Dáil debates

Wednesday, 11 May 2005

3:00 pm

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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Question 62: To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children if her attention has been drawn to concerns expressed regarding the reduction in funding for the promotion of contraception and safe sex among young people, especially in view of a recent increase in the number of teenage pregnancies; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15336/05]

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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In response to the specific issues regarding unplanned pregnancy, the Crisis Pregnancy Agency was established by statutory instrument in 2001 and is funded by the Department. The Crisis Pregnancy Agency is a planning and co-ordinating body established to formulate and implement a strategy to address the issue of crisis pregnancy in Ireland. A core aim of the agency is to achieve reduction in the number of crisis pregnancies by the provision of education, advice and contraceptive services.

The first strategy to address the issue of crisis pregnancy was officially launched in November 2003 and provides a framework for understanding the causes and consequences of crisis pregnancy and presents a clear set of actions to address the complex and interacting factors that contribute to the experience of a crisis pregnancy. The Crisis Pregnancy Agency works on an ongoing basis with statutory and non-statutory agencies to ensure successful implementation of the strategy. Since its establishment, the agency has received a total of €26.996 million in funding.

To promote contraception and safe sex, the Crisis Pregnancy Agency funds the Think Contraception campaign. This campaign is aimed primarily at people between 18 and 30 and also promotes abstinence as an option in sexual health as well as all forms of contraception for those who are sexually active but do not wish to become pregnant. The Think Contraception campaign is the result of many months planning which involved the development of an evidence base to inform the campaign, a consultation process with relevant stakeholders and focus testing among the target group. The campaign aims to prevent unplanned pregnancy by reminding sexually active young adults to use contraception consistently. While primarily a television advertising campaign, support literature and a website have also been developed to further support the key messages. The leaflet has been widely circulated to all GPs, pharmacies and family planning clinics. These are locations where young adults can receive expert advice and information.

The Crisis Pregnancy Agency develops and runs additional promotional campaigns on pregnancy prevention on an ongoing basis to directly engage with sexually active young adults. The aim of these targeted campaigns is to heighten awareness among young adults of the probability of sexual risk-taking with alcohol consumption, specially while one is on holiday, away from home and in places of entertainment. It also aims to renew their knowledge on benefits of condom use and contraception awareness. The 2005 promotional campaign will begin in June of this year.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

In 2005, the funding allocated to the Crisis Pregnancy Agency's programme of prevention will be €825,000. In addition to the agency's direct promotional work, its funding programme is the largest single component of the annual budget. The programme funded 78 projects in 2004 and there is a no-policy-change commitment to disburse more than €3 million of funds in 2005. Within the overall programme of funding, a wide range of projects with a focus on crisis pregnancy prevention has been supported to the value of €736,000 nationally.

The Department also recognises its key role in supporting policy development and cross-Government working to address the issue of young people's health generally and in particular regarding promoting safer sex. In this regard, the Department works closely with the Department of Education and Science and other agencies and bodies to support young people in developing the appropriate knowledge, attitudes and personal skills to enable healthy relationships and sexuality.

In the school setting, the Department is working in partnership with the Department of Education and Science and the Health Service Executive to support schools in the introduction and delivery of social, personal and health education at both primary and post-primary levels. Relationships and sexuality education is an integral part of this curriculum and remains a key priority for this work with schools. Since the establishment of the support service in 2000, the Department has directly provided funding of more than €150,000 per annum to the service and this has been matched by substantial funding from the other partners.

In the out-of-school setting, the health promotion unit of the Department works in partnership with the youth affairs section of the Department of Education and Science and the National Youth Council of Ireland to implement the national youth health programme. The aim of the programme is to provide a broad-based, flexible health promotion and education support and training service to youth organisations and to all those working with young people in the non-formal education sector. Within the context of this programme, a training initiative entitled "Sense and Sexuality" is offered to youth workers. It addresses the issues of relationships, sexuality and sexual health with young people. In 2005 the programme will receive a funding allocation of more than €80,000.

The health promotion unit also runs a national public awareness advertising campaign to promote sexual health. The campaign is aimed at men and women in the age group 15 to 35 to increase awareness of safe sex and sexually transmitted infections. The overall goal is to increase safe sex practices, reducing the incidence of sexually transmitted infections transmission and unwanted pregnancies among young people. The campaign runs in third level colleges, places of entertainment, including pubs, clubs and discos, and youth venues and some health centres. This national programme has been running for several years and the health promotion unit is currently implementing a new and revised campaign, which has greatly increased the number of venues targeted. Since 2002 an information leaflet has been distributed as part of the campaign and currently the campaign is placed in 1,490 display points in 240 venues nationally. In 2005 almost €200,000 will be allocated for the development, expansion and continuation of this programme. The health promotion unit also produces a range of awareness raising leaflets on sexually transmitted infections and safe sex practices.

