Will Labour deliver on teenage mums?;Briefing;Analysis

19th March 1999 at 00:00
Nearly 100,000 babies are born to single women under the age of 20 in Britain every year. Jon Slater reports on what the Government intends to do about this trickiest of issues

Hostels are the latest bright idea to combat the social problems associated with single teenage parents.

After the negative rhetoric of the Conservative years, the suggestion of a national network of hostels to house and help young unmarried mums is the first glimpse of Labour's plans.

Britain has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the developed world. Almost 100,000 babies are born to teenage mothers in Britain each year - including 9,000 to teenagers under 16. Around one in every 30 new-born babies has a mother under 20. This compares to one in every 110 in France and one in every 140 in the Netherlands.

Predictably, the problem has attracted the attention of family-values campaigners. This is partly because of under-age sex but also because survey results suggest that, in Britain, 87 per cent of teenage mothers are unmarried. This compares to just 10 per cent in Japan.

However, concern is not confined to those pledged to uphold moral standards. The opportunity to please the Daily Mail may itself have been enough to get ministers to act, but for a Government keen to tackle social exclusion this was always going to be an important issue.

Both mothers and fathers in this age group come predominantly from social classes III and IV. And about a fifth of young women leaving care are either pregnant or already mothers.

For both teenage mothers and their children, life can be a struggle. According to the National Children's Bureau: "Teenage mothers are less academically able than their childless contemporaries and more likely to leave school at the earliest opportunity with few or no qualifications."

The ongoing National Child Development Study suggests that a quarter of teenage mothers were themselves born to teenagers. The brutal fact is that teenage parenthood helps to ensure that those at the bottom of the social pile stay there.

Policies such as the New Deal for Lone Parents (which gives young mothers information, training and other help to find work), improved parenting advice and increased availability of childcare are all designed to help young parents escape this trap. But they are costly. Ministers would prefer prevention to cure.

Dr Anna Coote, project director at the King's Fund - a health policy think tank - says that many young girls become pregnant because they see motherhood as the best future open to them. She believes schools have a vital role to play in raising their expectations. If they believe they can succeed in education and the world of work then motherhood becomes a less attractive option.

However, it takes two to tango. After years of focusing on girls the political spotlight is set to shift, at least partially, towards the role of boys. Here schools can play a key role through personal, social and health education. Those boys who expect to walk away from the consequences may think again if they realise that a baby could cost them a third of their income for up to 18 years. "Boys have to realise that a baby is for life, not just a one-night stand," said Dr Coote.

The Government's strategy will be outlined after Easter in a report by the Social Exclusion Unit. It has just toured Whitehall in draft form and is expected to endorse this shift in focus towards feckless fathers.

Another key area - something of a moral maze for ministers - is sex education. Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family Panning Association, would like to see children given an entitlement to sex education and family planning. But she is sceptical about whether it will happen. "There is a question about how far the Government will go in relation to sex education - especially in primary school," she said.

Last week, nurses' leaders called for school nurses to be given the power to hand out contraceptives to girls as young as 11. They believe that this could make a real impact on teenage pregnancies. And the Social Exclusion Unit has been looking at the use of contraceptive implants by girls in the US.

However, any move to make contraceptives more widely available is likely to prompt a backlash from those who believe such an approach is counter-productive.

Victoria Gillick, the anti-abortion family campaigner who battled against giving the Pill to teenagers in the early Eighties, attacked the nurses' proposals. "No responsible parent would want their child to go to school and be kitted out for under-age sex," she said.

Such views are backed by large sections of the media, which gives ministers a headache. Do they follow the advice of the professionals that easier access to guidance and contraception reduces the risk of unwanted pregnancies or do they pander to alarmist press accounts of teenage promiscuity? Only last weekend, the Daily Mail highlighted the concerns of middle England under the headline, "The shocking truth on teenage sex". The report cited a new Office for National Statistics survey which found one in five 16 to 19-year-olds had two or more sexual partners in the preceding year.

The picture is further clouded by the conservative (with a small c) views of senior ministers. Tony Blair, Jack Straw and David Blunkett are all keen supporters of the traditional family - although they are also eager to pursue pragmatic solutions.

Going by past form, this conflict is likely to result in an essentially liberal policy accompanied by moral rhetoric and the odd populist gimmick. And despite their critics' fears that they will end up as ghettos, hostels for single teenage mums may just fit the bill.


* Ninety-four thousand teenagers give birth in Britain every year including 9,000 aged under 16.

* The UK's teen pregnancy rate is the highest in the EU - five times that of the Netherlands.

* 87 per cent of teenage mothers are unmarried.

* 80 per cent of authorities with above average rates of under-age births are in the North and West.

* A quarter of teenage mothers have themselves been born to teenagers.

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