, we have to encourage greater responsibility among not only teenage girls but boys who too often just walk away from their responsibility.
Mrs. Roche: I agree with my hon. Friend that that is a serious matter. One issue is the role models that we present to young women and young men to show them the need to care for themselves, their partners and their families. We need to present a model that young boys can look up to and respect, and that is part of the strategy that we are adopting.
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Surely the report underlines the failure of sex education, which has perhaps focused too much on the mechanics instead of engaging young people of both sexes in a dialogue, giving them valid reasons for postponing sexual activity and concentrating on the importance of stability in relationships. Will the Minister consider the reasons why Holland has been more successful in its sex education policy, admittedly against a background of greater family stability? Does she agree that parents have responsibilities and need to be involved in that?
Mrs. Roche: Of course, and I will certainly look at the information to which the hon. Lady refers. Parents have an absolute responsibility in that regard and should be fully involved. However, the stakes are high indeed, and factors of poverty and inequality are also involved. The risk of becoming a teenage mother is almost 10 times higher for girls from the poorest backgrounds than for girls from the richest backgrounds. That should give us all pause for thought and I am sure it will be common ground across the House that it is time to act now.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Ministers are responsible for the information output of their Departments. The Government are constantly looking at ways of improving the overall information strategy for the public.
Mr. Leslie: I thank my hon. Friend for her kind comments. It is nice that so many people have turned up for my first Question Time. I agree with my hon. Friend about the principle of freedom of information, and that is why the Government have introduced for the first time a statutory right of access to information held by all public authorities. However, there is a wider principle involving the need to promote proactively the rights and benefits that Government policies have introduced, including the pensioners minimum income guarantee, the working families tax credit and the national minimum wage.
Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): I congratulate the Minister and endorse the question asked by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), but I ask the Government to be much more modest in their claims. I congratulate the Government on failing to produce their annual report this year. In areas such as minethe Minister of State will know this because she cut her political teeth there in 1984 fighting in a by-election with meone in 10 people now wait more than a year for in-patient care, the schools are warned that they will have to move to a four-day week and we have the lowest police funding in the country. The spin and rhetoric lead to great disappointment. Is the Minister aware that in areas such as Surrey we see public squalor amid private affluence?
Mr. Leslie: I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments. She might not have noticed that we have just had a general election, which probably rendered publication of an annual report this year something of a duplication. She mentioned several other matters, of which some at least were a little subjective. It is important to have good, independent and audited information, and that is what the Government Information and Communication Service is all about.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The Government are making good progress in getting services online, and with 42 per cent. already available electronically we are on track to meet our target of having all potential services online by 2005.
The joint academic computer network, known as the JANET project, connects higher and further education institutions across the UK, and is a good example of how modern broadband technology can improve co-operative research.
Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend makes a number of important points. The university and college broadband network could be employed by other services, and we are considering that. There are clear practical and logistical problems with broadband that must be resolved, but perhaps it would be more useful if I were to write to my hon. Friend on this matter
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I welcome a fellow Yorkshireman to the Government Front Bench, but does he agree that, when he speaks about the percentage of Government services that are available online, he should recognise that many of those services are online only to the extent that they involve a telephone, rather than the internet? The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) spoke about fast broadband access, and I urge the Minister to take on board what he said. Such access is vital if Government services are to be properly available via the internet, 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman makes some important points about broadband, but I believe that the UK is doing reasonably well in that respect. As for getting Government services online, what is important is to ensure that services are available to the public in the easiest way possible, regardless of the technology involved. However, we must keep bearing down on all Government Departments to ensure that they modernise their services. In that way, we will fulfil the promise that all services will be online by 2005.
Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): I add my congratulations to my Front-Bench colleagues on their appointments, and draw their attention to early-day motion 85, which relates to the Post Office. It is very good that the Government are addressing the digital divide, but the local sub-post office will still be the main source of informationGovernment leaflets and so onfor the vast majority of people. Will my hon. Friend ensure that more attention is given to that fact, and that we are not caught up by too much talk of Government online?
Mr. Leslie: I thank my hon. Friend. The Post Office network is, of course, extremely important, which is why my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced, in the previous Parliament, measures to protect and enhance it. We are not putting services online for the sake of it; we are trying to make sure that we are responsive to consumers and to the public at large.