Give children easier access to contraception, Government told

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Schoolchildren under 16 will be offered easier access to contraceptives and NHS abortions under plans put forward by an influential committee on teenage pregnancy yesterday.

The controversial recommendations, which were welcomed by ministers, include "confidential health services" in secondary schools for pupils to seek advice about sex and relationships. Condoms would be available and, if the service was run by a nurse or doctor, young girls could be given the morning-after-pill or long-term contraceptives without their parents being informed.

The first report of the Independent Advisory Group on Teenage Pregnancy (IAG), which is chaired by Lady Winifred Tumim, also called for doctors to make more use of contraceptive implants.

The group was set up last year as part of a government campaign to dramatically reduce the UK's high rate of teenage births, which exceeds that of all other Western European countries.

While there has been a recent downturn in teenage births, the UK rate is still twice as high as in Germany, three times that of France and six times the Dutch rate. In England, there were 39,000 conceptions to girls under 18 in 1999 of which 7,400 were to girls under 16. Pregnancies are most common in deprived areas where young people have lower aspirations and more disadvantaged backgrounds.

The IAG report, which said that all young people should be able to make "positive and informed choices in their lives", made 49 recommendations to enhance the role of schools and support young people who have become parents.

Lady Tumim said: "We must also learn from neighbouring countries in Europe, which have a much more pragmatic outlook on teaching young people about sex and contraception, and where teenage pregnancy rates are significantly lower than in England."

The report said health and sex education, which is often regarded as a low priority in schools, should become part of the National Curriculum. Research among parents suggested the vast majority would support this.

Jacqui Smith, the Health Minister, said the report was a "valuable" contribution and a full response would be given next spring.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church said measures to help young mothers return to education were important.

"But simply focusing on abortion and contraception provision without changing attitudes and behaviour will not reduce teen pregnancy rates in the long term and can be harmful to young people."

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