MINISTERIAL attempts to manipulate soap operas backfired this week as television executives told The TES that the Government had no hand in a controversial teenage pregnancy storyline.
Health minister Yvette Cooper this week praised Coronation Street's story of 13-year-old Sarah Louise Tilsley, pregnant by "a boy in my class".
Her comments came as she unveiled a pound;6 million programme to provide pregnant schoolgirls with one-to-one information and advice on abortion, adoption and motherhood.
"Sarah Louise is not the first pregnant teenager in our soaps," she told 150 pregnancy co-ordinators charged with driving through the campaign to cut the number of gymslip mums by 50 per cent by 2010.
"I remember watching the story of pregnant 16-year-old Michelle Fowler in EastEnders. But from Michelle to Sarah Louise, too little has changed."
But as she spoke, staff from Granada insisted that ministers had no input into the highly-charged plot. A spokesman for the soap said: "There is no denying this is of public interest but our stories are character-led. We have been under no pressure from the Government to do this.
"If this sparks debate between teenagers and their parents that is good. We hope that we have handled the story sensitively."
Under a Sure Start Plus scheme announced this week by Ms Cooper, teenager mums in 20 loal education authorities will receive special help.
Between them the councils have to cope with 11,000 schoolgirl pregnancies a year. Cash will be spent on providing pupils with impartial information and advice to help them decide whether to choose abortion, adoption or continuing their pregnancies.
The UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe, with young girls from poorer backgrounds 10 times more likely to become mothers than those from better-off families. In other European countries teenage pregnancy rates have fallen over the past decade.
Here, nearly 90,000 teenagers a year become pregnant in England alone, around 8,000 of whom are under 16. The Government aims to cut the number of teenage pregnancies by 50 per cent by 2010.
Nearly 100,000 babies were conceived by teenage mothers in Britain in 1996 including 8,829 by teenagers under 16, latest figures show. It is the highest number in the EU and five times that of the Netherlands. Almost 90 per cent of teenage mothers in this country are unmarried, compared with just 10 per cent in Japan.
Peter Coster, an education psychologist working to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies in Leeds under the Government's Excellence in Cities programme, said countries such as Holland, which has the lowest number of teenage pregnancies in Europe, had better quality sex education and were more at ease generally with the subject of sex.
GRAPHIC Sure Start Plus pilots NOT AVAILABLE ON THIS DATABASE