TWO OF Labour's most prominent elder statesmen are this weekend collaborating on a policy paper to highlight the 'social crisis' emerging from the collapse of the traditional family and the rise of the lone parent.

After weeks of screaming headlines about single mothers, Chelly Halsey, 70, social scientist and an emeritus professor at Nuffield College, Oxford, and Lord Young of Dartington, 78, post-war policymaker and founder of a host of social institutions including the Consumer Council and the Open University, find themselves in a delicate position: concerns and beliefs like theirs are currently more welcome in right-wing circles.

For Professor Halsey and Lord Young, trying to influence the Labour Party through their submission to its Social Justice Commission on the future of the welfare state, the way ahead is strewn with pitfalls. To many Labour supporters their views will be inherently unpalatable. To young feminists, the fact that they are delivered by elderly men, whose socialism was born in another time and place, will prove especially galling.

In the safety of his Nuffield College study last week, Professor Halsey was well aware of the dangers. To whisper the slightest defence of the traditional family, he joked, brought cries of traitor from your comrades, kidnap by Conservative politicians, and total distortion of your theories.

'I've even been adopted by the Times, you know,' he said. 'The trouble with all this stuff is that it has become so damn political. The left and right are both guilty, though the right are the worse culprits. If you say that there is a strong correlation between broken families and poor health and education in children and crime rates you are branded a Tory or someone who has sold out.'

To express this and other heresies, Professor Halsey has already crossed the left-right think-tank divide. Last year he wrote the foreword to the pamphlet Families Without Fathers, by Norman Dennis, reader in social studies at Newcastle University, which was published by the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs.

In it, Professor Halsey argued that the children of single parents 'tend to die earlier, to have more illness, to do less well at school, to exist at a lower level of nutrition, comfort and conviviality, to suffer more unemployment, to be more prone to deviance and crime, and finally, to repeat the cycle of unstable parenting from which they themselves have suffered'.

Professor Halsey and Mr Dennis, another socialist academic nearing retirement, insist that the proof lies in sound scientific analysis. Professor Halsey also insists that his view tallies with common sense. Of delinquent youths from single- mother homes, he says: 'How can you play a proper role in life when you haven't had a model?'

He agrees with Sue Slipman, director of the National Council for One Parent Families, that the 20th century has been marked by the necessary advance of women's rights. However, while Ms Slipman argues that children's rights have also been advanced, he concludes that 'feminism has been a mixed bag'. On balance, he believes, emanicipation has been positive, but adult gains have been at the expense of children's happiness and well- being.

While the common left- wing view is that poverty and unemployment, not the absence of a father, are the fundamental causes of crime, Professor Halsey is adamant that the absence of a father and the shattering of the traditional family unit is at the root.

Fundamental to his position is his belief as an 'ethical socialist' that personal responsibility prevails under virtually all social circumstances.

So, while society has a duty to provide the best circumstances for human beings to make the right choices, 'parents cannot escape responsibility for the quality of their children as citizens'.

While the right vilifies the feckless, parasitic single mother conspiring to secure a council flat, Professor Halsey - from a working-class background and married for more than 40 years - focuses on wild, irresponsible young men who impregnate and run.

As with the Conservative right, his concern centres on the poor rather than middle-class single households, with Professor Halsey 'uneasy' about middle-class women with choices prescribing how working-class women should live.

Mr Dennis argues that crime has risen because young men have been released from the social pressure which once forced them to take adulthood seriously as conscientious husbands and fathers. Professor Halsey sees the feckless young working-class man as a pathetic shadow of his moral father and grandfather who, no matter how bad the circumstances, stuck by sound moral and family values.

So while there are mitigating circumstances - 'these young men have not had their share of the spoils despite the general economic uplift over the past 30 years' - personal responsibility cannot be shirked.

The traditional family, Professor Halsey believes, has been on the wane since the Sixties and the dawning of a more selfish age. But he blames Lady Thatcher for hammering the final nails in the coffin, arguing that, in Thatcherite values, marriage is reduced to a 'mere contract' to which adults subscribe for as long as it suits.

It is doubtful that Conservative politicians will be very interested in the solutions offered by two Labour grandfathers, however welcome their views. For despite their desire to see the return of stable long-term relationships, with children's welfare paramount, Professor Halsey and Lord Young say the clock cannot be turned back completely. So traditional families should be better supported via reforms to tax and benefit systems, but a society already fundamentally altered requires immediate radical policy measures.

They argue that Britain's pensioners could provide the solution. They suggest the retired be enlisted to help in the care of the young, to compensate for working mothers, absent fathers and relatives who live too far away.

'The number of retired people in Britain equals the number of children under 16,' said Lord Young. 'I believe it would be possible to find enough people willing to become foster grandparents to substitute for relatives who no longer live nearby.'

They also propose that the operation and hours of schools be reformed to reflect the true nature of the family in Britain, and that public services and benefits be improved - not cut - to support families. The curriculum should be altered to 'encourage boys to become more like girls' in regard to domestic duties, and lessons on responsible parenting should be introduced.

Harriet Harman, Labour's shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, has warned that the danger for the Conservatives in the current family debate is that they may be focusing on a social trend they can in the end do little or nothing to affect.

To Professor Halsey, Labour's position on the traditional family should be simpler and more aggressive. 'The traditional family is the tested arrangement for safeguarding the welfare of children,' he insists. Labour should pause for thought before finally waving it off. 'It is a unit where other interests are put before your own, where overall well-being takes precedence over selfish individual desire. Socialism is traditional family values extended to the wider community. The family is a socialist organisation. It is as simple as that.'

(Photograph omitted)

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