The even more permissive society: 'Independent' poll shows difficulty of selling welfare state shake-up to the public

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The Independent Online
BRITISH attitudes to sex, marriage and lone parenthood have become significantly more liberal during the past ten years of Conservative government, an NOP/Independent poll finds today.

The poll suggests strong public scepticism about the recent ministerial focus on social problems caused by single motherhood. Almost half of electors - including 55 per cent of all women - believe that a single mother can bring up her child as well as a married couple can.

It also indicates that the Government faces an uphill task in preparing public opinion for a big shake-up of the welfare state, with 54 per cent disagreeing with the claim that many people receiving benefit do not deserve help. That compares with only 44 per cent in 1987, before the recession. And 76 per cent agree that the Government should spend more money on benefits for the very poor even if it leads to higher taxes.

Attitudes to adultery and pre-marital sex have become markedly more permissive. Half the respondents now say that sex before marriage is 'not at all wrong' - compared with only 42 per cent in 1983. Correspondingly, only 44 per cent believe that having sex with someone other than their partner is 'always wrong', compared with 59 per cent in 1983.

And in what amounts to a clear warning to senior ministers that they deliver homilies on personal behaviour at their peril, it shows that a very large majority - 83 per cent - think politicians 'are in no position to advise other people about morality'.

But the poll findings also suggest that some policies implicit in the 'back to basics' theme launched by John Major at the Tory party conference in October are markedly more popular than others. For example, 81 per cent agree that standards of morality would improve if schools put more emphasis on discipline.

And despite the respect shown for single mothers - which was most pronounced in the lowest socio-economic group - more people (29 per cent) think that divorce, which is to be the subject of a government Green Paper next month, should be more difficult than think it should be made easier (10 per cent). The majority (53 per cent) think the law should remain the same.

And although attitudes to homosexuality are markedly less disapproving than they were - with 35 per cent believing it is 'always wrong', compared with 50 per cent in 1983 - there is only modest support for the significant number of MPs who want to see the age of consent lowered: 56 per cent believe it should remain at 21, and only 12 per cent want it lowered to 16 - the same age as for heterosexuals.

Sex education for young children is strongly supported, with 60 per cent of those polled believing it would help to cut down pregnancies in underage girls, compared with 21 per cent who believe it would just encourage underage girls to have sex.

On lone parenthood, 52 per cent of people believe people who want children should get married, but that reflects a big fall since 1989 when the figure was 70 per cent. The number who disagree has doubled to 35 per cent in the same peiod.

The fierce debate over the impact of lone parenthood on crime has been intensified by the end of the Jamie Bulger murder trial. Both the boys convicted came from broken homes.

The poll, taken before the end of the trial, finds that 58 per cent still agree that 'to grow up happily, children need a home with both their mother and father'. Again, however, that represents a fall from 1986 when a British Social Attitudes Survey showed 78 per cent held that opinion.

Survey details, page 7

Leading article, page 13