Regional variations in teenage pregnancy – Westminster Hall debate

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this debate and for her very interesting speech.

When we are discussing teenage pregnancy, it is critical that we do not seek to stigmatise or hurt young women. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, every baby born should be celebrated and every mother supported. Having a baby at any age has its challenges, and we should always seek first to offer assistance rather than dole out judgment.

Since the SNP Scottish Government were elected in 2007, the rate of teenage pregnancies in Scotland has fallen every single year, and it has dropped by about 35% in six years. All the NHS board areas in Scotland have seen reductions in their rates of teenage pregnancies. In the under-20 age group, it has decreased by 34.7%; in the under-18 age group, it has decreased by 41.5%; and in the under-16 age group, it has decreased by 39.8%. All that has not happened by accident. The SNP seeks to give every young person in the country a good start in life, regardless of their circumstances. The Scottish Government and the Minister for Children and Young People, Aileen Campbell MSP, have been working to achieve the goal of making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up, and they are leading policy in early years intervention.

The hon. Member for Telford mentioned looked-after children in particular. I draw attention to the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland—CELCIS—which does great work. The Scottish Government have also worked in a number of different ways to support care leavers by giving them an entitlement to university and further training. There are lots of measures to build their self-esteem and make them feel like the valued part of society that they are.

At the weekend, the SNP pledged to give every newborn baby born in Scotland a Finnish-style baby box to ensure that families have all the things they need to start in life. That programme has been hugely successful in Finland in reducing infant mortality from one of the highest rates in the world to one of the lowest. Interestingly, infant mortality is 60% higher among babies born to teenage mothers, so the baby box has the potential to become an important intervention for this vulnerable group.

It takes time and effort to change the causes and history of teenage pregnancy, as the hon. Member for Strangford indicated. I recently visited the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Glasgow. It is doing interesting and worthwhile work to support young mums. It is piloting an intervention that was started by Yale University called “Minding the Baby”. A health visitor and a social worker work with teenage mums from around seven months into pregnancy until the child is two. That very intensive model has resulted in benefits in improved attachment and better parenting skills. It has raised the self-esteem of the young women involved and had a wider effect on their families. Some have younger brothers and sisters who have seen a benefit in their family after teenage mums went through the programme, so there is a wider benefit to society. I was also delighted to hear that through the programme, a number of young women have been ​supported to breastfeed. That demographic has a low uptake of breastfeeding, but the babies gain a huge and significant benefit.

There is an undeniable correlation between deprivation and teenage pregnancy. Dundee is often mentioned very negatively in that light, but there has been significant progress. Over the past decade, Dundee has seen a 58% drop in teenage conception rates. That is credited to the close working of schools and the local health board and the valuable work of family-nurse partnerships. It is also credited to education. Dundee has a young mums’ unit, which keeps young women in full-time education, meaning that they do not lose out on their education—that vital piece of the jigsaw in moving out of deprivation.

The hon. Members for Telford and for Strangford mentioned the impact of sexual health and relationships education. The House of Commons Library research mentions in relation to England that it is unclear what obligation there will be for schools in England to provide sexual health and relationships education should the Government’s full academisation plans go through. The SNP sees the value in that education and urges the Government to clarify whether new academies will have an obligation to provide sex education in schools. It would be utterly unacceptable for schools to offer no sex education whatever.

The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned prevention and young men, who have an important role. It is not just up to young women; young men have a serious role in teenage pregnancy.

Jim Shannon: A significant role.

Alison Thewliss: A very significant role. If young men and young women together are not educated about sexual health and relationship more widely, we are missing an opportunity to impart important lessons about consent and respect. Leaving it to chance is hugely damaging, as we can see with the ongoing investigations in Parliament into harassment in schools and the higher education sector.

Sexual health and relationships education is very much part of the curriculum in Scotland. My son is five. His primary 1 class has just been learning about human bodies. We should not be daunted by these issues as parents or politicians, because serious issues such as consent can be taught at a young age. It can be as simple as stopping tickling a child when they say no. That is consent, and we need to think about these things more widely.

In Scotland, we updated our national guidance on relationships, sexual health and parenthood education in December 2014. That guidance puts into practice the commitment made in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 that the Scottish Government would actively promote the rights and wellbeing of children and young people. Education in schools should equip children and young people with information to help them keep themselves safe. Giving children and young people the knowledge and understanding of healthy, respectful and loving relationships and the opportunity to explore issues in a safe environment protects them from harm and promotes tolerance. Young people have the right to comprehensive, accurate and evidence-based information to help them make positive, healthy and responsible choices in their relationships.​

Dr Alasdair Allan, our Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, said at the end of 2014:

“The issues covered by RSHP can be seen as the building blocks to how pupils look after themselves and engage with people for the rest of their lives. These classes allow pupils to think about their development and the importance of healthy living surrounded by their peers who will have similar experiences to them…The guidance recognises the professionalism of teachers, the expertise they bring to making lessons age appropriate and an invaluable addition to discussions that parents are likely already having with their children at home.”

Finally, I come back to my point about poverty and deprivation and the correlation with teenage pregnancy. In its most recent statistics, which are from 2013, the Information Services Division notes:

“There is a strong correlation between deprivation and teenage pregnancy. In the under 20 age group, a teenage female living in the most deprived area is 4.8 times as likely to experience a pregnancy as someone living in the least deprived area and nearly 12 times as likely to deliver their baby.”

The UK Government’s welfare cuts and sanctions are increasing poverty—that is the context in which this debate exists—and will not help the teen pregnancy rate. In particular, I draw Members’ attention to how young people aged 18 to 21 will lose access to housing benefits from next year. Centrepoint and Shelter have expressed concerns about the impact that will have on young people. One exception to that policy is where people of that age are parents. When the Government begin to make policies that take age and particular things into account and certain groups lose out, that will have a consequence. My concern is that by excluding that group from housing benefit, the Government perhaps encourage young people in particularly desperate circumstances to make huge life decisions for the wrong reasons, and that would be a seriously retrograde step.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

Alison Thewliss: I would like to end my speech as I began. In our deliberations about teenage pregnancy we should not stigmatise, and in responding to the debate on behalf of the SNP I hope I have not done so. It has certainly not been my intention. We must do all we can to support young people, teenage mums and dads and their babies, and to invest in their future.