Baroness Cumberlege, Under- Secretary of State for Health, was speaking after it was revealed that North Birmingham Health Authority was providing free condoms 'as a last resort' for girls aged 12 to 18 attending 'Health Yourself' sessions at a youth club in the city.
Lady Cumberlege said family planning nurses should 'use their professional judgement' in deciding whether to provide condoms to under-age girls.
That, amid the 'back to basics' climate, was given a warm welcome by Christine Hancock, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, who said: 'It is very important that we have at least one government minister who is realistic about the problem of under-age pregnancies. We have one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the Western world and we cannot just wish it away. It is really important that at least one government minister has publicly recognised that it is a big problem for the whole of the country.'
June Clark, president of the RCN, called for family planning nurses to work not just in schools but 'in places where teenagers gather - in the Virgin superstore or the Body Shop'.
As one of its Health of the Nation targets, the Government aims to halve by 2000 the number of under- age pregnancies - currently about 8,000 a year.
However, Dame Jill Knight, MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and chairman of the Tory backbench health committee, attacked as a 'disgraceful exercise' the issuing of condoms at the advice sessions run by a family planning nurse at the Shard End Youth Club in the city.
Lady Cumberlege, who had been speaking at the RCN's congress in Bournemouth, said advice and education were the main way to cut teenage pregnancies. 'But in the end if a nurse recognises there are one or two teenagers who are particularly vulnerable they should give them the best advice they can and if necessary the means to prevent pregnancy.'
Asked if that applied to girls as young as 13 or 14, the minister said they would be 'very much a minority' but it remained 'up to the nurse to use her professional judgement'. North Birmingham, she said, had one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the country, with 80 under-age pregnancies last year, two-thirds of which ended in abortion.
In a statement made later last night, Lady Cumberlege said she wanted to stress that she did not believe condoms should be made freely available to girls under 16.
'I'm sorry that my remarks have been taken out of context,' she said.
'North Birmingham has an extremely high level of teenage pregnancies and those nurses who are working there to reduce it deserve our support. It is certainly not my view that contraceptives should be freely supplied to under-age girls and I believe that wherever possible parents should be fully involved in the advice given to their children.'
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