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14 March 2013

Commentary: Why is the government hiding its sexual health policy?

Katherine O’Brien, BPAS press and policy officer, writes on the Liberal Conspiracy blog.

On 1st April of this year, local authorities will take over the commissioning of sexual health services. They will be responsible for contraceptive services, testing and treating of STIs including HIV, and sexual health outreach, education and training.

To help them with this extremely difficult transition, the government promised a Sexual Health Policy Document would be published in spring 2011.

But with just over two weeks until Local Authorities are expected to commission these services, it has yet to arrive.

This document was to be, according to the then health minister Anne Milton, a “vital source of information and current evidence” to be used by local authorities as “guidance to help them” complete the task the government has placed on their shoulders. It seems at best poor planning and at worst complete negligence to have delayed the document for this long, an issue that has been raised by MPs on both sides of the House.

Whilst the government has mandated local authorities to providing sexual health services, it is unclear as to what the government expects these services to look like.

Because the document has been postponed and postponed yet again, sexual health experts have stated that in some areas local authorities are “waiting” for the document to arrive before making these decisions as they simply “don’t have anything to work with.” Due to this wait, PCTs have not brought in strategies to reduce unintended pregnancies.

Sexual health is only one demand on the local authorities public health grants – and it isn’t a popular one. It’s an area of health care that is essential but contentious and divisive.

And without proper guidance on how they should be providing sexual health service, there is a real concern that this task will drop to the bottom of priorities for the already over-stretched local authorities.

Sexual health is not an issue politicians want to talk about, and it’s not an issue that voters want to hear about. It’s hard to imagine a public outcry over lack of access to sexual health clinics in the same way you might see over dentists.

On this basis, it seems perhaps worryingly understandable that without real care sexual health could fall through the gaps.

Local authorities are currently planning what sexual health services they will commission and how. The government should have acted two years ago.

With only a matter of weeks to go until local authorities are responsible for these services, the government had better act fast to ensure that sexual health care does not lose out in the scramble for funding.

The government is hiding its sexual health policy, and it’s important to ask why. By Katherine O’Brien. Liberal Conspiracy, 14 March 2013