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Wednesday 31 October 2012
[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): As a result of the number of Members who wish to speak in this debate, with the authority of the Chairman of Ways and Means I am imposing a five-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches after the first speaker has finished. The rules are exactly as in the House. Each of the first two interventions accepted will stop the clock and give the Member who gives way an extra minute. Unlike in the Chamber, the mechanisms here do not yet enable a speaking Member to see a countdown clock on the displays around the room, so to assist Members I will cause a bell to be rung when a Member has one minute left. If an intervention is made during the last minute that entitles a Member to added time, the bell will be rung again when there is one minute left.
Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): This is the first time I have spoken under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. As I am a Chair now, I realise the job is not always as easy as it sometimes looks. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I have quite a long speech, which will come as no surprise to many here, and I will try, with so many people putting in to speak, to speed up my speech and shorten it as I go along.
The last time I introduced a debate on the 20-week limit was during the parliamentary stages of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, but my amendment was defeated. At that time, it had been 18 years since the upper limit had been debated and voted on.
Abortion law is made in Parliament, and there should be no taboo on discussing it in Parliament. Abortion law should be debated and reformed here, yet each and every time I have raised an abortion issue in the House, one MP after another has risen to comment that this is not really the place to discuss abortion and that the Bill I seek to amend should not be hijacked by discussing abortion. There are many MPs, and I think I may include the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who would quite like the Abortion Act 1967 to be put into a dark cupboard and left there, never again to be brought out and discussed. If we are not to discuss abortion in this House, I am not sure who is supposed to make up the laws as they go along.
As it stands, the 1967 Act is a joke. Everyone knows that in this country abortion is obtained on demand by whoever wants it, whenever they want it. I am pro-choice, and I believe that, up until 12 weeks, that should be the case. I am delighted that more than 90% of abortions in this country take place before 12 weeks. But Parliament’s reluctance and nervousness about reforming abortion law, or even discussing it, creates an atmosphere of disrespect for Parliament among abortion providers.
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Due to the fact that the 1967 Act is so little discussed and its format is so archaic, over the past year we have seen a number of abortion providers flout the law. One of the reasons for that is that Parliament itself shows no respect for the law. In the past year, abortion clinics have been exposed using the law creatively to offer abortion illegally and criminally based on the gender of the pregnancy. In fact, the Care Quality Commission and the General Medical Council are now investigating, I believe, 14 cases of malpractice, and arrests have been made at other clinics. The Calthorpe clinic in Birmingham has been closed down and handed over to another provider.
Those cases point to an erosion of respect for the law by abortion providers. The culture of fear in Parliament, which is held by many MPs, on discussing abortion law has contributed, or may have contributed, to the situation. That has to stop.
A Marie Stopes clinic has recently opened in Northern Ireland, a province where the law is very strict on abortion and where there is no support for the extension of the 1967 Act. Does the hon. Lady share my concern that the opening of the clinic may be an attempt to stretch the law, or even to get behind it?
Nadine Dorries: I am afraid that I have to disappoint the right hon. Gentleman—I discussed this with one of his colleagues yesterday—because I believe the law on abortion should be equal in all parts of the Union. Abortion law needs to be reformed in the UK, and there needs to be parity across the board. If any abortion provider is to come to Northern Ireland, Marie Stopes is probably the best bet. Marie Stopes is one of the most professional and non-advocacy-driven abortion providers. It has no political ideology and is concerned only for the health of the woman, and it operates in a professional manner. So I think that, if Northern Ireland is to have an abortion provider, Marie Stopes are the people to have. The law here needs to be reformed, and there needs to be parity on both sides of the water.
Following today’s debate, I have already applied to the Backbench Business Committee for a longer, dividable debate to be held next May. I am using today’s debate to give notice of that future debate. I want to give pro-choice and pro-life supporters ample time to prepare, to gather their research and to set their stall ready for a debate next May.
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Is not one of the problems that—my hon. Friend alluded to this when she talked about pro-life and pro-choice Members of Parliament—this whole debate has become so unbelievably polarised? Many Members of Parliament see both sides of the argument and feel that our voice is often squeezed from the debate. It is particularly important that the voices of the vast number of legislators who, as she rightly says, should have a say on this matter are allowed to be heard, rather than the entire debate being polarised in the way that she describes.
I am attacked by both pro-life and pro-choice, because I support abortion up to a certain point but I want independent counselling to be provided to women who seek abortion and I would like the upper limit to be reduced. So I fall foul of both camps. It is important that MPs such as my hon. Friend come forward—he has views that encompass both sides of the argument—as they can be more rational in their presentation.
I have applied to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on a votable motion next May. Of course, a Back-Bench vote does not amend legislation. If the result of the vote endorses a reduction to 20 weeks, however, it will inform the Government that perhaps it is time to bring the 1967 Act back to the House on Government time.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I too congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that, since the 1967 Act, medical science has advanced so much that there is now a real need to reduce to 20 weeks the limit for the termination of pregnancies? I would prefer to see the limit much lower.
After the forthcoming debate allocated by the Backbench Business Committee, if there is a positive vote, if the debate is strongly attended and if Parliament expresses a strong feeling, that will send a strong message to the Government to bring the 1967 Act back to the House.
In 1990, the 1967 Act was amended to reduce the upper limit from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. I hope there will be a fuller debate in May, but in the meantime, following today’s debate, I will write to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists guideline committee, enclosing a copy of the Hansard of our speeches today, and ask it to look again. 1990 was a long time ago. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, things have progressed and science has moved on.
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Kate Green: The hon. Lady implies—perhaps I misinterpret her—that the RCOG has not considered the guidelines since 1990. In fact, its most recent report was published in 2010, and it still says that foetal viability is very low up to 24 weeks. In fact, at 20 weeks it is 0%.
I want to make it clear that my proposal to reduce the upper limit does not include babies with foetal abnormalities or, sadly, disabilities. That is a discussion to be held, as I have said, between parents and doctors. Abortion is available up until birth for foetal abnormalities. My proposal applies to abortions for social reasons.
A study by the Centre for Sexual Health Research at the university of Southampton and the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the university of Kent found that 41% of women who have second-trimester abortions do so because they were not sure about having an abortion and took a while to make up their mind to ask for one. I believe that one positive effect of reducing the limit to 20 weeks might be to focus the mind slightly sooner than 23 weeks. Because abortion is available until 24 weeks, there is a laxity, as people have a prolonged period to make up their mind. The research says that women took a long time to make up their mind. Maybe reducing the upper limit will help.
It is clear to me that we cannot allow the present situation in our hospitals to continue. In one room in a hospital, there might be a premature poorly baby born at 22 or 23 weeks at whom the NHS will throw everything it has to help it survive. In another room in the same hospital, a healthy baby will be aborted at 24 weeks. Dr Max Pemberton recently wrote in The Daily Telegraph that
“many doctors are uncomfortable with the current cut-off point. It is not something we openly discuss, because we know it is a highly emotive area. But privately, many doctors will express discomfort that the current legislation is inherently illogical and inconsistent. Any doctor who has found themselves in the neonatal intensive care unit of a hospital will be acutely aware of it. In the same hospital where doctors are trying to save a premature baby born at, say, 23 weeks, a woman down the corridor is legally allowed to undergo a late-stage abortion on a foetus of the same gestation. So on the one hand we throw considerable money and resources to try to save a baby’s life, while on the other we sanction its destruction.”
I have consistently made that argument for the past seven years. The medical profession cannot make two arguments. Doctors cannot say that a poorly baby’s life is worth trying to save from 20 or 21 weeks onwards while stating at the same time that there is no chance of life up to 24 weeks, so it is okay to abort up until that point. There is an inconsistency in retaining 24 weeks. Should there be a case to say that doctors should not try to save the life of a poorly baby born before 24 weeks’ gestation? Can hon. Members imagine the uproar if we said, “Okay, the RCOG has said that viability is 24 weeks, so we really shouldn’t be saving premature babies before 24 weeks”? We should say, “No, the point of viability is 24 weeks, so we should stop. Wipe out the neonatal units, wipe out the premature units. Viability is not consistent before 24 weeks.”
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they are viable,” and then say, “We abort at 24 weeks because they are not.” The two arguments cannot stand. That is an anomaly, and it must end.
Some people ask whether medical science in the area has moved on. Is there a difference between the science in 2008, when we had the vote, and the science today? The answer is that viability can never be proven. Until healthy women agree to allow healthy babies to be aborted at 20 weeks and we then try to save them, we can never actually know what viability is.
Dr Wollaston: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. On that point, we are not trying to save babies at 20 weeks. No babies survive at 20 weeks’ gestation. If she refers back to the British Medical Journal paper considering two periods of survival, the increase in survival of pre-term babies after the 2000 period was due entirely to babies born at 24 and 25 weeks. The absolute limit of survival is about 22 weeks; that is when we try to save them. Will she please stop suggesting that the NHS is capable of saving babies at 20 weeks? It is simply not true.
Nadine Dorries: Maybe the NHS should stop trying to save babies from 20 weeks. My neighbour 10 years ago was a 22-week survivor. Although she had slight problems, they did not prevent her from going to school and living a full and wonderful life. Babies do survive from 22 weeks, which is my argument for viability. If the RCOG wants to say that viability is at 24 weeks, it must look at the living babies born at 22 weeks and say, “That’s wrong.”
The only measure of viability that we have is the premature poorly baby—the baby who arrives early for a reason. Doctors must fight to deal with two complicated situations: whatever made the baby arrive prematurely, and the fact that it has arrived prematurely, which involves lung function and other things. I am afraid that a healthy aborted baby and a premature poorly baby cannot be compared, particularly not at 23 weeks.
I have been asked in numerous interviews, and only this week by Victoria Derbyshire during the filming of a “Panorama” programme, “How do you know that aborted babies are healthy babies?” For the record, between 96 and 97 out of every 100 babies are born healthy. The viability argument needs to be discussed in the context of what we do in our neonatal and premature baby units, and what we do in terms of abortion. The two must be compared.
I want to discuss sentience, because it is an argument for life. We know that a baby can feel pain in the womb before 20 weeks. If a woman’s stomach is poked post-20 weeks or earlier, it can wake up the baby. Thanks to Professor Stuart Campbell’s amazing and pioneering work with 3D imaging, we can see how a baby in the
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womb responds to stimuli, and thanks to the work of Professor Sunny Anand, we know exactly how a foetus responds, due to how it reacts to anaesthetic during in-utero operations.
While a research fellow at Oxford, Dr Anand became aware that many premature and early gestation babies died during in-utero operations due to shock induced by pain during the procedure. General thinking at the time, in the 1980s, was that no baby could experience pain before birth—that until birth, a baby was not sentient. In his pioneering work, Dr Anand developed anaesthesia to be delivered to foetuses. Thanks to that work, introduced at the John Radcliffe hospital, anaesthetising babies during in-utero operations is now standard procedure, and babies now live.
