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16 June 1999

Punishing teenage fathers

The following article was originally published in The Times (London) on 16 June 1999

'Anybody who believes that teenagers will hold back from sex because it might cost them a fiver should have got out more when they were young'

by Mick Hume, LM editor

Despite being abandoned by its own single parent, Peter Mandelson, the government's Social Exclusion Unit appears to be thriving. This week the prime minister himself launched an SEU report proposing 60 million-worth of new measures designed to halve the number of teenage pregnancies within 10 years. The tune sounds familiar, but the distinctive New Labour twist is to turn the heat on young, errant fathers as well as teenage single mothers.

The idea appears to be that boys and young men could be made to stop getting girls pregnant, if only they knew that they would be forced to pay child support as soon as they start work. Even teenagers on benefits will have to pay a fiver. Just as young people enjoy a lower minimum wage, so wages of their sin are to be set at a 5-a-week fine.

These proposals mark a new triumph of political correctness over common sense. Who really believes that threatening to impoverish young men with a tax on unsafe sex will act as an effective contraceptive? And what possible benefit can it be to a young mother to make her dependent on getting a (very) few quid from a feckless former boyfriend? The intention cannot be to help girls, but to punish naughty boys - something spelt out by the floated proposal (imported, like so much of this, from America) to allow the Child Support Agency to confiscate the driving licences of those who fail to pay.

One suspects that Mr Blair and his more puritanical ministers believe, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, that 'the most effective way to avoid teenage pregnancy is to abstain from teenage sex'.

But they know that the hell-and-damnation approach to putting teens off sex does not work (even in its modern reincarnation, the AIDS scare). So, instead, they preach a fashionable pseudo-moralism to young men, dressed up in the language of personal finance, personal health and 'self-esteem' (for example, educating them to 'resist peer pressure to start sex too young', as if they were being forced to lose their virginity at knifepoint).

As one Whitehall source put it: 'The message from the CSA is quite simply that you may be, say, 15, but sex comes at a price - one reckless Saturday night might mean paying for the next 16 years.' Or, as the nuns used to say to convent girls: 'A moment of pleasure, a lifetime of regret.'

While the Social Exclusion Unit's proposals to put single mothers in hostels have attracted a lot of flak, there has been no similar criticism of the plan to crack down on young fathers. At a time when 'the problem of masculinity' has become something of a cultural obsession, it is open season on young men. Even the proposal to take away driving licences was justified by Whitehall as 'a reality check on the Jack the Lad culture'. Such a caricatured view of what young working-class men are like underestimates not only their intelligence, but the intensity of their passions.

Anybody who believes that teenagers will hold back from sex because it might cost them a fiver should have got out more when they were young. It is ironic that the Social Exclusion Unit report cites 'low expectations' among girls as a cause of teenage pregnancy, since its conclusions can only reinforce the ever-lower expectations we have of boys.

In discussions of moral responsibility, a distinction used to be made between adults and children. It was accepted that 'boys will be boys', until they learnt how to 'act like a man'. Now, it seems, we are expected to judge 15-year olds by the same standards as 35-year olds.

If the government can interfere at will in the private lives of young adults (and despite what the headlines imply, more than half of teenage pregnancies occur among 18 and 19-year olds), how long can it resist the temptation to set sexual targets for everybody?

The SEU emphasises that rates of teenage pregnancy in the United Kingdom are far higher than, say, those in The Netherlands. What such comparisons do not reveal is that the rates of teenage sexual activity in both countries are about the same. Dutch teenagers simply have easier access to better contraceptive services.

If the government wants to do something constructive for young people with its 60 million, it should drop the sermons about 'the price of sex' (it is usually free), and stick to practical measures to deal with the unwanted consequences. Teenagers will have sex whether Mr Blair approves of it or not. If the prime minister wants to stop them, he really will have to send in the ground troops this time.

These issues are discussed further in the July/August summer issue of LM, available at all good newsagents and bookstores on Thursday 24 June. Or phone the subscriptions hotline on (0171) 269 9222, email lm@informinc.co.uk

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