In a decimal point slip of breath-taking ineptitude, David Cameron’s Conservative Party proclaimed an increase in the number of teens getting pregnant in Britain’s most deprived areas that was hugely in excess of the official figure.
Yesterday, the Tories published a document on Labour’s “Two Nations” that, as well as serving as a vehicle for cribbing Lib Dem policy such as the pupil premium, loudly proclaimed that 54% of Britain’s poorest teenage women became pregnant before the age of eighteen. The document, issued in David Cameron’s name, laid responsibility for this 54% increase squarely on the shoulders of Gordon Brown and his Government.
The actual figure is 5.4% – and this latest row comes just ten days after the Tories were lambasted by Sir Michael Scholar, the head of the UK Statistics Agency for misusing crime figures in a way that could damage public trust in official statistics.
So how did the Tories make such a stupid mistake?
The first question is did they? A cynic might assume this was a deliberate ploy, designed to fuel the prejudices of traditional Tory voters whilst inflating a general sense of outrage at the country’s moral breakdown. It would certainly fit with the apparent Tory habit of manipulating statistics for sensational political effect.
More likely, though, it was cock-up. In that case, one has to ask how on earth such a blatantly ridiculous statistic made it past the combined fact-checking powers of the Shadow Cabinet, their advisers, the Tories’ Parliamentary Research Unit (who I assume was asked to check it) and the Conservative Party Press Office – especially when David Cameron put his name to its foreword.
The frightening thought is that perhaps they are that out of touch with the country that they simply passed it over, shaking their heads as they collectively “tut-tutted”, assuming it was true.
An increase of 5.4% is nothing for Labour to be proud of.
Britain is regularly reported as having the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe. The most recent figures for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) puts the rate of teenage births in the UK at 24.8 births per 1000 women aged 15-19. (Note – this is teenage births. Pregnancies would be higher – and this statistic does not account for births in teenagers under 15.)
A 2001 paper by Alice MacLeod, published in the British Medical Journal said:
“In England reduced rates of teenage pregnancy have been found to be associated with proximity to youth family planning clinics.”
The lack of access to proper advice would be consistent with a more recent YouGov survey for Channel 4 that found that almost a third of teenagers want more sex and relationships education.
The experience of other European countries, who have equally sexualised societies (and arguably more-so), but more comprehensive education about sex and relationships, is that rates of teenage pregnancy are lower. For instance, there has been controversy over proposals to end the parental opt-out of sex education in English schools once pupils turn fifteen (currently parents in can opt their children out until the age of nineteen), yet no such opt-out exists in most European countries. (There is an interesting comparative paper available from the National Foundation for Educational Research which, unfortunately, doesn’t include Britain, but does look at the way sex education is structured elsewhere in the world.)
Teenage pregnancy is an issue that needs tackling with proper understanding – firmly, calmly and compassionately. That isn’t achieved when you are electioneering from the campaign scrimmage, trading the misery of broken lives for the votes of “Disgusted of Tumbridge Wells” with utterly wrong information.
Concoction or cock-up, it doesn’t leave you with any confidence about the Tories’ real commitment to tackling social deprivation beyond their election re-branding.