Dr Anand went on to continue his work and research in America. When I sat on the Science and Technology Committee, we considered abortion, and one of the members of that Committee—Evan Harris, the former Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, who lost his seat at the last election—described Professor Anand as a little doctor from Little Rock. Dr Anand did much of his further research in America, first at the university of Arkansas and now as the St Jude chair for critical care medicine and professor of paediatrics, anaesthesiology and neurobiology at the university of Tennessee health centre in Memphis.
My only point in relation to Evan Harris’s comments about Professor Anand is that Dr Anand is a gentle, polite academic who is well renowned and respected and has a successful career. To describe such a man as a little man from Little Rock, and to have binned and not considered the evidence on abortion that he presented to the Science and Technology Committee, was a travesty. I complained about it to the Clerks at the time, and I will continue to complain about it, as it tainted the report. If a foetus can feel pain stimuli, it is a sentient being. Anyone who feels, is. They exist. If one feels, one is a human being.
I move to the feminist argument. As the mother of three young adult daughters, I am a strong believer in a woman’s right to choose. Never, ever would I want to see a return to the bad old days of backstreet abortionists, or restricted access to early abortion. Do I champion this issue from the perspective of religion? No, I do not. I do not come to this from a religious perspective. I champion this from the perspective of compassion, humanity and civility. I believe in the right to choose, but, provocatively, I would like to throw this in: what about the female baby, post-20 weeks? I often hear the argument, “It is a woman’s right to choose.” What about healthy female babies who are aborted at 24 weeks?
I champion this issue because I believe passionately in the reduction of the upper limit. When I visit pregnancy crisis centres, I hear women who are undergoing counselling. Some actually say, “I would have preferred an option other than ending my baby’s life.” Well, there are other options. That is one of the reasons why I tabled the counselling amendment—there are always other options.
I would like to talk about the truth about abortion. It is not just articulate, clever women who abort; vulnerable women are coerced. They are the women who are seen by pregnancy crisis centres. Not every woman who has a late-term abortion for social reasons actually wants one. I was staggered to hear what one MP who came up to me the other day said. Her actual words were, “Every
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woman who wants an abortion knows exactly what she is doing.” Well, in her rather slick, well-educated Oxbridge world and her leafy shires I am sure they do, but what about the young Asian girl who was recently marched into a clinic in floods of tears by two family members? No one knew her age, but she was marched in by two family members for an abortion. Is that a one-off story? No. Speaking to abortion providers, that happens on a regular basis.
What about the young women who have waited to have their abortion because they did not want to have it, and who then found themselves being coerced by partners or others? One woman at a pregnancy crisis centre that I went to aborted at 24 weeks because she had been told by her partner and other family members that it would be beaten out of her if she did not. Not every women makes the decision because she went to university and marched up and down streets in Oxford and chanted about women’s rights. Lots of women are actually incredibly vulnerable. It seems to me as though many of the women who make the feminist “women’s right to choose” argument have no regard whatever for those women. In pushing one particular mantra and ideology, no consideration is taken of those women at all.
It is assumed, and I am told, that it is a woman’s right to choose, and that by wanting to limit from 24 weeks and by wanting to introduce counselling, what I am trying to do is limit a woman’s right to choose. Well, let me inform everybody that a woman’s right to choose is limited because the upper limit is at 24 weeks. To say that a woman’s right to choose is being limited is nonsense—it is already limited. It is limited because at 24 weeks it is felt that a baby is viable. I argue this: a baby’s life is viable before 24 weeks, so it is time to reduce the limit, because this is 2012, not 1990. I hope we live in a society that is civilised and compassionate, and which cares for vulnerable women who do not want to have abortions and are forced to do so. I hope that we would give as much consideration to those women as we do to the Oxbridge-educated, articulate women who change their job and want to have an abortion.
Some of the women who end up at pregnancy crisis centres do so because they are scarred and need counselling, which is not available to them, because they aborted at a very late stage. Those women are more likely to suffer mental health consequences than those who abort at an early stage. If we do not go for the viability argument; if we do not look at sentience and all the other arguments I have made; if we just decide to disregard the fact that in one hospital, there might be two babies, one being aborted at 23 weeks and another having her life saved at 20 and if we choose to ignore all that, let us just decide that we should be a little more considerate to the women who find themselves forced into a situation in which they have a late-term abortion.
I hope that the Backbench Business Committee grants the next debate on this issue next May. I hope that there will be a vote. I hope that, by then, enough information will have been put before hon. Members for them to decide that what they want to do is what the public want to do. I finish on this note: I am overwhelmed by the amount of support that I have received from members of the public in wanting to reduce the limit. The more this is debated, as it should be, the more public opinion
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will become informed, and the more MPs will realise that what they need to do in this place is carry out the will of their constituents, not follow their own political ideology.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) on securing the debate. I am pleased to speak in this debate, and my position will become very clear. I believe in human rights. I believe in the most basic of human rights, the right to life, so I am against abortion. I believe that the strong have a duty to protect the weak and the vulnerable. It is that protection that I seek to uphold, and that is why I am here to speak on this matter.
I begin by stating clearly that I am against abortion, except in the extreme case in which it is done to save the life of the mother. Statistics show that Northern Ireland, which has a restrictive abortion law, has the lowest maternal death rate in the whole of the United Kingdom. That is backed up by the fact that the Republic of Ireland has almost the lowest maternal death rate in Europe, and has no legislation that allows abortion. The UK mainland, with its more liberal abortion law, has a higher rate of maternal deaths. That speaks volumes, and it is clear that restricted abortion to save the mother’s life, which we have in Northern Ireland, works well to save both mother and child.
If there was the option of bringing in Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, I would be pleading with everyone in this House to do just that. I have been contacted by the Christian Medical Fellowship, which states things clearly. Today’s debate is calling for a small reduction in the upper time limit for legal abortions. That will affect approximately 2,000 abortions that are carried out for social reasons—I use the phrase “social reasons”, because that is why they are happening—out of a total of nearly 200,000 abortions per year. It will not prevent the abortion of babies with foetal abnormality up to term.
This issue is emotive. A large number of people have contacted me and asked me to watch the scans of a 20-week-old baby to remind me of the humanity behind our decisions. When I look at a baby at 20 weeks’ gestation sucking its thumb, having the hiccups, crying and blinking, it is beyond me how anyone in good conscience, in this House or outside, could say that it is fine to rip away life at this stage. It is not fine. It is never going to be fine. A 2008 study by University college London found that survival rates were more than 70% for babies born between 22 and 25 weeks when high-quality care was available.
Kate Green: It is really important that we are accurate about these figures. At 24 and 25 weeks, survival rates improve a lot, but at 20 to 24 weeks, survival rates are very low: zero at 20 weeks; 1% at 22 weeks; and 11% at 23 weeks. It is wrong to imply that at under 24 weeks, we have survival rates of 75%.
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blows away the argument that a baby can be aborted until it is viable at 24 weeks. Recently, in America, a baby of 21 weeks responded to stimulus, crying and smiling, so there is evidence that shows clearly that it can happen. All the things that we associate with life are in evidence before the time of so-called viability.
I will give the example of a young girl from my constituency. A friend of mine had a grandchild who, they were warned, would not survive as she was so premature. The family prayed hard, and asked for all possible treatment to sustain the baby’s life. Today, Zoe-Lee is 13 years of age and is the light of her parents’ life. It is scary to think that if an abortion had been allowed at that time, that young girl would not be here today.
The question that has been posed to me by members of the medical fraternity is: how much longer can we justify doctors desperately—the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire referred to this as well—trying to save premature babies born at 23 weeks, while down the corridor in the same hospital, another doctor is aborting a 23-week baby, which is perfectly healthy, for social reasons?
A 24-week upper limit in the UK is outdated and out of line with other EU countries. In 2008, our 24-week upper limit was double the 12-week limit for most EU countries. Some 16 out of 27 other European countries had a gestational limit of 12 weeks or less, so if we want to be in line with other countries that have high standards, then let us do that.
Ask any woman who has miscarried a baby in early term—at, say, at 12 weeks—and she will tell you that she saw its perfectly formed fingers and toes, its spine and head, and that wee face. For me, it is almost unimaginable to take it from the womb at this stage, never mind any later, and to ask any general practitioner to do this is grossly unfair. I am no man’s judge, and I feel for those women who have felt that they had no other option than to take this step.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does my hon. Friend agree—he seems to be coming to this point—that we need to try to develop a caring, compassionate approach to women who find themselves in the circumstances that he is outlining, but feel that there is no alternative to an abortion? We need to offer them another viable alternative.
Jim Shannon: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, because that is exactly the point I was coming to. For the reason I mentioned, I supported the calls by my colleague, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire, to have better counselling in place for women considering abortion. Will the Minister update hon. Members on when new counselling will come into play, and on what has been done thus far?
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Would he not agree that, given all the arguments he has given, perhaps 20 weeks is still too high, and that it should be 12 weeks or lower?
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with more difficulties than those who have not had abortions. Abortion should not be the choice for social reasons; it should be a last resort for medical reasons. Although I cannot today change the law in England and Wales, I speak for those babies who feel the pain of being ripped from their mother’s womb. This must stop today. This House should deal with this matter and make it clear that late-term abortions are unacceptable, apart from in limited and specialised cases. We must make it clear that we will not allow hon. Members in this House, and people outside it, to weave a web of inaccuracies that would make wrong seem right, make lies seem to be truth and seek to justify that which is unjustifiable.
John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Such debates in this place—I have attended a few—are deeply polarised, and often quite unpleasant, between those who assert the right to life and those who equally emphatically assert the right to choose, which is strange because both rights are then usually qualified by those who uphold them. I think all hon. Members would agree that there are circumstances where either right can be overridden and I know no one who does not believe this. The dividing issue between hon. Members in this Chamber is the limits of abortion, and such a debate is necessarily about how much or how little abortion is permissible. To be honest, those who argue for limits often favour much less abortion, or rare abortion, and constrained choice for the woman. That by itself is not an argument against discussing the limits rationally.
We are not helped much by the fact that two sorts of argument are given for abortion in law: one is about the preferences or the good of the woman, where her mental health, usually, and sometimes her physical health is the issue; the other is about the hypothetical preferences of the foetus, in cases of severe abnormality, where gross deformity or suffering is in prospect. There are, therefore, two different sorts of abortion, and it is not obvious to me that the same limits should apply to both types. A problem in discussing the current limits is that the cases that would immediately be affected by a small reduction would disproportionately fall into the latter category—deformity and so on. Such cases are rare and untypical, and that slightly skews our debate. It is a mistake, in this debate, to confound the two types of abortion.
Much, perhaps most, current debate has been centred on the viability of the foetus at certain stages—its ability to survive with or without medical assistance outside the womb. Of course, that varies depending upon the quality of that medical assistance, which we would all agree has improved enormously. On my way here, I read a story in Metro of a baby who survived being born below the abortion limit and was looking happily out of the pages of the paper. This kind of evidence is often cited as new scientific evidence about what we can achieve. We may achieve still more in future.
