Teenage mums: an idea out of control

John Redwood is following a traditional preoccupation of the radical right in both Britain and the US by presenting young single mothers as a special social ill. Nicholas Timmins examines the line of thinking
Suddenly, once more, we are back to basics. John Redwood has raised again the standard of alarm over lone parents - or, more specifically, teenage lone parents. Where Redwood leads, others follow, though more intemperately. While the former Welsh Secretary was careful to couch his argument at the weekend in terms that teenage girls should "consider" adoption before relying on the state for help, David Shaw, the Conservative MP for Dover and a member of the Commons Social Security Select Committee, was soon arguing that those who refuse adoption should receive a lower level of benefit.

We have, of course, been here before: government ministers - or in this case former ministers - worrying in private and pronouncing in public about the family. Back in the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher chaired a Cabinet Committee on Family Policy, which came up with a bag of since unimplemented proposals, including one from Geoffrey Howe on how children should be taught to manage their pocket money better.

Even further back, Sir Keith Joseph took his "cycle of deprivation" analysis one stage further just ahead of the 1974 Tory leadership contest, blowing his chances by suggesting that too many children were being born to social classes IV and V, leading to the creation of an underclass.

More recently, lone parents proved the principal target of the right when John Major launched his disastrous "back to basics" campaign at the Conservative party conference in 1993.

A fascinating game is being played. The right - who used to rail against the "social engineering" of the left, particularly over its educational policies in the 1960s and 1970s - is now into social engineering itself.

In truth, these strongly ideological or moral declarations are less about policies than politics. The policies often suggested are unlikely to prove practical politics. Forced adoption - not that Mr Redwood has advocated that - can have no place in the 1990s. Mother and baby hostels already do provide an imperfect answer for some 14- and 15-year-olds. But to talk of hostels for older teenagers raises the prospect of coercing adults with the right to vote into institutions not of their choosing, virtually making lone parenthood a criminal offence.

This smacks more of Animal Farm and the coercive policies of Soviet Russia or Communist China than a view that one would associate with the libertarian right.

Slashing benefits to lone mothers may indeed provide disincentives. But what will it do to the children? A Tory party worried about juvenile crime might well consider the effects of such a policy a few years down the road.

And Conservative ministers who treasure sepia-tinted memories from the 1950s of a bread-winning father, non-working mother and smiling 2.4 children household, should perhaps ask themselves why, over the past decade, their tax policies have left 62 per cent of one-earner couples with children worse off, when 65 per cent of two- earner couples without children have gained.

In practice, Conservative politicians who have worriedloudly about the family have delivered little - and some of that has had the opposite effect to the rhetoric.

Indeed, some Tory policies that have had an effect are those the radical right might be most reluctant to trumpet about. Improved sex education in schools and a restoration of easier access to contraception and the morning-after pill - two policies the Departments of Education and Health have been quietly pursuing - are likely to have played a part in actually producing a decline in the conception rate among under-16s. In 1991, that figure fell for the first time in a decade and by nearly 10 per cent, while in 1992, the rate fell by another 9 per cent - as did the abortion rate.

Instead, the calls for a moral agenda appear to promote two goals. One is a populist appeal to a majority against a minority - a much more dangerous game politically than it used to be, given patterns of cohabitation and child-rearing that now stretch far into the middle classes. And the second is a further softening up of the public for potential additional cuts to the "insupportable" social security bill.

For the reality is that in family values, governments that claim to believe in liberty can do little other than set the broadest of frameworks. A Child Support Agency can be created to try to make fathers take financial responsibility for their children. Big fiscal distortions that encourage cohabitation rather than marriage can be addressed - as happened when the right to double mortgage tax relief was removed, for example. Adjustments can be made to tax and benefit rates at the margin and they may indeed have a marginal effect.

But broadly, it is not the Government's business to run families, and the more it tries to do so, the less it is likely to achieve. And if it adopts the wrong policies - ones that appear to penalise the mothers but in practice penalise the children - the outcome may be the very opposite of what it intends.