12 July 2023
Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights: Overseas Aid

Andrew Mitchell, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, responds to a Westminster Hall debate on sexual and reproductive health and rights and overseas aid.

The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Mr Andrew Mitchell)

It is a tremendous pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and the first time that I have done so. This is a subject that you and I have discussed many times over the last 10 or 15 years, so I know that you take a great interest in it.

My pleasure in appearing before you, Mr Davies, is exceeded only by my pleasure in responding to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), with whom I have had many interactions. As she knows well, I agree with a large amount of what she says, and never more so than in today’s debate. I pay tribute to her for securing the debate, and for the work she does on the International Development Committee, together with its members. It is widely regarded as being among the most expert Committees in the Houses of Parliament. I look forward to giving evidence to her Committee in September, in its inquiry on the important matters that we are discussing. If I do not answer her points in sufficient detail, I know perfectly well that she will pursue me on them.

I also thank the hon. Lady for what she said about the work of British diplomatic missions overseas; I will pass on to the missions her generous words, which I know they will appreciate. As a result of the reduction in the ODA budget from 0.7% to 0.5%, incredibly difficult decisions had to be made, and that imposed an enormous strain on those who are now, but were not then, my officials. Many extraordinarily difficult decisions were made, in furthering the will of Parliament that the budget should be cut, but we are in a better position than we were. I hope that that will become clear next week when we report back to Parliament.

Every woman and girl should have control over her own body and her own life. She should be able to make informed decisions about sex, and whether and when to have children. She should have access to good-quality sexual and reproductive health services and be able to realise her rights. That is far from the case for too many women in too many countries, which is why universal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights forms an important part of the British Government’s approach to development and diplomacy. Our commitment to promoting those rights is set out in our strategies on international development, global health and women and girls, and is a central element of our approach to ending the preventable deaths of mothers, babies and children.

We face many challenges in achieving our aims. Global progress on reducing maternal death rates had stagnated between 2016 and 2020, even before the impact of the covid-19 pandemic. That is why I am championing our efforts to help end the preventable deaths of mothers, babies and children by 2030. The campaign joins up efforts right across the system, on issues including water, sanitation and hygiene, good nutrition, clean air, access to new health technologies, and a supportive environment for sexual and reproductive health and rights, which the hon. Member for Rotherham spoke about so clearly.

Let me turn to the worrying trends that are putting at risk the progress we have made on sexual and reproductive health and gender equality. Attempts to roll back the rights of women, girls and members of the LGBT+ community are increasingly well funded and well organised, and we are determined to confront them. Britain is a proud champion of these hard-won rights. We continue to promote and protect them around the world by working closely with our allies, including in the multilateral sphere. We must challenge the lies, polarisation and division that are undermining that progress. That is why the UK led a landmark joint statement at the UN Third Committee last October. Along with 71 global partners, we committed to working tirelessly to advance gender equality, and to supporting the rights of all women and girls. At this year’s Women Deliver conference in Kigali, the UK will help to catalyse united action against the roll-back of women and girls’ rights, and action to further gender equality. There is much to do, but there is cause for hope and the UK has a key role to play.

I turn to another challenge that we face, which is the reduced domestic Government funding for sexual and reproductive health and rights across the world, which was prompted by the covid pandemic and crises around the world. The UK’s official development assistance has also reduced. It remains the Government’s policy that we will get overseas spending back to 0.7% when the economy allows, but meanwhile we are doing as much as we can to find multipliers that can enhance and augment our taxpayers’ money. We have set out a strong pathway towards that through our strategies on women and girls and on ending preventable deaths.

We remain a key supporter of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and we have a significant portfolio of programmes and policies. For example, through FP2030—the global family planning partnership—the UK is helping partners around the world to advocate for better access to family planning. The global financing facility supports stronger, more sustainable access to health systems. The women’s integrated sexual health programme has enabled more than 9.5 million women and girls in Africa and Asia to use modern methods of contraception, and the UK remains a world leader in efforts to end the AIDS epidemic, including through our health system strengthening work, our work to end preventable deaths, and support for the World Health Organisation and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. We are pushing for equitable access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, dismantling barriers to access, targeting underserved groups and championing SRHR for all.

Sarah Champion 

On FP2030 and the women’s integrated sexual health programme, can the Minister talk about the financial commitments that go alongside the commitment to leading on policy?

Mr Mitchell 

I can certainly say to the hon. Lady that we will do everything we can. As she set out in her speech, this is a very high priority for the Government, and we will do everything we can to make sure that those efforts are adequately resourced.

The Foreign Office and other donors have to adapt our approaches to ensure that the work can be financed sustainably. That means placing accountable country leadership and investment at the heart of our development agenda. For example, the UK has provided more than £200 million to the UNFPA supplies partnership since 2019 to improve the availability, quality and supply of life-saving reproductive health products. That covers family planning, safe abortion, about which the hon. Lady spoke extremely eloquently, and maternal health medicines. Over the last two years, the UNFPA supplies partnership has successfully secured domestic financing commitments from 43 low and middle-income countries regarding their own reproductive health supplies, totalling $26.4 million, and many committed for the first time.

The final element of our approach is ensuring that our efforts on sexual and reproductive health are fully integrated into our broader work on strengthening health systems. That was set out in our G7 Health Ministers communiqué in May. We and the other member states have committed to universal access to comprehensive health services—which include maternal, sexual and reproductive health services—at every stage of life. In making that pledge, we recognise that those services are a vital part of achieving the UN sustainable development goals.

To conclude, we are acutely aware of the challenges that we face in advancing this work, many of which were set out so eloquently by the hon. Lady.

Sarah Champion 

Will the Minister give way before he finishes?

Mr Mitchell 

Yes. I am perorating rather than finishing, but of course I will give way.

Sarah Champion 

I know the Minister well. If he cannot comment now, can he do some research when the RCOG report on benign gynaecological conditions comes out? I was genuinely shocked to discover that those conditions were killing more women than the other major diseases combined, and that we are not focused on that. I would be extremely grateful if the Minister made a commitment to look into that.

Mr Mitchell 

I will certainly look into it. I was extremely struck by what the hon. Lady said about the scale of that issue, and by the comparison that she set out so clearly.

Despite the challenges, the UK continues to prioritise work on sexual and reproductive health and gender equality across the full span of our development and diplomatic work. That includes targeted support to reduce maternal mortality, determined efforts to reduce the roll-back of SRHR and women and girls’ rights, and work to secure sustainable financing. We will continue to advocate for the world’s most marginalised and underserved people so that we secure rights and choices for all.

When it comes to making progress on international development, Britain’s aims cannot be understood unless they are seen through the eyes of girls and women, who suffer the extremes of poverty first and hardest. In putting girls and women at the forefront of everything that we do, a particular aim of the Government’s is to get as many girls into school as we possibly can. As I told the House this morning, in the last five years for which figures are available, we were able to procure the education of more than 8 million girls.

We are also focusing on family planning; ensuring that women have the ability to decide for themselves whether and when they have children; and bearing down on all sexual violence against women, but particularly in the hideousness of conflict. Those three aspects of our policy drive us forward in what we believe is the critical battle of our times: the need to do something about the appalling discrepancies of opportunity and wealth that disfigure our world today.