Some argue that we should not think simply of the survival of the foetus, but of its ability to thrive, lead a quality life, have full use of mental faculties and so on. It is legitimate to say that mortality and impairment is high among babies born prematurely.
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the method of aborting a baby is to administer a lethal injection into the baby’s heart via the mother’s abdomen, to ensure that the baby is delivered dead, not alive. That is why that procedure was invented, created and introduced. That in itself is an argument for viability below 24 weeks, because if there was no chance of viability below 24 weeks, there would be no need to introduce a lethal injection procedure.
John Pugh: I accept that point, but we must be aware that there is an argument that the abortion limit should be set at a point where a statistically significant number of foetuses can be shown not just to have survived, but to have thrived. That position is somewhat arbitrary. I see no obvious reason why obstetrics should not continue to improve and the issue continue to haunt us.
I find all this talk about survivability somewhat confusing, because at no stage is the human infant capable of independent survival. Some societies, and indeed some philosophers, have argued that a severely deformed infant born at full term, incapable naturally of living without abnormal intervention and presenting all those features that would have justified abortion should be allowed to perish or may be killed. I do not accept that view, but I recognise that it has been put.
What scientific evidence shows about survival prospects strikes me as relevant but not crucially so. Survivability is only relevant because it stands proxy for something else. No one argues that a baby that can survive and show all the signs of conscious, individual life was not conscious from the moment of its birth and capable of wilful behaviour, having feelings, sentience and so on. Equally, it is hard to argue that were they in the womb that would not also be exactly the case. To kill such a baby, or a baby of such an age, while it is in the womb is thus, logically, to kill a sentient, conscious, wilful and, indeed, innocent human being, and one needs a good reason to justify that type of behaviour. The paramount wishes of the mother simply do not seem to be a good enough reason.
Where consciousness can be presumed, or to put it more strongly, where complete unconsciousness cannot be assumed, the rights of the child in my view would ordinarily trump the rights of the mother. A precautionary principle should kick in, but it clearly does not do so within the existing framework. That is why it is important that we have this debate.
I accept that there is a different argument to be had about the destruction in the womb of human life that we would all agree not to be conscious, and that falls back upon religious views about respect for individual human life, including the potentially, but not actually, conscious. The mediaeval Church made that distinction. But the argument that we must take sentience seriously rests upon our ordinary moral intuitions about the value of individual existence. The debate simply will not go away until we align the law with our basic moral intuitions. I applaud those, including the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who simply alerted us to this fact and indicated that we really must have this debate.
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Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): I have listened with great interest to the debate and the points made by hon. Members from all parties. I recognise, as I am sure all hon. Members do, the difficulty and sensitivity of this debate. I am sure we would all prefer a world in which there are fewer abortions; in which men and women have access to sex education, support and advice to make the right decisions for themselves; in which, should partners choose to engage in sexual relations, there is safe and confidential access to contraceptives; in which there is no rape or incest; and in which, if a woman becomes pregnant, she is not so afraid of family and community that she is unable to seek early advice and support. But we do not live in such a world. In making judgments as politicians and as a society, we must use the best available evidence and the right balance of arguments and interests. At the heart of our debate, there must be evidence and facts.
Recent debates in the House have ruled out lowering the time limit, and for good reasons. First, there has been no new medical evidence to suggest any scientific or medical reason for a reduction in the abortion time limit since the subject was last debated in the House of Commons in 2008, during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Amendments to lower the time limit to 22, 20, 16 or 12 weeks were voted on, and all were rejected by MPs. The major professional medical bodies in the UK support the 24-week abortion time limit, including the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives and the British Association of Perinatal Medicine.
There has been no significant change in survival rates. Many of those who currently advocate a reduction in the time limit argue that there have been major clinical developments in the care of pre-term infants which have led to a reduction in the gestational age at which a foetus can survive and that, therefore, the 24-week limit should be reduced. That is not the view of the main medical bodies, and there are no calls from them to reduce abortion time limits. For example, the BMA debated the issue at its annual representatives meeting—the ARM—in 2005 and in 2001. On both occasions it rejected a call for any reduction in the 24-week time limit.
It is important to keep a focus on the facts. No statistics make the case for reducing the limit. The majority of abortions in the UK take place at an early stage of pregnancy: 91% are carried out before 12 weeks of gestation; and only 1% of abortions take place after 20 weeks—that number has continued to fall year on year. We have heard some survival rates of zero at 20 weeks, 1% at 22 weeks and about 10% at 23 weeks, but the viability in terms of quality of life remains a great concern.
There is no support for reducing the limit among health groups. Indeed, following the call by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, in early October, for the abortion limit to be reduced to 20 weeks, the BMA said:
“The BMA does not believe there is any scientific justification to reduce the abortion limit from 24 to 20 weeks. We will not be lobbying for any reduction.”
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When the Secretary of State for Health later offered his support for a reduction to 12 weeks, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists called the suggestion “insulting to women”, stating that his comments
“politicise the debate around the abortion time limit and do not put women at the centre of their care.”
Different arguments are made, on the right of life of the baby and on the question of the woman’s well-being and her right to choose. Furthermore, the right to choose is related to a woman’s well-being, given that she has to carry a baby to term and does so knowing that she will have the responsibility afterwards—
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): It is a privilege to speak in this debate. I am the vice-chair of the all-party pro-life group. My colleague, the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin), would have been present but was detained on constituency business.
I hope that my contribution will be received with the respect and compassion with which I give it, for pregnant women and the unborn child. There is growing support for a reduction in the upper limit for abortion for a number of reasons, including improved survival of very premature babies since the Abortion Act 1967, as well as advances in ultrasound imaging, foetal sentience and practice in much of Europe. In 2011 2,729 abortions took place after 20 weeks, with the majority taking place for what are called social reasons.
The fact is that medical advances have been made and survival rates have improved. Indeed, I understand that in America the world’s most premature baby has survived: Amillia Taylor, who was born at 21 weeks. Is not the fact that science has moved on a sufficient argument for looking again at the number of weeks? Such scientific capabilities were never envisaged in 1967, and stories of babies born alive after failed abortions are also not uncommon.
It is interesting to note that many people criticised the Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), for suggesting that a 12-week abortion time limit should be considered. Yet his views are not controversial. In the European Union, 12 weeks is the average time limit.
What about the effect on the medical profession? It is becoming increasingly difficult and discomfiting for doctors in one part of a hospital to fight to save premature babies, but in another part to abort them at the same stage, as highlighted by Max Pemberton recently in The Daily Telegraph. The discomfort felt by doctors and nurses can be further understood when the reality of abortion in private clinics is made clear. I want to pay tribute to the gracious and principled stand against abortion made by Lord Alton in both Houses over many years. Indeed, a quarter of a century ago he described what happened when a child is aborted at a late stage:
“Because this is a long-drawn-out business”—
“the method of late abortion used in private clinics is primarily dilatation and evacuation. By this method, the cervix is dilated and the baby’s body removed piece by piece. To facilitate its extraction from the womb, the skull is crushed, the spine snapped
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and the body removed piece by piece. An attendant nurse then has the job of reassembling the body to ensure that nothing has been left behind”.—[
, 22 January 1988; Vol. 125, c. 1232-33.]
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): The hon. Lady is describing the removal of a baby. Today in the debate we have heard Members referring to babies as foetuses, but they are human beings and the smokescreen needs to come down. Does she agree? The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), who introduced the debate, said that at 24 weeks a needle is put into the heart of the baby and it is killed. If that happened to any individual in the Chamber, it would be murder.
Fiona Bruce: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I want to ask the Minister to clarify whether the procedure as described 24 years ago by David Alton is the same today. If so, may we have an inquiry into the foetal pain suffered during such a process, which cannot be imagined? Can some research be carried out? The procedure for late-term abortion is traumatic not only for the child but for the woman, physically and psychologically, so could such research also consider the effect on the woman? Moreover, will the Minister consider the impact on women of repeat abortions? Can something not be done in the “caring, compassionate” way mentioned by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) to help women who are facing repeat abortions, so that we can help them to avoid that in future?
The 24-week limit is in fact not a limit at all for certain unborn children. As mentioned, abortion is legal in this country up to and even including birth on the ground of disability. I am delighted that here in Britain we are doing more than ever to help those with disabilities, but we have a paradox. A child diagnosed with a disability can be aborted up to and even during birth, but the minute that the child is born a whole panoply of rights and medical and social support comes into play for that child, and quite rightly so. The child is born with rights protected by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The law is therefore at odds. The Disability Rights Commission states that a law that permits abortions at any time up to birth for disability alone
“reinforces negative stereotypes of disability; and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations”
for such a reason is something that needs to be reviewed. I ask the Minister to look into that law, given equality and diversity legislation. My son has a club foot, which is a disability that under the present law of the land permits abortion up to birth, but it is an entirely correctable defect.
Will the Minister clarify what action has been taken following the revelations earlier this year of abortions being carried out on gender grounds? Finally, what action was taken following the police inquiry and the breach of abortion laws whereby HSA1 forms were pre-signed by one doctor at up to 14 NHS trusts? The life of both mother and child are equally valuable and deserve equal respect accordingly. I hope that I have expressed that today.
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I listened to hon. Members’ contributions, and I agree with some of the arguments from both sides. I agree that abortion should available on demand until 12 weeks, and that there are serious issues about termination on gender grounds that need looking at, but the crux of the matter is about reducing the termination limit from 24 to 20 weeks, and I keep asking why now. There is no new medical evidence. The majority of professional bodies support a 24-week limit, including the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the British Association of Perinatal Medicine, and the general public.
Kate Green: This is the first time that public opinion has been mentioned in the debate. Is my hon. Friend aware of the recent YouGov survey report about a week ago which showed that 47% of the public support a 24-week limit, 4% believe it should be even later than 24 weeks, and 33% want it reduced?
Is the answer to “Why have the debate now?” that there are more late abortions? No. The contrary is true, and 91% of abortions take place at less than 12 weeks, which is when most of us want them to occur. Only 1% take place after 20 weeks, and the figure is falling every year. There has been mention of whether a foetus feels pain, and I refer to a report from the Select Committee on Science and Technology in 2010. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists was commissioned by the Department of Health to update the report on foetal awareness. It concluded:
“The fetus cannot experience pain before 24 weeks gestation due to lack of development of essential parts of the brain required for pain perception.”
I turn to improving survival rates. They are improving at more than 24 weeks, and during the 20 years since the limit was changed, they have improved significantly. When I had my twins in 1991, the 28-week survival rate was quite low, and that has improved, but that is not the case below 24 weeks.
Have the people presenting for late abortion changed? No, they have not. In the main, they are still the most vulnerable people in our society—the very young, older women who may not have realised that they were pregnant until a very late stage, pregnancy deniers, and people suffering domestic abuse. The list goes on. I suspect that many of those people do not realise how many weeks pregnant they are when they present to the medical profession.
