– in the House of Lords at 3:29 pm on 24th May 2023.
To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they plan to support the recommendations in the United Nations Population Fund report 8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities: the case for rights and choices and, if so, how.
My Lords, the UK is proud to champion comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights, which are fundamental to unlock the potential agency and freedom of women and girls. This is at the heart of our international women and girls strategy. We endorse the recommendations for rights and choices for all. We have a strong relationship with the UNFPA, with funding in place to support programmes that avert millions of unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortions, and prevent hundreds of thousands of maternal and child deaths.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree with the report that, in trying to find solutions to build “demographic resilience”, we need to work with
“civil society, the private sector, and families to adopt holistic policies” on health, better regulation of the labour market and better management of migration, as well as promoting reproductive rights for women and girls? Can he give an example of a FCDO-funded programme which is successful in that regard?
The Government share the view outlined by my noble friend, on all the points. As she said, the report makes for grim reading in parts, although I think it is optimistic. We learn, for example, that, in the 68 reporting countries, around 44% of partnered women are unable to make decisions over healthcare, contraception or sex, which I found a shocking figure. The FCDO invests in a broad range of programmes in maternal, newborn and childcare, such as on access to voluntary family planning, HIV/AIDS care and ending FGM. My noble friend asked for examples. These include: the Global Financing Facility; reproductive health supplies; and our support for the FP2030, the grass-roots Safe Abortion Action Fund, and the Africa-led movement to end FGM, to name just a few.
My Lords, the UN report estimates that 257 million people around the world do not have direct access to safe and reliable contraception, which means that they have no choice in deciding how many children they want. In the light of this, is it not crucial to restore the family planning programmes that have been cut by the Government as a result of the reduction in development aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI? How soon will these reductions, which the Government made, be reversed, in particular to their aid for family planning?
I cannot give a date for the return to 0.7% from 0.5%. I hope that happens as soon as possible; I know that view is shared by many in this House. But we remain a significant funder. Between 2015 and 2020, we supported an annual average of 25 million women and girls to use voluntary modern contraception. We believe that, every year, that prevented nearly 9 million unintended pregnancies and 2.8 million unsafe abortions, and saved more than 8,000 women’s lives, as well as preventing the trauma of over 81,000 stillbirths and 48,000 newborn deaths. Since 2018, our aid to the women’s integrated sexual health programme has supported nearly 10 million women to use modern methods of contraception. We believe that in 2021 over 12,000 maternal deaths and 1.8 million unsafe abortions were averted as a direct consequence.
My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Baroness’s supplementary question about taking a holistic approach, but the noble Lord keeps quoting spending figures. I respect the Government’s commitment, but they implemented an 85% cut in funding to the UNFPA. Instead of telling us what they are spending, can the Minister tell us what the impact of that 85% cut was on the women’s health programmes on which we have been focused?
My Lords, I cannot put numbers to the noble Lord’s question, but I can say that in our integrated review and the international development strategy—IDS—the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have set a clear direction and this remains a priority issue. We remain significant global funders. We are a long-standing partner of the UNFPA and we remain a lending funder of its Supplies Partnership, which is dedicated to the procurement and distribution of contraceptives and maternal health medicines in 53 of the world’s poorest countries. The impact of that has been dramatic; I will avoid the temptation to go through the figures, but I do not think anyone doubts the UK’s commitment or the impact of its funding.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the co-chair of the APPG on Population, Development and Reproductive Health. The Minister quite rightly quoted the staggering figure of 44% of partnered women who are unable to exercise bodily autonomy and said that we should be ensuring that each individual is free to choose their own reproductive future. Can I ask him specifically what the FCDO is doing to promote the fact that as a global society we must guarantee that women have the ability and rights to make reproductive and sexual health decisions free from discrimination, coercion and violence? What specific programmes are attached to the ones he has already mentioned that will underline these choices?
Again, I agree with the premise of the noble Baroness’s question. In 2021, we were the second-largest global bilateral donor on family planning. We delivered on the 2017 summit commitment to spend an average of £225 million a year on family planning over five years to 2022. Between 2015 and 2020 we believe we reached nearly 25.5 million women and girls with modern methods of family planning. This remains a major focus in UK bilateral and multi- lateral spending in relation to women and girls.
My Lords, given the findings of the UNFPA report, I welcome the publication of the FCDO’s international women and girls strategy. As my noble friend the Minister says, it recognises the importance of continued UK work on sexual and reproductive health and rights and notices the regrettable global rollback on women’s rights. What are the Government doing to ensure that the strategy is properly institutionalised across our diplomatic networks?
My noble friend is right to make this point. There is no point having a strategy of the sort we have just published if it is not embedded internationally through our posts. I assure the noble Baroness and the House that all posts will implement the strategy. They have been directed to do so by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. To reinforce that, although it preceded the strategy, this issue is placed centrally as a high priority, indeed a top priority, in both the IDS and the integrated review.
My Lords, does the Minister share our amazement that despite the amount of money we spend on aid here, around Europe and around the world that so many women have no access to family planning? Surely this should be our number one priority and should take precedence over some of the other programmes.
On one level I am inclined to agree with the noble Lord but there are so many important themes that the Foreign Office has prioritised in our integrated review and our IDS—there is permanent tension between competing causes. It is a priority for the Government—that has been made crystal clear in all the key documents that have been produced in the last couple of years that set the direction of our funding for the next decade—but it is not the only priority.
My Lords, the report we are discussing says much about rights and choices but nothing about parenting capacity and skills. What are the Government doing, particularly in the education system, to inform our young people about the responsibilities and realities of parenthood, which are hugely demanding, regardless of income levels?
This is another important point. I assume that the noble Lord is talking about what we are doing here in the UK. I am straying a bit but to prepare children for life in modern Britain pupils need to understand the world in which they are growing up. We want to support all young people to lead happy, healthy and safe lives and to foster respect for other people and for differences. That is why we made the new subjects of relationships education for primary schools and relationships and sex education for secondary schools and health education for all pupils in state-funded schools compulsory as of September 2020.
My Lords, the Minister has given us an impressive list of programmes for women and girls and emphasised the human rights, which is correct, but no mention was made of men. Presumably men are the target of family planning programmes as well. Do the Government have any method of monitoring what they are doing to involve men in these family planning events?
The noble Lord makes an important point—
I am talking about the noble Earl over here, although I will convey the other noble Lord’s comments to my friend in the other place. Of course, many of the programmes that I have described—and I do not have time to go into detail—focus not just on women and girls but on the entire family. They focus on society. I mentioned earlier and repeat that 44% of partnered women are unable to make decisions over their own healthcare, contraception or sex. The answer to that lies not just with women but with broader society as well, of course.