`Too few sex cases brought to court'

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THE GOVERNMENT is drawing up tough new plans to encourage police to prosecute more men and boys who have sex with under-age girls.

As a 12-year-old girl was due to be interviewed about her pregnancy by South Yorkshire police today, both the Department of Health and the Home Office indicated that a new approach was needed to tackle the problem nationwide.

The girl became one of Britain's youngest mothers when she gave birth to a baby boy last week. She will be questioned by the force's Sexual Offence Unit as part of a wider inquiry to establish the identity of his father. Officers have delayed interviewing the girl formally at the request of social services, who wanted to ensure she recovered from the birth.

The youngster, who is in her second year at school, had the baby in the bathroom of her home in Rotherham on Thursday. She had not known that she was pregnant. Her 26-year-old mother has become Britain's youngest grandmother. Rotherham has one of Britain's highest incidences of teenage pregnancy and in some parts of the town, one in six pregnancies involve girls under the age of 19.

The Government has pledged to halve the number of teenage pregnancies over the next 10 years, mainly through improved sex education. But ministers are keen to use a "carrot-and-stick" approach and have been shocked by the low number of prosecutions against men who have sex with under-age girls.

Most recent figures show that the number of yearly prosecutions more than halved from 545 in 1985 to 272 in 1995.

While the final decision on prosecution will remain with individual police forces, the Government is keen to draw up new guidelines which will back any chief constable who wants to take a tougher line.

Schools could be a focus for the new approach, with teachers informing all pupils that anybody having sex with a child under the age of 16 is liable to prosecution and imprisonment.

The move could be incorporated into a raft of other policies to end Britain's current status as the country with the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in western Europe. About 95,000 women under 19 give birth every year, twice the rate in Germany and four times the rate in France.

Although police are reluctant to act where there has been consensual sex between girls aged over 13 and their partners, younger pregnancies are viewed much more severely.

South Yorkshire police said last night that the girl was being treated as a victim of crime, as the law treats such intercourse as statutory rape.

Police have refused to comment on reports that the girl has already revealed the name of the man she claims is the baby's father. The man is understood to deny the claims.

As part of the crackdown on teenage pregnancies, the Government also wants family doctors to help tackle the wider problem of sexual promiscuity among young people.