The issue is so sensitive that we should consider the impact of our debate on the general population. As medical evidence has not changed since 2008, I wonder why we are discussing the matter now. Our discussions today will have an impact on vulnerable people in our society, because the subject is upsetting, distressing and worrying for them. They may just read the headlines of the debate, which I suspect will be on the scaremongering side, because that is what has happened in the past, and that can make people feel even more vulnerable.
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John Pugh: Why are we discussing now matters that we could have discussed in 2008? The hon. Lady is relatively new to the House. She will be aware that whenever the issue has been raised formally in the House, the lid has been put on it pretty quickly, so there has not been a thorough and exhaustive debate that might help matters.
MPs must act with responsibility, and always consider the impact on our constituents and the wider population of issues that we bring to the House. We must not scaremonger, or involve issues of guilt, which has happened in some contributions today. I am wholly opposed to that.
I return to what I said at the beginning—why have this debate now? I cannot see any medical or logical reason for it now because no new evidence has come forward since it was last discussed in 2008. If there was new evidence, I would be happy to have the debate. My mind is not closed to changing the limit ever, and if medical evidence suggests strongly that survival rates may be lower than at 24 weeks, that would be the time to consider the issue, not now.
Members of Parliament must always be aware of the impact of our discussions. I conclude by saying, not just as a Member of Parliament, but as the mother of four adult children, and grandmother of two gorgeous little granddaughters, that for their future—this does not impact on me because I am far too old—we should keep medical evidence under review. We should debate such issues sensitively when they change, not on a whim or for emotional reasons. When medical evidence clearly changes, that is the point at which to discuss the matter. I am sad that this debate is taking place today.
Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) on securing the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) has left the Chamber, but for a moment I felt like a thorn between two roses, because the three of us have 90 years’ service in the House, and we have been active on this issue since we became MPs. One reaches a point of having heard all the arguments, and having to agree to disagree with colleagues. Some debates have been pleasant, and some have been very unpleasant.
There is something different about this debate. I cannot recall a Secretary of State for Health commenting on this issue as the present one has. I happen to agree with him, and I congratulate him on speaking out. I also congratulate my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on what they said, and the Prime Minister. I am advised that 14 members of the Cabinet now take a similar view to mine, which has never before happened during my time. Things have changed considerably since
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1990, so I welcome the opportunity that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire has given us to discuss these matters.
I want to speak about counselling for women who seek a termination. About £60 million is spent on funding that operation, and there is an element of self-interest. In south-east Essex, 695 consultations produced 624 abortions, and 71 women—10.2% of the total—opted to continue with their pregnancy.
I am worried about the pre-signing of consent forms for abortion. The Daily Telegraph carried out an undercover operation, and in January the Care Quality Commission identified evidence during inspection of a private clinic of HSA1 forms being pre-signed by one doctor. What action are the Government taking on those two matters?
Many years ago I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on sex selection. There was some merriment in the House at the time, but I stood my ground. It is disappointing that I have been proved right, because in February an undercover investigation by The Daily Telegraph revealed that in some places in the UK it was possible to obtain an abortion on gender grounds. I also understand the point being made by hon. Members that if we reduce the limit from 24 weeks to 20, we are talking about very small numbers. However, hon. Members could then say, “If the numbers are very small, what is the problem with reducing it to 20 weeks?”
I was once Edwina Currie’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. At that time, which was a long time ago, I was a little concerned about the influence of officials—in fact, I was shocked, as I had expected them to be rather even-handed on this matter. Of course, as it was so long ago, I am sure that they have all retired. However, I would like to know what action the Government have taken against doctors who were found to have broken the Abortion Act 1967 by pre-signing forms. What action has been taken in the 14 national health service trusts identified to ensure that the pre-signing of forms does not happen again?
Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Crausby. People often say that such debates are very emotional, but it is nice that our debate this morning has been calm. I hope I will be very calm too; my wife always says to me that I must be less emotional when I speak, so I shall give a boring little speech that tries to deal with some facts and surveys. I hope that there will not be a lot of controversy about what I say.
According to the most recent figures for this country, one in five pregnancies ends in abortion. Whatever one’s views about pro-life or right-to-choose issues, I am sure that most people would regret that. In 2011, there were almost 290,000 abortions; that is 572 abortions every day. As we all know, United Kingdom law allows abortion up to 24 weeks, or until full term if the baby is disabled with a “serious handicap” or the mother’s life is threatened. In 2011, only 0.02% of abortions carried out in England and Wales were because of a risk to the mother’s life. Meanwhile, abortions carried out on the grounds of foetal handicap constituted a mere 1.2% of the total number of abortions. Even so, abortions on those grounds are often undertaken even when the handicap in question is undoubtedly curable. Many will
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recall the noble work of the Church of England vicar, Joanna Jepson, who highlighted that abortions were being carried out on babies with cleft palates on the grounds of foetal handicap.
Since 1929, British law on abortion has, for better or worse, linked the legality of abortion with the viability of the child to survive outside the womb. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 reduced the upper time limit on abortions set by the 1967 Act from 28 weeks to 24. The arguments employed in the parliamentary debates of the time recognised that and highlighted the issue of viability. Since the passing of the 1990 Act, significant improvements have undoubtedly been made to neonatal care, increasing the ability of prematurely born children to survive. Figures from 2005 show that 52 babies born earlier than 24 weeks have survived. In the specialist neonatal unit at London’s University College hospital, five of the seven infants born at 22 weeks between 1996 and 2000 survived, as did nearly half those born at 23 weeks.
Our French and continental neighbours have been mentioned today, and in France, abortion on demand is legal up to only 12 weeks. As we have heard from the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), 91% of abortions take place before 12 weeks. I do not think that it is a massive attack on women’s right to choose if we therefore try and focus the debate on late abortions. We are talking about a relatively small number, but we are also discussing human life, and even one human life is important.
In France, abortions are only allowed after 12 weeks if two physicians certify that it is being done to prevent grave, permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman, or because there is a risk to the pregnant woman’s life, or if the child in question will suffer from a particularly severe illness recognised as incurable. That law was reinforced in 1994, when French law-makers required that multidisciplinary diagnostic centres decide which birth defects are severe enough to allow for abortion after the 12-week limit.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a study of late abortions in Britain? A number of those abortions seem to be as a result of difficulties that women have had getting abortions earlier. If we had abortion on demand up to 12 weeks, as France does but we do not, perhaps the result would be a greater number of earlier abortions in this country.
Mr Leigh: We can certainly debate that point. I should have thought that the law is that we have abortion on demand, but if the hon. Lady believes that some women feel they are under pressure not to have abortions before 12 weeks, we can discuss that matter. I thought, however, that we were focusing on late abortions today, which I should have thought we regret all around the Chamber.
A lot of European countries that are viewed as much more liberal than we are have time limits on abortions that are many weeks less than in Great Britain. The UK’s 24-week upper limit is double that of most European countries. Sixteen of 27 EU countries have a gestational limit of 12 weeks or lower; thus attempts to stir a reduction of the upper time limit as controversial have very little ground to stand on when we compare our laws with those of our European neighbours, as we
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often do in many other areas. A 2005 survey revealed that more than three quarters of women in the United Kingdom are in favour of reducing the time limit on abortions. A 2007 survey, commissioned by Marie Stopes International, found that 65% of GPs would welcome a reduction.
“Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable”.
For those of us who are abortion opponents, like my hon. Friends, our views are known, and they can be dismissed. I hope, however, that even the most fervent supporters of legal abortion recognise that abortion is not desirable, even if they find it excusable. Anything that we can do to prevent late abortions is surely desirable for our country.
Regardless of the obvious moral debate, there is a compelling medical case for wanting to reduce the number of abortions. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has recognised that abortion can damage a woman’s mental health. Studies have discovered that women who have had abortions are almost twice as likely to suffer from mental health problems, three times as likely to have major depression, and six times as likely to commit suicide as mothers who do not have an abortion—
My motivation for speaking—although I am basically against abortion in principle—is that I want to touch on one or two aspects of the issue, one of which is late abortions. I remember doing a fundraising project for a special care baby unit in 1992 in Derbyshire. Even as long ago as that, babies were starting to survive after 24 weeks’ gestation. I saw those babies, their fight for life, and the care and attention that they were given. The entire unit was there to help preserve life, and it struck me as very wrong, especially as time has gone on and as medical science has advanced, that we should be aborting babies who are capable of life.
We have heard it said today that babies cannot survive at 20 or 21 weeks. I shall not argue with that position, but it is fairly well established that they can survive from anything above 22 weeks, and certainly at 23 or 24 weeks. It is not fit for a civilised society to take, live from the womb, babies who are capable of life, leave them to struggle for life, and let them die. In any other circumstances, allowing a baby to die like that, through omission, would certainly be manslaughter, at least. That cannot be right. I can understand why some people might be in favour of abortion up to 12 weeks or so, but I simply cannot understand how anybody in this House would want this practice to continue.
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the development of policy? He suggests that we should use anecdotal rather than scientific evidence to produce policy.
Mr Robertson: I find that intervention rather confusing, because if the babies are surviving, surely that is proof of the science. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I cannot understand the point of the intervention.
The hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) asked why we were having the debate now, when we considered the issue four years ago. I have to say that Parliament does not always get things right. On very many issues, public opinion and the evidence are way ahead of where Parliament is. Examples include welfare reform, immigration and the European Union. Parliament has not caught up with what everyone else in the country is saying on those issues. This is one such issue that certainly needs to be revisited. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire is right: we should not shy away from this subject or any other, because if we—
Mr Robertson: Certainly. I shall make one final point, then. We sometimes hear that it is only vulnerable teenagers who get pregnant and need an abortion. That simply is not true: 29% of abortions are carried out on women over the age of 30, entirely for social reasons. The number of repeat abortions is in the thousands. In the past year, 76 women had had seven abortions before the one that they were then having; there are very many issues there. I shall certainly respect your request for me to wind up my remarks, Mr Crausby, but this is a very serious issue, and I hope that Parliament revisits it very soon.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) on securing the debate. She made a point of saying at the beginning of her speech that she felt that there was a climate of fear around discussing abortion, and that some people did not feel that it was appropriate for it to be discussed in the House. I hope that she is not including me in that. I believe in the primacy of the Chamber. It seems to me vital that the Chamber is the place where we discuss issues of life and death, and war and peace. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), and for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), on their excellent and thoughtful speeches.
I open my remarks in a way that is unusual for me—by quoting a Conservative Front Bencher in another place. Earl Howe, the Health Minister in the House of Lords, said this month, in response to the Secretary of State’s remarks, that
“my right honourable friend is entitled to express his long-held personal view, which he did the other day...however, successive Governments have taken the view that they should rest on the evidence. There is currently no call from the main medical bodies for a review of the Act in relation to time limits, and the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists support that view…This is a highly sensitive issue on which the Government have, as I indicated, traditionally been
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led by the science and the medical profession, and I think that we should bear that principle very closely in mind.”—[
Official Report, House of Lords,
11 October 2012; Vol. 739, c. 1130.]
For me, at the heart of this debate is the scientific and medical evidence. I do not understand why proponents of the anti-abortion case insist on saying that the science and medicine have changed when we know that in 2007 the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology held an inquiry on scientific developments and found that
“while survival rates at 24 weeks and over have improved they have not done so below that gestational point…we have seen no good evidence to suggest that foetal viability has improved significantly since the abortion time limit was last set, and seen some good evidence to suggest that it has not.”
