Teenagers may be asked to pledge allegiance to Queen

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Indy Politics

Teenagers will be asked to swear their loyalty to Queen and country on their 18th birthday under plans being drawn up by Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary.

Ministers believe the initiative could encourage youngsters to vote, involve them more in their local communities and help them identify with Britain.

The scheme follows the recent launch of citizenship ceremonies in which recent immigrants of all ages sing the national anthem and pledge their allegiance to their new home.

The 18th-birthday events could be modelled on "affirmation ceremonies" held in Australia and some parts of the United States. Australian teenagers swear a pledge of loyalty to their nation, promising to respect its rights and freedoms and to obey its laws. Mr Clarke said that a British equivalent was being considered as part of a drive to tackle race inequality and build bridges between different ethnic groups. Youngsters from different backgrounds will be encouraged to learn and socialise together, while Whitehall is being set tough new targets to guarantee all communities have equal access to public services.

Schools will also issue a pocket-size guide to the British political and legal system in an attempt to give young people a "sense of common belonging".

Fiona Mactaggart, the Race Equality minister, said citizenship ceremonies introduced last February had been a great success and there was a case for introducing them for UK citizens reaching the "rite of passage" to adulthood. So far 34,500 new Britons have taken part in the ceremonies.

She added: "It might increase voting among young people, for example. It might increase their interest in contributing to society."

The Australian ceremonies are voluntary but the Australian government says they have become extremely popular since their introduction five years ago. They are usually organised by local councils and typically take place on holidays such as Australia Day.

The Home Office also said it was organising a "Citizenship Day" in October, when community organisations, schools, musems and other groups would stage events to mark what it meant to be British.

In other moves, teachers of religious education will be asked to place a greater emphasis on understanding the range of faiths in Britain and young people will also be urged to take part in youth volunteering.

Social landlords, such as housing associations, will be encouraged to "develop more balanced communities".

Mr Clarke said: "Enormous progress has been made in recent years but while many members of black and minority ethnic groups are thriving, some may still find it harder to succeed in employment or gain access to health care, education or housing."

The Government mounted a fresh defence of plans to make incitement to religious hatred a crime. The proposals, which have been attacked by MPs of all parties, will return today to the House of Commons.

Ms Mactaggart said the legislation would not prevent jokes or satire. She said: "It's very narrow and does have a very high threshold for prosecutions and an even higher threshold for conviction." Meanwhile, Michael Howard, the Tory leader, praised the "many natural ties, of friendship, common outlook and shared values" he said united the Muslim community with his party.