Monday, July 31, 2006

Children Who Have Sex Advice May be Reported to Police

CHILDREN under 16 would be automatically reported to the police if they seek advice on contraception, pregnancy or abortion, under government proposals.

Family planning and health campaigners said yesterday that the plans, which would do away with a child’s right to confidential sexual health advice, would be disastrous because they would deter many from seeking much-needed help.

Jan Barlow, chief executive of Brook, the sexual health charity, said it could lead to “a massive increase” in unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

“Abusive or coercive relationships would also be more likely to remain hidden if young people felt that there was no one they could trust to listen to them in confidence,” she said.

Department of Health guidance for those providing sexual and reproductive health advice makes clear that people under 16 have the same right to confidentiality as adults. The exception is children not considered mature enough to understand what they are doing or at risk of exploitation.

This principle of confidentiality is a key part of the Government’s teenage pregnancy strategy. Teenage conceptions have fallen by 10 per cent since it was put in place in 1998.

But the current guidance is due to be challenged in the courts next month by Sue Axon, a mother of five from Baguley, Manchester, who is concerned that it enables under-16s to have an abortion without parental consent.

The Department for Education and Skills is now consulting on whether new guidance should be issued requiring information on under-age sexual activity “always” to be referred to the police.

The proposals have been drawn up in response to Sir Michael Bichard’s inquiry into Ian Huntley, the Soham murderer. Sir Michael was particularly concerned that social workers had failed properly to investigate reports that Huntley, who was convicted of murdering Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in 2003, had had a string of sexual encounters with under-age girls.

Police had looked into a number of these allegations, but taken no formal action.

Brook is concerned that removing confidentiality would deter children from seeking sexual health and contraception advice.

A recent survey of young people found that nearly three quarters (74 per cent) would be less likely to seek advice if they thought that information could be passed to the police or social workers.

The Association of Chief Police Officers backs the proposals, but the British Medical Association, the General Medical Council and the Royal College of Nursing said that they supported Brook’s campaign to defend the principle of confidentiality.

Michael Wilks, chairman of the BMA’s ethics committee, said: “Although confidentiality is not absolute, and can be breached where there is a risk of serious harm, mandatory reporting of non-abusive relationships threatens the trust that underpins the relationship between doctors and patients.”

A DfES spokesman said that nothing had yet been decided. “We are seeking views on what guidance would be helpful in sharing information about under-age sexual activity, to better safeguard young people from harm,” he said.

Signs of a split between the DfES and the Department for Health on the issue emerged. A DfH spokeswoman said that anxiety about confidentiality was a serious deterrent to many young people asking for contraceptive advice.”


* A quarter of girls first have intercourse before the age of 16.

* The number of 13 to 15-year-olds becoming pregnant rose by 2.5 per cent to 8,076 between 2002 and 2003.

* The number of abortions among under-14s rose by 6 per cent in 2004 to 157.

* New cases of the sexually transmitted infection chlamydia increased by 8 per cent in 2004 to reach 103,932. Ten per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds may be carriers.

* Overall cases of all types of STIs have doubled among teenagers in ten years, with new cases among those under 20 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland up from 669,291 in 1991 to 1,332,910 in 2001.

* Three quarters of parents with a child aged 10 to 17 agree that under-16s should have access to confidential contraception advice. Seven out of ten agree that under-16s should be given free contraception.

Sources: ONS, Health Protection Agency, BMRB

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