Ms Abbott: I have to make progress. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare support that position. There is no medical and scientific case for the position that some Government Members are trying to prosecute.
Everyone is entitled to their ethical and religious views on this issue. For Labour Members, abortion has traditionally been a conscience matter, and I respect other people’s consciences on this issue. However, it is not right to denigrate doctors, scientists, nurses and other medical practitioners. It is not right to say, as some hon. Members have said, that the royal colleges are saying these things because they make their money out of abortions. It is not right to denigrate medical practitioners. It is not right to talk about women being coerced into having abortions. It ought to be possible to have a serious argument about the ethical issues without denigrating nurses, doctors and other medical practitioners who have devoted their lives to the reproductive welfare of women.
The question of Northern Ireland has come up. The issues in relation to Northern Ireland are entirely a matter for the people of Northern Ireland, but let me just say this. I congratulate Marie Stopes on opening the clinic in Belfast. I want to give my personal support to brave women, such as Dawn Purvis, who have campaigned on this issue. I give my personal support to those women in Northern Ireland who continue to believe that it cannot be right that women in one part of the British isles do not have the human rights that other women in the Union have.
We have heard the concerns about high levels of abortions and repeat abortions. Let me say from the Opposition side of the Chamber that we all share those concerns. Every abortion is a tragedy. I think that we would all in this Chamber want levels of
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abortions to come down, but we do not fairly bring down levels of abortions by restricting women’s right to choose. As the royal colleges have pointed out, the way to bring down levels of abortions is to recognise that abortions are largely about unintended pregnancy. What is needed is better work on access to contraception and better sexual health education in schools, and, if I may say so—this is a personal view—more needs to be done to fight the objectification and sexualisation of women in society. Of course we want to bring down abortion levels and levels of unintended pregnancy, but that is done through working in schools and working with young women, through sexual health care, and by fighting, as I said, the sexualisation of women, of which we see far too much.
As I said, of course we respect people’s consciences on this issue, but we do not want, and there is no evidence that British women want, the importing of the American politicisation of abortion to this country. We have only to look across the Atlantic to see politicians trying to outbid one another in the ferocity of their opposition to women’s right to choose, to see the attacks on doctors who work in these clinics, and to see candidates for office claiming that abortion as a consequence of women being raped is not an issue because there are things about a woman’s body that kick in and prevent her from getting pregnant as a result of rape—American politicians revealing their complete ignorance of women’s reproductive health.
Sadly, that is inching into this country. There are prayer vigils outside abortion clinics. There are leaflets claiming that abortion leads to breast cancer and infertility. There is work on college campuses. British women do not want to go down the route of politicians seeking to gain a political edge by sensationalising and politicising the issue of abortion. Let us rest on the medical evidence.
The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire said that the 1967 Act was a joke. I say to her that the 1967 Act was not a joke; it was a huge advance for the lives of women in this country. She talked about women marching in leafy suburbs. I have opportunities in my lifetime that my grandmother could never have dreamt of, and she was not brought up in a leafy suburb. As a result of political, social and educational advances, there are opportunities for women in my generation that our grandmothers could never have dreamt of, and the bedrock of those advances is women’s control of their own bodies and their reproductive health.
I am happy to debate this as often as Members want to bring it forward, but the debate must rest on the evidence, and we should debate the subject without denigrating our medical profession, and with respect for often very vulnerable women who have to make a difficult decision and do not welcome politicians sensationalising and politicising.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) on securing this debate on a subject in which she has a long-standing interest. I have listened to the views expressed by Members, and I acknowledge that many of them are deeply and strongly held. The nub of both sides of the
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debate is best encapsulated by the speeches of the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). They gave speeches based on their beliefs, knowledge and sound arguments.
Anna Soubry: Forgive me, but I want to make progress, because the clock is against me. I will give way when I have made some points. In the short time available, it is important that I make some of the main points in my speech.
It is right that abortion is a matter of conscience. It is important to respect the views of all individuals and accept that we have different views, whichever side of the political fence we sit on. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) reminded us that certain Cabinet members have expressed their own views on the upper limit for legal abortions. They all made it clear that those are their own personally expressed views. I want to make it quite clear that, notwithstanding the fact that some Cabinet members may want a reduction in the upper limit, the Government have no plans to bring about a change to the time at which an abortion can be carried out. I want to stress that point again, so I repeat: we have no plans to review the Abortion Act 1967.
We are by no means complacent. When I was fortunate enough to be made a Minister, I made it clear that in the time I am in office I want a reduction in the number of abortions. We all want that, but there is a debate about how we best achieve it. I take the view that we best achieve it through better contraception and by empowering our young men and women to make the choices that they want to make, if they have a sexual relationship.
I want to say something on counselling that may interest my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire in particular. As the new Minister with responsibility for this matter, I have carefully considered how we move forward on abortion counselling. I believe that the best way forward is about contraception, how we reduce the repeat abortion rate, how we empower young men and women and how we improve abortion counselling services for women generally. A committee was formed as a result of the measures that my hon. Friend tried to introduce. There is also a cross-party inquiry into unwanted pregnancy, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd). I commend that.
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They will do important work and hear important evidence, but the simple reality is that we therefore no longer plan to undertake a separate consultation on abortion counselling. I am sorry if that disappoints members of the committee.
For the purposes of transparency, I will today place in the Library a short document on abortion counselling, representing the great work done by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton). I pay tribute to the work she did when she was Minister for Public Health, and to the cross-party committee, which looked at counselling arrangements for women requesting an abortion. I am extremely grateful for the work it did, and I thank its members for their efforts. I am sorry if there is disappointment, but we do not intend to change the law, so a separate consultation would be an otiose exercise.
Nadine Dorries: It is not a case of changing the law, but changing the Government’s commitment. The Government made an absolute commitment to consult. In fact, the British Medical Association moved a motion in agreement. Why have the Government changed their mind about the consultation on non-compulsory independent counselling?
Anna Soubry: The committee has done some good work. I do not think that it would be right to take the matter any further. I am sorry if that disappoints people, but that is my view. I can see no purpose in a consultation, because we do not intend to change either the law or the guidelines.
As the committee identified, counselling services throughout the NHS are patchy. That is not acceptable. It also decided that it is of primary importance that there are no delays when a woman seeks a termination of her pregnancy. That is why it is important that if a woman is going to have a termination, she does it as quickly as possible. The group was in unanimous agreement on that, which I welcome. There is other work to be done on counselling, but I take the view that that is not the primary issue that we should address, which is why I made the decision I did.
Naomi Long: Everyone, whether pro-life, like me, or pro-choice, agrees that we would like a reduction in the number of abortions. Does the Minister have any concerns that the policy of limiting child-related benefits to two children could increase the financial pressure and stress on people who find themselves pregnant, thus driving up the number of abortions, rather than reducing it?
In the short time I am allowed, I want to talk about viability, bearing in mind the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire and the helpful interventions of the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston. The current clinical evidence shows that although there have been medical advances in caring for premature babies, only a small number of babies born at under 24 weeks’ gestation can survive, and there may well be questions about their quality of life. Most have severe problems. The situation markedly improves at 24 to 25 weeks, which reaffirms why the limit of 24 weeks was chosen.
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Results from the EPICure study, which looked at the chances of survival and later health status of children born at less than 26 weeks, show that survival to discharge was 0% at 21 weeks, 1% at 22 weeks, and 11% at 23 weeks. Of the two children in the study born at 22 weeks’ gestation who survived to discharge, one had severe disability and one had mild disability at 6 years of age.
The British Association of Perinatal Medicine stated, in evidence to the 2007 Select Committee on Science and Technology inquiry on abortion, that it was concerned that lowering the legal definition of viability would imply that quality of survival has improved for infants below the present limit of 24 weeks. The evidence for the UK population to date does not support that.
Even though some babies have survived at a very early stage, the threshold of viability cannot be continually pushed back, because there is a limit beyond which the lungs will simply be insufficiently developed to sustain life. Although embryonic lungs start to form as early as four weeks into a pregnancy, their maturation continues until the end of a normal pregnancy. Recent data published by the Office for National Statistics show that 0.1% of live births occurred at less than 24 weeks, and the mortality rate for those babies was 877.3 deaths per 1,000 live births.
We are right to ask why women have late abortions. Women who have such abortions do so in the most extreme situations. They work with their doctors, nurses and loved ones to make what must be the most difficult choice that any woman, or her partner, will ever face. We have heard why so many hon. Members feel that the current 24-week limit should be retained, and why others feel strongly that the limit should be reduced. I personally support the retention of the 24-week limit, but my priority is to reduce the number of women who turn up at a clinic or doctor’s surgery seeking a termination.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) spoke about the pain and suffering of women who undergo termination of a pregnancy, but perhaps he forgets the pain, suffering and mental distress of women who found that the law did not allow them that choice. My priority is ensuring that women have informed choice, and that we have fewer abortions.
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Housing (Poplar and Limehouse)
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you presiding in the Chair this morning, Mr Crausby, especially as you are wearing the beloved claret and blue. I hope that we will see Bolton back in the premiership soon, because then you can come back to Upton Park and see some decent football. It is also a pleasure to see the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) in his place as the Minister. He played a prominent role in the arrangements for the 2012 Olympics over many years and is very highly regarded. Although this matter is not exactly in his brief, it is a pleasure to see him and I know that he will take my request back to his colleague, the Minister for Housing.
After making a few brief comments about housing in general in Poplar and Limehouse and Tower Hamlets, I want to raise two issues: the governance of One Housing Group estates on the Isle of Dogs; and the question of leaseholder reform and the operation of housing management companies.
In Tower Hamlets, more than 20,000 families are on the waiting list. Thirty years ago, 95% of our housing stock was council owned, and that figure is now nearer 60%. Two specific matters impact directly on the communities that I represent. First, the 80% market rent is, I understand, an attempt to fulfil an ambition to make tenants pay a fairer amount for their property, but as property prices in London are much higher than elsewhere, there is a degree of distortion. Property rents around Canary Wharf, in the heart of my constituency, are even higher, which means that there is a disproportionate impact on affordability levels. Of course, the reduction in housing benefit will have a further impact.
Secondly, there is the problem of density. Tower Hamlets already has one of the densest population levels in the country. When I was elected in 1997, there were 11,000 voters on the Isle of Dogs, and in 2010, when I was re-elected, there were 23,000 voters. The figure has doubled in less than a generation, and massive developments are still planned for the Isle of Dogs, upon which Canary Wharf sits. There is a lot of local concern about the pressure on infrastructure, transport, health services, schools and so on. I hope that the Government are keeping an eye on that, even though it is the council’s job to approve, with the Mayor of London, the planning applications and the overall strategy.