In all of the work carried out by the Department and the agencies it funds, the important role of parents in the development of healthy relationships and sexuality for young people is acknowledged and supported. To this end a key aspect of the strategy to address the issue of crisis pregnancy is to support parents in their role as the primary educators of their children on issues such as sexuality and relationships. In response to requests from parents and parent groups for help on how to begin talking to children about such a sensitive topic, the Crisis Pregnancy Agency developed a new resource called "You Can Talk To Me". This DVD and booklet aims to assist parents in communicating with their children — adolescents in junior cycle — about sexual health and relationships.

The rate of teenage fertility in Ireland has been relatively stable over the past 30 years. The number of teenage pregnancies per 1,000 females aged between 15 and 19 has ranged from 17.04 in 1970 to 25.66 in 2001. The teenage pregnancy rate shows a similar pattern to fertility rates since the 1980s. While the figure has been increasing since 1996, the current level is now the same as the 1980 level.

My Department's response to the issue of crisis and teenage pregnancy has been to work with all relevant stakeholders to develop a comprehensive and co-ordinated response and strategy. Total funding for the wide range of activity currently under way reflects a considerable increase in the allocation in recent years.

Photo of Liz McManusLiz McManus (Wicklow, Labour)
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Nobody would argue that the Crisis Pregnancy Agency is not doing a very good job and therefore I will not comment further on this. However, I am concerned about the rather complacent approach the Minister of State has adopted to safe sex. One does not just get pregnant from sex, one can also get herpes, gonorrhoea, syphilis and hepatitis B, for example. More people are contracting STDs or STIs than ever before. The number has trebled since the late 1980s. Does the Minister not feel he should be ashamed that the budget for promoting safe sex among young people has decreased by 17%? What will he do about that? Young people have been targeted but people beyond child-bearing age also contract sexually transmitted diseases, yet there seems to be no effort to inform them about the risks in unprotected sex.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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I do not agree we are complacent. We are aware of the difficulties that exist. We have taken action to highlight to young people the dangers of unprotected sex. We work with the Department of Education and Science in schools. Outside the school setting we engage with youth groups to provide education and promotional material. We run a national public awareness campaign to promote sexual health directed at men and women aged between 18 and 35 years. That campaign aims to increase awareness of safe sex and sexually transmitted infections.

Promotional campaigns are only part of the solution to the problem. There must be back-up too. A recent study of third level students showed that when in difficulty they are reluctant to come forward and seek advice. We are working with the colleges to ensure we have a team available on campus to deal with students in trouble.

We have run a national awareness campaign for the past six years for which we will provide over €200,000 this year. In 2000 the figure for that campaign was €106,000.

Photo of Liz McManusLiz McManus (Wicklow, Labour)
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Is the Minister of State not aware that in every year during which the Department has run its campaign the level of sexually transmitted infections has risen? He has not answered the question why, if this issue is so important and deserving of campaigns, the budget was significantly reduced between 2003 and 2004. Why does the budget not increase to meet the needs created by this growing problem? It is a problem which affects young and old people, whom the Minister of State seems to ignore as being sexually inactive.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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The Crisis Pregnancy Agency was established to deal with the problem of unplanned pregnancy. The agency's main aim was to reduce the number of crisis pregnancies through education, advice and the provision of contraceptive services. Since we established it in 2001 we have increased the revenue to the agency each year, amounting to a total of €27 million.

Photo of Liz McManusLiz McManus (Wicklow, Labour)
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I am referring to the budget directed at young people.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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There have been several campaigns and we have increased the budget for the national awareness campaign each year for the past six years.

Photo of Liam TwomeyLiam Twomey (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State is focusing on contraception but he should focus on education. It might surprise him to know that 13 and 14 year olds regularly engage in sexual activity. Three factors are involved here: many teenage girls suffer low-esteem and allow themselves to be coerced in sexual activity, there is a high rate of consumption of alcohol and drugs by teenagers and they are ignorant of sex education. In many cases they have no clue as to what is happening or what they are doing. That is because there is no proper sex education. The Government's sex education policy is fumbling around in the same way that teenagers fumble around when engaged in sexual activity. That is the area on which the Minister of State should focus. We will have moved in 15 years from having to provide sex education in secondary schools to providing it in primary schools if we do not tackle the issue. I would appreciate the Minister of State's opinion on that comment.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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We are aware of the problem and have worked in partnership with the Department of Education and Science to support schools in the introduction of social, personal and health education. That scheme involves primary and post-primary schools. The relationships and sexuality education is a vital part of the curriculum and is a key priority of our work with schools.

I disagree with the Deputy that teenagers do not know what they are doing. Young people are more educated today than they have ever been. They are probably prepared to take more risks today than we were.

Photo of Liam TwomeyLiam Twomey (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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I must challenge that statement. Teenagers may know what they are doing, but they do not know how it works.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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Several studies have identified alcohol as a major factor in many unwanted pregnancies and in the practice of unsafe sex.