At an emergency meeting of the Health Education Authority, the government-funded body that oversees national campaigns, board members decided to suspend indefinitely work on sex-related health promotion despite the fact that it is a priority area under the 'Health of the Nation' White Paper.
HEA staff have condemned the move which they say is the result of pressure from health ministers seeking to appease the Tory right, and from some non-executive board members - including the Bishop of Peterborough, broadcaster Esther Rantzen, and Gillian Butler, wife of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler - in the wake of well-publicised disputes over HEA sex-education material.
A HEA booklet for teenagers, Your Pocket Guide to Sex, was withdrawn in March and 12,000 copies destroyed after Dr Brian Mawhinney, Minister of State for Health, denounced it as 'smutty'. According to sources, the Bishop of Peterborough is said to have complained to the minister about the booklet, while Ms Rantzen objected to the omission of any mention of love.
Later in the month, just days after the board meeting, HEA representatives were surprisingly absent from the launch of a teenage sex survey. The survey was part of a campaign run by the HEA, family planning and anti-Aids organisations to persuade the Government to reconsider its guidelines on sex education now being revised in accordance with the 1993 Education Act.
In January an anti-Aids campaign promoting safer sex and condoms was pulled at the last minute after Baroness Cumberledge, Under Secretary of State for Health, told the HEA that only one of the planned advertisements was acceptable. Senior civil servants had approved the project weeks earlier, and it was the first time that an HEA campaign had been banned by a minister.
Lindsay Neil, director of the HEA, which spends around pounds 9m on sexual-health programmes, was reluctant to comment yesterday.
Sex education was a 'sensitive' issue which was constantly under review. 'We are considering all our sexual-health work. It is not that it has stopped,' she said.
However, sources close to the HEA say that 'an accumulation' of adverse publicity had prompted the suspension. 'The direction came from on high that no one was to do any more work in this area. Basically the Government is running scared of criticism,' said one. Another said that the HEA was 'jumpy' because its survival is in doubt.
The HEA is currently awaiting a decision on its future, following a review of its role by Sir John Lee, a former Tory MP.
The Government wants to contract-out much of the work now done by the quango, and criticism of its recent campaigns is seen as a way of undermining its authority while gaining more direct control over controversial campaigns liable to upset the Tory 'moral majority'.
Ceri Hutton, head of policy at the National Aids Trust, said the suspension of Aids education was 'profoundly worrying'. Successful government campaigns in the 1980s were responsible for the low level of HIV and Aids in the UK, she said. 'It is outrageous that strategic programmes which are set out in the Government's own document, 'Health of the Nation', are now in jeopardy.'
Alison Hadley, of the Brook Advisory Centres, said: 'We are talking about people's lives. I think it is absurd that Dr Mawhinney, who controls the purse strings of the HEA and who knows nothing about sexual health and education, has such power.'
David Blunkett, Labour's spokesman on health, said that the move was a 'panic measure' with the Government bowing to right-wing ministerial pressure in the departments of Health and Education.
However, a spokesman for the Department of Health said last night that recent developments were a matter for the HEA. 'This is something they have decided of their own volition,' he said. Local health authorities would continue promoting safer sex, he added.