One issue on which I want to focus is the governance of One Housing Group, the history of which relates to the stock transfer of council estates to registered social landlords. In my constituency, there were, I think, 17 successful stock transfers—out of 23 ballots—in 10 years. There was a massive shift in ownership from council to housing associations. One successful bid was for the four council estates on the Isle of Dogs. Residents voted by transfer to join Toynbee Housing, which failed miserably and was basically disestablished and subsumed into Community Housing, which became One Housing Group.
Some of the people who were on the original board were alleged to have broken rules and breached financial regulations. Tower Hamlets council did not monitor the situation as effectively as it should have done. The matter was pursued by two colleagues from Tower
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Hamlets council, Councillors Marc Francis and David Edgar. Promises were made in the offer document to tenants that had explicitly said that Island Homes would have a resident majority on the board of 15 members and that the four estates that had transferred were to determine the methods by which each of their two representatives would be chosen. Frustratingly, Tower Hamlets council lawyers failed to include that promise in the governing arrangements and the legal agreement. As a result, the whole thing went pear shaped. It was only after Tower Hamlets voiced its concern that One Housing Group agreed to restore the resident majority on the board of Island Homes, but it continued to refuse to allow tenants and leaseholders to determine that representation.
Earlier this year, One Housing Group notified me and the local authority that it intended to wind up Island Homes and replace it with area resident boards, which will have no decision-making powers. Disappointingly, the executive mayor of Tower Hamlets, Councillor Rahman, decided against challenging the legal basis for that decision. Questions have been asked about the votes that determined the course of events, with One Housing Group quoting numbers to validate its action. There have also been questions about the honesty of the ballot. In a report sent to Tower Hamlets council, 796 residents are said to have voted on the proposal, with 640 in favour and 132 against. On closer inspection, however, 255 of those voting are residents not of Island Homes, but of other One Housing properties on the Isle of Dogs.
Former council tenants on the four estates have found their homes being owned by a very different landlord from the one whom they had been promised in the transfer ballot some years ago, and they still feel quite aggrieved. The matter has not been helped by the fact that One Housing did not initially perform well in terms of repairs, refurbishments and improvements. That performance has improved, but still a bad taste has been left.
In a response from the previous Housing Minister, I was told that from April 2013, local councillors will have a formal role in the resolution of social housing complaints at a local level. That provides some reassurance, but it will not happen until 2013. At the moment the complaints that residents have made to the Homes and Communities Agency and now to the Financial Services Authority are basically in a cul-de-sac and do not appear to be going anywhere. I do not think there is anything that the Minister can helpfully add to resolve that matter. I am flagging up the anomalies in the procedure and the system and, despite the promises made, a lack of protection for residents. I will obviously be looking closely at the 2013 regulations, as will my councillor colleagues.
Leaseholding is a growing home ownership style in Poplar and Limehouse, which is coupled with the introduction of estate management companies. I am talking about not just right-to-buy properties, where tenants exercise the right to buy their previous council property, but new, fashionable blocks around the Canary Wharf estate, which have freeholders offering leasehold contracts of between 99 and 999 years. That creates a whole new cadre of house owner in the country.
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Yesterday, the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) convened a meeting at which the agenda title was, “Leasehold exploitation.” I recommend that the Minister read, “A new lease of life”, which is compiled by CentreForum, with which he will be familiar because it is, I believe, a Liberal Democrat think-tank. That should not detract from the fact that it is a good and useful piece of research. It clearly lays out the nature of some of the problems.
Those at the meeting included a former Tory Cabinet Member, former Ministers and MPs from all parts of the House as well as their staff. The speakers represented the sector, different parts of the industry and people who have been through the land valuation tribunal procedure. There was also a representative from the Greater London Authority, a Conservative member from Sutton in south-west London.
The GLA Planning and Housing Committee has just produced a report that estimates that there are some 500,000 leaseholders in the Greater London area alone paying service charges worth some £5 billion. The report, which has unanimous support from the four political groups on the GLA, basically says that the regulation is not fit for purpose. It also says that there is massive opportunity for bad practice in the sector, which must be addressed. Which? magazine has calculated that leaseholders were overcharged to the tune of £700 million in a recent year, which is a very significant amount of money. Also, a management agent was recently sent to prison for 30 months for the theft of £122,000 of leaseholders’ money. Apparently, the Prime Minister himself has been involved in trying to disentangle a leasehold and freehold dispute in his constituency at a residential retirement home. Many people think this issue is just about elderly people and pensioners, but it actually covers people of all ages and backgrounds.
The House of Lords has already had debates on the issue, raised by Baroness Gardner of Parkes. The hon. Member for Worthing West has raised the issue in a debate in the House of Commons. In addition, there have been two Channel 4 “Dispatches” programmes on the subject. All of that indicates that this is an issue of some importance, about which, I respectfully suggest, the Government are in denial.
The previous Labour Government introduced some leasehold reforms in 2002, but they are patently inadequate for the growing sector that exists 10 years later. The issue affects hundreds of thousands of home owners across the country, including thousands in my constituency of Poplar and Limehouse.
“For the Government to enable sections 152 and 156 of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002.”
“To address the unfairness in Leasehold Valuation Tribunals where leaseholders legal fees are capped at £500, whereas those of the freeholder are unlimited (and can be reclaimed in the residents’ service charges after a win).”
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freeholder struck off, only to find that that £31,000 reappeared as an administration charge on his service bill for the following year. Clearly, in some instances freeholders are flouting the regulations.
“Parliament intend for ‘right to manage’ to be a right: unless there is a compelling reason to oppose it, leaseholders should be granted RTM. But Leasehold Valuation Tribunals are often being used to thwart RTM on trifling grounds. The Government is urged to review and remove the anomalies in the RTM legislation.”
“Leasehold managing agents need statutory licensing and regulation. This regulation needs to be entirely separate from the existing compromised trade bodies.”
Estate management companies perform very important work, arbitrating between freeholders and leaseholders, and one would think that such work required legal expertise or some kind of legal qualification. However, there is no requirement for members of estate management companies to demonstrate such expertise or such qualifications to anybody’s satisfaction. Members of estate management companies manage hundreds of millions of pounds of other people’s money, but once again there is no requirement for them to have legal or statutory qualifications in accountancy, and—as I understand it—they are not regulated by the FSA. Such estate management companies can just set up and be there.
Estate management companies can also appoint contractors and award business, and their responsibility is to maintain the fabric of our communities. I live on an estate managed by Consort, which used to be Peverel OM; Peverel OM used to be Peverel. The company gets a bit of a reputation and, to avoid its image being tarnished, it keeps changing its name. It is the biggest estate management company in the country, handling hundreds of millions of pounds. I am a freeholder on my estate, but there are also hundreds of leaseholders on the estate. The company’s team on my estate is managed by Mr Stefano Leonardi and it is very good, but we are not talking about day-to-day management. Instead, we are talking about the national structure, the regulation and the transparency of this sector, which vary at best and are lacking at worst.
A great flowchart was produced at yesterday’s meeting, demonstrating that a developer’s parent company can build an estate. The developer then has the ability to sell the properties to the landlord, as freeholder; it appoints the managing agent; it appoints the insurance provider; it appoints the other service providers; and the leaseholders are at the bottom of the pile. Clearly, that is not a healthy situation in any way, shape or form.
To conclude, I am grateful to the Minister for being here today and for listening. I will make a request of him, which comes from the meeting yesterday; I hope that he will take it back to his colleague, the Minister for Housing. The meeting resolved yesterday to ask the Minister for Housing and his counterpart at the Ministry of Justice—the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice—to meet with interested colleagues and experts on this subject to examine how to improve the arrangements that exist, to strengthen protections for leaseholders
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and to raise the standards in what is a very important sector. This is not a “quick fix” situation; these are very complex issues. Everyone knows how completely opposed the Government are to any new regulation, but this is a growing sector that is much more significant than it ever has been. Clearly, there are loopholes that allow for exploitation and there are horror stories in pretty much every constituency in the country.
At some point, the Government have to grasp the nettle, sit down with people and see how we move the issue forward. As I have outlined, there are some very simple recommendations for improvement and there are some very good estate management companies in this sector that want to see regulation and licensing being introduced, for their professional reputation as well as to protect the people from whom they are taking money.
As I have said, I am grateful to the Minister for listening. The One Housing Group issue is not going away. I have written to the HCA and the FSA; councillors in my area will continue to press on this issue; and local residents will continue to be frustrated and will express concern. However, that is all happening in a different arena from this one. This issue is very much in the Government’s hands and I would be very grateful if the Minister could take the message that I have given him today back to his colleagues at the DCLG.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Don Foster): It is a great honour to serve under you, Mr Crausby, and it is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who I congratulate on securing this debate. I also thank him for his generous comments about my contribution to the Olympics and Paralympics recently, and about my elevation to my current ministerial role.
The hon. Gentleman has raised a number of issues today, but I will not have time to mention them all. In response to his early comments about the importance of getting the right infrastructure for various housing developments that are taking place, not only in his own constituency but throughout the country, I must say that I entirely agree with him. In the case of his own constituency, of course, he is right that the responsibility lies with the local authority and with the mayors. However, through a number of measures that the Government have put in place, we are providing support for those infrastructure developments and quite clearly we will be keeping a close eye on those issues right across the country, as he has asked us to.
I am also well aware that the hon. Gentleman has already raised many of the points that he raised today in previous debates, and some of his colleagues have also raised them earlier, particularly those in relation to correspondence from the mayor of Tower Hamlets and from others. So, as I say, I am aware of the background to all of this, but I do not want to underestimate the impact that has been felt by individuals whose lives have been affected by the merger of members of the One Housing Group, or what those individuals may see as very real grievances. However, to be honest it would not be appropriate for the Government to intervene in that particular situation.
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There are, in fact, two issues that must be addressed. First, was the merger of Island Homes with the other members of the One Housing Group legal, and were all the correct procedures followed? The merger was considered by the relevant regulator—the Homes and Communities Agency—in its role as the social housing regulator. On the evidence that was available to the agency, it gave approval for the merger to go ahead at the end of August.
The HCA’s powers are covered by specific legislation set out in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 and it discharges its regulatory responsibilities independently of Government. I must stress that point—the HCA is independent of Government. Therefore, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for Ministers to seek to override a decision on the merger that was made by the HCA in the exercise of its statutory duties.
The HCA’s role is to consider proposed constitutional changes by registered housing associations and whether the requirements of legislation and of the regulatory framework have been met. The HCA concluded that, in this instance, they had been met. If the hon. Gentleman has any further evidence to draw to our attention relating to the decision of the HCA on the merger, we would be happy to pass it on to the agency.
