`Aunt Tessa' promises not to become the nation's nanny

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The Independent Online
SHE MAY be one of the least well-known ministers at the moment, but by the autumn, Tessa Jowell risks becoming known as "Aunt Tessa, the nation's nanny".

She is preparing a blizzard of white papers on making Britain a healthier place. There will be the public health White Paper; a report on health inequality; the tobacco control White Paper; and a national programme on teenage pregnancies.

As the Minister for Public Health, she is taking charge of them all. Ms Jowell, 50, was a child care officer in Lambeth before winning a seat in Dulwich in 1992, but she is adamant that she is not into "nannying" Britain. She is not likely to make the mistake of Edwina Currie in telling the cold and old to knit more woolies; as a Blairite moderniser, Ms Jowell's line is about offering choices, and she wants the deprived and underprivileged to have the choice of better health, something that was ducked for 18 years after the non-publication of the Black Report under the Thatcher government, because it drew embarrassing connections between poverty, unemployment and ill-health.

Reducing teenage pregnancies is fraught with difficulty and was left out of the priority list in the Green Paper on public health when it was published in February. Ms Jowell is acutely aware of the problem; her own south London constituency has the highest rate in Britain and one of the highest rates in Europe for unmarried mothers under 16. Last year, there were 80 babies born to girls of 15 or under in her health authority area; Dulwich and West Norwood also has the highest infant mortality rate in the country.

She has called in the editors of teenage magazines to her private office and held conferences with teenage mothers to discuss ways of helping to get the unwanted pregnancies down. There are no easy solutions, such as handing out contraceptives to children, which one of her Tory predecessors advocated.

Asking how she had tackled it at home - she has a son and a daughter from her second marriage - there was a smart rebuke; this was a political interview, and she was not going to have the children drawn into it. What is in the programme on teenage pregnancies will raise a few eyebrows: she will propose young people's health centres. Like the "healthy living centres" proposed in the Green Paper and funded from the National Lottery, they would offer a range of advice.

This is one of the ideas to come from the youth conferences she has been holding. "It was not just important to talk about sex; they wanted to talk about relationships and the boys were as strong about that as the girls. They didn't simply want biology lessons," she said.

But will these centres dole out contraceptives to children under the age of consent? "That is extremely tricky. At the moment, you have this position that if a child goes to a doctor and she is thinking of cohabiting with a boyfriend, it becomes a child protection issue.

"The protection there is the age of consent, at the age of 16, but then a lot of kids are sexually active when they are younger. We have worked out very careful guidance for GPs to deal with that. I think we will come up with proposals that will work and that both will ensure that young people get support."

She is also intent on reducing smoking among young girls. "What is important is to try to reduce smoking, not to present the Government as lecturing people about the risks of tobacco and to give up," she said.

A tiny confession here: Ms Jowell used to smoke at university, but says she did not enjoy smoking. "It is very disturbing that one in three 15-year-old girls has a regular smoker. I don't think it will be easy to reverse that trend ... The important thing is we can stop another generation of smokers taking it up."

That was the reason behind the drive to ban advertising through a European Union directive secured last week.

The big issue now is whether Britain will follow New York with smoking bans on restaurants according to the number diners they serve. Ms Jowell said: "It is not our intention to legislate for a ban in public places, but we want to make sure that the momentum is continued and yes, we do wish to continue to examine with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) the position of employees."

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