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Leading Article: A wise government does not try and tell people how to live their lives

IT WASN'T long ago that the Government seemed to have made up its mind about the family. Remember those pre- and post-election soundbites about two parents being best? Divorce was going to be harder to get; children were going to be kept inside by curfews, if they didn't behave; something or other would be done about teenage mothers; and everyone would work. Since then, harsh reality has intervened.

Let's begin by looking at the new National Institute and Parenting Institute, foreshadowed in a Home Office consultation document last year. Its first act was to commission a Mori poll about the state of parenting, which provided the unsurprising news that only one in five people feels that parents being married is very important to their children's happiness.

Thankfully, the truth about how the nation really feels about the importance of marriage seems to have struck home. For when Jack Straw spoke at its launch earlier this week, gone was the pious language about ideal relationships and in were some sharp historical observations. "In the last century," he told his audience, "there were a large number of relationships outside marriage... so we don't [need] to get into some kind of panic that the central foundations of family life have somehow dissolved." Wise, words, but why has he waited two years to confront the forces of conservatism by speaking sense

Perhaps the answer can be found in another minister's department. Not long ago the Lord Chancellor was promising to introduce legislation that would force couples intending to divorce to attend compulsory reconciliation meetings with each other, and then to wait up to 18 months for the divorce to go through. Reality intruded here, too, when the Government prudently piloted these ideas. Surprise, surprise: quarrelling couples do not like being forced to meet, nor do they wish to wait for their freedom. Lord Irvine reportedly has now decided to leave the divorce laws alone.

Next up is contraceptive policy. In June, the Social Exclusion Unit published an analysis of teenage birth rates which showed that it is twice as high here as in Germany, three times as high as in France and six times as high as in Holland. The answer, quite naturally, was to improve sex education in schools and make contraception more readily available. At least, that's what works abroad. The Government accepted the recommendations on education, but then omitted to make them a compulsory part of the national curriculum. It doesn't take a sociologist to tell you that the target of halving teenage conceptions by 2010 will be not be met by encouraging children to "just say no".

It is said that the Prime Minister is nervous about giving the impression that his Government is encouraging sex among the young by making the morning-after pill available to under-16s from chemist shops. How he must envy (or is that condemn?) the French, who have quite sensibly decided to hand them out at the school clinic.

Mr Straw's belated recognition that people live pretty much as they always have, and not according to other people's ideals, is not a bad place to start formulating a coherent policy. Parents, for example, are known to want sex education for their children at ages 11-12 rather than 14-16; so that is how it should be. If governments can give up the notion that they have the right to tell people how to live their lives, they may happily discover that they can avoid getting themselves stuck in moral muddles.