The second issue is whether the tenants are receiving and will continue to receive good quality services under the new organisation. If not, there are procedures in place to address that, not least through the Localism Act 2011, which placed the power to scrutinise landlords’ performance and hold them to account back in the hands of tenants and their elected representatives. As the hon. Gentleman said, that comes into effect from April 2013, when Members of Parliament, councillors and formally recognised tenant panels will have a role in the resolution of complaints at a local level including referring complaints, when necessary, to the housing ombudsman. Where the ombudsman finds in favour of a complainant, he may for example order the landlord to pay compensation or take other steps to provide redress. I should make it clear that the role of the ombudsman is focused on the provision of housing services by landlords and does not extend to constitutional changes of the type that the hon. Gentleman raised, within housing associations. As my ministerial colleagues have done previously, I encourage the hon. Gentleman to draw any other points to our attention, but I hope that he will work with the relevant bodies to find a solution, so that tenants get the standard of service that represents value for money for them.
I want briefly to touch on some of the other points that the hon. Gentleman raised, including his concern about affordable rents. He knows that at the time of the formation of the Government in 2010 their prime purpose and focus had to be to get the economy back on an even keel. That inevitably meant reductions in public spending across all sectors. Not surprisingly, it also affected the availability and provision of affordable housing. However, the affordable housing programme that began in 2011 will invest £4.5 billion of capital grant in the building of new affordable homes between now and 2015. I acknowledge that that is less than under the previous Government, but the process of allowing landlords to
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charge up to 80% of market rent in the properties that are built or converted under the programme will enable them to lever in an additional £15 billion over the period of the programme. The combination of those two means we will be able to provide 170,000 additional affordable homes by 2015. Indeed, some recent announcements mean that that figure will probably be even higher. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that they are badly needed.
In Tower Hamlets, 1,798 affordable homes were delivered in 2011-12. Of those 1,400 were for social rent, which the hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned about. In addition there were 200 starts on site for affordable homes, of which 76 were for affordable rent and 79 for social rent. However, he should also bear in mind that in London the figure is up to 80%; it is not 80%. From the figures he will see that across London we anticipate the levels to be in the order of 65%—not significantly different from the social rent level. His concerns are therefore probably not entirely founded on the situation at the moment. Rent levels in a range of up to 80% are therefore a key feature of the affordable homes programme, so that there is a fit with local circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman raised some extremely interesting points about leaseholder rights and management issues. I thank him for his generous remarks about the excellent work on the matter in question—and, I would argue, in many other areas—being done by a Liberal Democrat-related, but distinctly separate, organisation, CentreForum. There was one group of management organisations that the hon. Gentleman did not mention, but I want to praise the work of many of the arm’s length management organisations working predominantly with council housing. They cover about 50% of all council housing—more than 800,000 homes. The vast majority do an extremely good job and could provide exemplars of good practice to some of the organisations that he mentioned. We are, of course, aware of the poor performance of some managers operating in the leasehold sector. We are not convinced at the moment of the case for increased regulation. Improvements should in the first instance be driven forward by the professionals in the sector to improve standards and move to greater self-regulation. The Government welcome the steps that some organisations have taken towards that.
The law already provides leaseholders with a number of rights, in relation, for example, to service charges and the management of their property. Those include the right to obtain service charge information where that is not provided by the landlord or managing agent, and to seek a determination from the leasehold valuation tribunal on the reasonableness of the service charges being demanded. However, the Government will continue to welcome suggestions for improvements, and will of course consider them.
I am extremely grateful for the suggestions that the hon. Gentleman has made, especially following the meeting yesterday that he mentioned. My officials have noted all his suggestions, and will ensure that they are fed back into discussions of the issue. He has asked me to do my best to persuade Ministers in my Department—particularly the Housing Minister—and in the Ministry of Justice to meet him and colleagues who are interested in the issues. I cannot guarantee that they will accede to my intervention on his behalf, but I assure him that I shall do my very best to persuade them
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to have that meeting. If, as I hope, meetings take place, I would also like to hear in due course directly from him with his feelings about the outcome.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising these important issues, and on his concern that people living in his constituency should get the best possible deal. I am grateful to him for securing the debate.
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Internet-based Media Companies
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): It is a pleasure to appear in this Chamber in front of you, Mr Owen. I feel as though I have spent most of the day here. I am pleased to have been able to secure this debate, for which I have been pressing for some weeks.
Politicians and companies alike have failed to address the new challenges that the internet brings. I am not at this point arguing that the state needs to do more right now, although it might need to in future. Companies that use the internet need to have robust policies to protect vulnerable users. They need to take responsibility for the impact of what they do from the start of their operations.
“have access to a computer, smartphone, tablet or other way of getting online.”
Nine out of 10 of those aged between 12 and 15 live in homes with internet access. In schools, use of the internet is now more or less universal. Increasingly, it is being integrated into lesson plans to make use of richer content, and it is often a regular part of how schools communicate with parents.
The internet is used at home to enable children to do their homework. It is a major linchpin or communications hub in huge numbers of children’s social lives. Indeed, not having access to the internet can mark someone out as odd, or as coming from a disadvantaged family.
With the rise of smartphones and other internet-enabled portable devices such as games consoles, and the emergence of large-scale public wi-fi, internet access is also pretty ubiquitous, or soon will be in all our major cities. Thus the notion that parents could in any meaningful sense provide constant support or supervision of their children’s use of the internet is becoming impossible to sustain. I make these points in part to underline a core element of my argument about industry’s responsibility, which I will come to later.
First, I will say a word about the industry. In fact, there is no such thing as the internet industry. At one point there was: back in the 1980s and early ’90s. Computers and networking had been well-established for years, so the then new internet industry essentially consisted solely of internet service providers and geeks who wrote software. It was all very neat and tidy, and easy to identify and deal with.
Today almost every business of any size has some sort of stake in the internet. All of them have a responsibility of some sort to people who go online, especially to children. Many of them make great efforts to discharge that responsibility with great care and attention, but I am afraid that it is also quite plain that many do not. It is the many that we need to focus on.
The internet is not a sort of social service, or an extension of the classroom with knobs on, like social networking sites. Just as money is said to make the world go round, it most certainly makes the internet go
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round, and children are right in the middle of it. In 2006, children and young people in the UK up to the age of 19 spent £12 billion from their pocket money, or from earnings derived from part-time jobs. Of that, £1.53 billion went on clothes, and £1 billion on food and drink; music and computer-related projects took another £1 billion. In the same year, when account is taken of the amounts spent by parents on their children or in the home—spending over which children and young people often have influence—the total value of the market increased to almost £100 billion.
One of the largest of the virtual worlds aimed expressly at young children is Club Penguin. When Disney acquired the business in 2007, it was reported to have paid $700 million. According to the Financial Times, in June 2011, the UK-based children’s site, Moshi Monsters, was reported to be valued at £125 million. Children and young people are therefore major economic actors, both in their own right and through the influence that they exert on patterns of consumption within the wider family.
The size of the market helps to explain why so many different companies are interested in children and young people. It is not just about cash tomorrow; it is very much about cash today. Moreover, the sums indicated suggest that this market matters not only to the individual firms that may be competing for parts of it, but for the national economy.
Children’s and young people’s online spending is also growing. A report published in December 2010 suggested that British kids between the ages of 7 and 16 spent £448 million, with eight out of 10 using their parents’ cards, online accounts, or PayPal. Apparently, £64 million was spent without parents’ knowledge.
The emergence of the internet as a major force in commerce, particularly in retailing, has created a number of anomalies in policy, as well as market distortions that discriminate against companies that trade solely or principally on the high street, but some of those anomalies are connected to wider risks to children and young people. Many of the rules established to protect children and young people from unfair or age-inappropriate commercial practices in the real world do not yet seem to have been fully translated into the virtual space, or to have found an online equivalent or proxy. There is a tendency for firms to say that what children do when they go online is entirely the responsibility of the parents or carers. While no one would dispute that parents and carers have a role to play, what we need to clarify is the extent of the obligations placed on companies and on every part of the internet value chain.
Can manufacturers of internet-enabled devices, perhaps especially portable devices, simply wash their hands of any and all liability for anything and everything that happens to children and young people when they use them? What about the companies engaged in providing access to the internet, whether via a fixed-line connection or via wi-fi? Then there are the online service providers, such as Google and Facebook, and online vendors such as Amazon and Tesco. What parameters are applicable to them? Where are the boundaries? This whole area has been largely neglected by scholars and the legal profession, and, I am ashamed to say, politicians.
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No doubt companies have considered their position, but if they have, they have been slow to publicise their legal advisers’ views. Even if they did, it is likely that such views would take a very particular perspective.
Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): One of my constituents came to see me after being sexually harassed for years on Facebook. Her identity was stolen and her Facebook pages were photoshopped to damage her reputation. It took her a great deal of time to get any attention from the police or the organisation concerned—in this case, Facebook. Does my hon. Friend think that there should be greater clarity and transparency about what the process and principles should be, and what citizens and consumers can expect from the suppliers such as Facebook, and from the police? Only when a death threat was made against my constituent did the police feel that they could take action. Until that point, they had to advise her to complain to Facebook.
Fiona Mactaggart: The case that my hon. Friend cites is an example of exactly why I called for this debate. In that case, Facebook was not taking proper responsibility. It did not have a transparent complaints process that my hon. Friend’s constituent was able to use. It did not have a mechanism for remedying the harm that she had experienced and, frankly, the police are not up to date enough with the online world. That is not true of the whole of the police service—for example, when it comes to child abuse images, the police have quite well-developed policing strategies—but in the case of online bullying, I think they are behind the game.
The fundamental responsibility, in that case, belongs to Facebook, but the police must take more seriously the fact that things happen in the virtual world that they would not tolerate in the real world, and they must ensure that their policies and procedures function appropriately in both. We have not grown up, as it were, and ensured that we have modernised our systems, including those of the police. My big argument is with companies such as Facebook. If they were to take their responsibilities more seriously, my hon. Friend’s constituent would have been much safer, and the problem would perhaps not have got as far as requiring police action.
Some new media companies seem persistently to fail to establish clear values and procedures for handling matters, such as the one that my hon. Friend raised, that can profoundly affect individuals and wider society. In the early days of the internet, that was perhaps understandable to a degree. They were learning; we were all learning. We are, however, no longer in the early days, and now such failure looks more like negligence or lack of concern. Too often, companies seem to struggle to recover a position, by which time a great deal of damage might have been done. I want to establish a new norm, whereby we expect companies, from very early on in their lives, to have an enforceable social responsibility code, which contains a publicly declared process for dealing with objectionable or illegal content.
Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab):
Does my hon. Friend not accept that putting “objectionable” in with “illegal” poses a danger to freedom of expression? The two terms mean completely different things. As a party that has generally supported freedom of speech,
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surely we should protect the right of someone to be offended if they so wish, or to say something offensive, as long as it is not illegal. We should be careful about merging the two definitions.
Fiona Mactaggart: My view is that because the internet so substantially broadens the audience for material, those who are responsible for doing that must take some responsibility for the content, in a way that they are not currently prepared to do. They obviously need to do that when the content is illegal, but I will go on to argue that they should also do it when it is objectionable. They should not necessarily delete everything in the first instance, but they must have a process by which someone who wants to object can properly make a case and argue for something to be taken down. The process should be transparent and contain a right of appeal, so that the matter can be dealt with.
Our publishers in the real world take responsibility for what they publish, choosing not to publish material that they deem profoundly offensive, and YouTube is effectively a publisher. It is dodging its responsibility as an institution that broadens the audience so significantly for the material that it carries. It is pretending not to be a publisher, and that is a bit of a fraud. I will go on to deal further with the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) raised.
A policy should guide companies when they decide whether to take down material, and there should be a right of appeal where appropriate. I would want companies to work with groups such as the Internet Watch Foundation and the UK Council for Child Internet Safety to ensure the promotion of public safety.
I initially intended to raise this issue because of the evidence that paedophiles have been using Twitter to groom young children; Members might have seen reports on that in The Sunday Mirror. I praise the newspaper for its campaign, because it has forced Twitter to take action to protect children. However, Twitter has still not joined the Internet Watch Foundation to show its support for the wider industry’s measures to keep child abuse images off the internet as a whole. That is a shameful example of a profound disregard for the interests of British children and young people. What is worse is that when the storm broke, Twitter simply retreated into a Californian bunker. It seems to me that it cynically decided to sit out the storm, in the hope that it would blow over and people would forget about it. Well, here is the bad news: it did not.
Habbo Hotel took a similar line when Channel 4 exposed how its site was being grossly misused and was putting children in danger. This case was, in a sense, much worse, because Habbo had at least signed up to various voluntary codes of practice. The only problem was that it was not honouring them, which speaks volumes about the weakness of our so-called self-regulatory regime for the internet in the UK. Even BlackBerry, a company in my constituency that is ethical in many important ways, was found wanting when it emerged that child pornography was not being blocked by users of its handsets on any network except T-Mobile, and the same was true for adult content. Given how popular BlackBerry handsets are with kids, that was truly appalling, but I am happy to say that both matters have now been put right.
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Failure to act can lead to tragedy. It is only two weeks since Tallulah Wilson killed herself after visiting suicide websites. At the time, a spokesman for the Samaritans put the need for more responsible behaviour well:
“It is important that organisations which run sites that are highly popular with young people develop responsible practices around suicide-related content, including promoting sources of support and by removing content which actively encourages or glorifies self-harm or suicide”.
Glorifying self-harm or suicide is not illegal, but it is profoundly dangerous. The new Health Minister, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), last month warned that telecommunications companies faced being regulated by the Government if they failed to block websites offering advice on suicide. It is time for the companies to act.
Then there was the unrest caused by the publication on YouTube of the provocative American-made video insulting Mohammed. It caused deaths and injuries around the world when so many people saw or heard of it.
Mr Tom Harris: I feared that the debate was heading in that direction. Can we just be absolutely clear that the deaths and injuries throughout the world were not caused by the YouTube video, obnoxious and appalling though it was? They were caused by fanatics who chose to resort to violence against innocent people. No one forced them to do that.
Fiona Mactaggart: My hon. Friend is right, but what happened was completely predictable. Responsible publishers choose not to publish things that are designed to provoke. I have not seen the video, but I persuaded someone in my office to, and the clear intention of the material is absolutely to provoke. It was irresponsible for YouTube to carry the video.
In its response, Google, rather like my hon. Friend, uttered pious words about free speech and the first amendment, but I would like to make some observations about that. Google is an exceptionally profitable business. It is not a charity, or an agency that can lay claim to moral or political leadership in any credible way. I say that not just because of the mounting number of times Google is being hauled, in relation to other parts of the internet, before the courts and regulators and losing. The company seems to be highly selective about the parts of the law that it wishes to observe.
Many Muslims in the UK and throughout the world—some of whom reacted in the way my hon. Friend described, and some of whom simply demonstrated peacefully outside Google’s UK headquarters—were deeply offended by the video and by YouTube’s failure to remove it, except in the two countries where the company acknowledged that there might be violent protests. I understand that YouTube has now also disabled links to the clip in at least two other countries, including India. It became clear, therefore, as the tragedy of the video unfolded, that the company did not have an absolute fixed position that it would defend to the nth degree. It was a movable feast, but it moved too slowly, and only after too many people had died, been injured or had their property destroyed. That highlights the inadequacy, or at any rate the inconsistency, of YouTube’s processes. I have looked at those processes so that I can try to advise people who have been hurt by the video, and the
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processes are almost deliberately opaque and make it hard for people to find any mechanism to address their hurt.
I shall not address the issues that the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) has led on in Parliament, because she wants to speak later, and I want other Members to have a chance to contribute to this debate, but I am concerned that decisions—the Muslim video is one example—appear to be taken on an ad hoc basis. A codified, publicly available system would help to show that Google—this applies to other companies, too—is serious about its responsibilities. The companies need to grow up. They are not young cowboys battling on the wilder edges of a new territory about which we know little; we now know a lot, and it is time that that was reflected in the behaviour of internet businesses.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The hon. Lady is outlining the thrust of her powerful argument against the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter, but she has not said what sanctions, if she were successful and her campaign moved to a logical conclusion, a Parliament in an individual nation state might apply that could protect the people whom she and I seek to defend.
Fiona Mactaggart: The hon. Gentleman is right that I have not stated the sanctions that Parliament could apply, because in this debate I am arguing, in the first place, for the industry to grow up, take responsibility and properly self-regulate, and not to say, “Oh, whoops, we are being embarrassed, so we are going to do something,” or, “Oh, whoops, it is dangerous in that country, so we will sort it there.” I am saying, “Come on; you are in the last chance saloon, and you need to take responsibility. If you do it well and right, the Minister will not need to intervene, but if you do not, I will be the first person, not just in this Chamber but in the House, arguing for much more powerful regulation.” That is not where I want to go first. I expect companies not to be surprised when they get it wrong, and to ensure that they put in place proper mechanisms to protect not just vulnerable internet users, but all of us.
My final point is about child abuse images. The Internet Watch Foundation is a model and example to the rest of the world, but it addresses only a narrow, albeit important, part of the internet—the web and newsgroups. Figures recently released by five police forces in England and Wales—Cambridgeshire, Dyfed-Powys, Humberside, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire—show that between 2010 and mid-2012, they seized 26 million pornographic images of children, which is an incredibly troubling number, but think about this: someone calculated that that might mean that more than 300 million images were seized across the country in the same period. Not only does that beggar belief, but it tells us that something is definitely not working as it should. Somehow or other, the industry and all of us need to up our game and confront such harm.
Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): I compliment the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing this extremely valuable debate. I know she has campaigned tirelessly on the issue and will continue to do so.
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I would like to narrow the focus of the debate specifically to the internet service providers. In the UK the top six companies control and sell about 95% of access into the home, which is the place where most of the children to whom the hon. Lady refers are accessing such troubling images. Those companies generate some £3.5 billion a year through access fees, and they are, by and large, well known household names, typically with a well developed sense of corporate social responsibility.
Historically, we have had an ideological situation in which the internet has been treated differently from any other form of media. As the hon. Lady says, back when the internet was a few pony-tailed developers and was a specialist thing that we had dialling up slowly in the corner of our sitting room, that was just fine. Indeed, the light-touch regulation, or lack of regulation, and the global nature of the internet is what has made it such an extremely valuable and innovative forum. Of course, that has changed. The internet is now, arguably, one of the most mass-market forms of communication. With technological convergence, particularly with the rise of internet-enabled televisions, 3G and 4G networks and view-on-demand systems, the internet is rapidly overtaking all other forms of media as the place where many people, particularly the young, socialise and access information and news.
As the hon. Lady alludes to, although children use the internet for all those incredibly productive and wonderful things, with their extraordinary curiosity they also seek out and stumble across material that is very troubling to many. We asked a group of adults whether they are concerned about the ease of access, particularly to adult material, on the internet, and 82% said that they are extremely concerned about how easy it is to access not just pornography but websites on self-harm, suicide and bullying, which are the things we would all like to protect our children against but struggle to do so.
Why do we struggle to do so? I, of course, am a great believer in personal and family responsibility. It is my job as a mother to keep my children safe in the online and offline worlds, but I submit that the technology we have been using to do that is almost obsolete. We have been asked since the earliest days of the internet to download device-protection filters ourselves. People who live in a household like mine will have multiple internet-enabled devices, which we are supposed to protect individually. The download process can be slow, and I submit that in many households the teenage child is the web tsar and computer guru, not the parent. If the parent says, “Have we downloaded the safe search and protection filters?” big Johnny or Janie will say, “Of course, mum and dad, don’t you worry. Off you go. Don’t trouble your little heads about it.” As a result, the proportion of parents who say they have downloaded internet controls or filtering software in households with a child aged between five and 15—remember that 95% of children live in internet-enabled households—has fallen 10 percentage points over the past three years to 39%. That means that six out of 10 children potentially live in households where there is no filtering of content. Troublingly, that proportion drops even further to 33% for teenage children, so two thirds of children aged 13 to 15 live in unprotected households. We can debate for ever the rights and wrongs of that, and how it is all the responsibility of parents, but we know that 82% of
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parents care about this, so it is not a non-issue. The technology and the compact of responsibility have broken down.
What to do? This debate has been started many times. Indeed, the previous Government worked very hard and commissioned a number of reports, including the Byron review. They took the issue very seriously. We have moved on, but little has been done.
My point is that the debate has often been sterile, ending up with discussions of censorship. I would never like to see that, because I do not believe in censoring material; I believe in responsibility and companies signing up to an agenda.
The hon. Member for Slough and I, as many Members did on a cross-party basis, suggested a parliamentary inquiry. We took a lot of evidence and came up with the idea that an opt-in system is the best way to deliver protection. Each home would have a clean feed, using the same filtering technology as is used in device-level filters and in schools—the technology is simple and cheap—and people opt in to receive adult content. There would be choice, there would be no censorship and the material would still be available. That proposal was very popular, and almost two thirds of adults say they like the idea of opt-in technology.
I am proud to be part of a Government who have continued to take the issue seriously. The Prime Minister commissioned the Bailey review, which examined child sexualisation and child safety and resulted in the first little step forward in the internet safety debate: active choice, in which people are forced to say whether they want filters installed. To return to the big Johnny or Janie problem, how many households truly involve the adults in making that decision?
Mr Harris: An aspect of that has been raised with me. One potential problem with the opt-in system—the hon. Lady will probably be able to answer this—is that there are numerous teenagers who cannot rely on being able to speak to their parents about sensitive sexual health issues. With an opt-in filter when signing up to a new internet service provider, I am told that there would be a danger of blocking sites that give reproductive health advice. Many children cannot ask their parents about such issues—I expect about 99% cannot, now that I think of it. That could be a dangerous consequence. Has she considered that particular aspect?
Claire Perry: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that thoughtful intervention. Those are some of the questions that get raised: blocking sites that help children with their homework, or that concern sexual health, sexuality and other things that we know children are more comfortable talking about to friends and others on the internet than to their family.