Janet Street Porter: It’s older fathers who need morality lessons

Wednesday 18 February 2009 01:00

Try as I may, I cannot see that one 13-year-old father is proof that we’re morally bankrupt. The story of Alfie Patten and his girlfriend Chantelle Steadman, 15, is causing massive hand-wringing among the chattering classes and is the most popular story ever on The Sun’s website.

According to Melanie Phillips writing in The Daily Mail, “the appalling rate of family breakdown” plays a critical part … with “more and more individuals locked into this cycle of abandonment, emotional chaos and harm”. Wow! Mel must be even more depressed now that another couple of boys, aged 16 and 14, have claimed that they, not Alfie, fathered little Maisie. Only a DNA test will sort this lot out.

Meanwhile, Max Clifford (when he’s not raking in the millions for Jade and her kids) is busy handling the media whirlwind surrounding Alfie. I’ve quite forgotten where we are with the Katie Price-storms-Hollywood saga, or whether Carol Thatcher is still hiding from death threats in a Swiss chalet. Alfie has blown the lot off the front pages.

There have always been young people who bonk before they should, and usually it is their grandparents who are happy to bring up the offspring as their own. It’s not ideal, but neither is it a disaster – as one young man who fathered children at about the same age as Alfie (and is now a loving dad) has remarked. Don’t blame sex education. The Government promises to prioritise telling boys about the perils of unprotected sex but it won’t make much difference. Previous attempts to reduce teenage pregnancy through lessons and free contraceptives have all failed.

It is not a problem particular to New Labour and social deprivation, no matter what Polly Toynbee may say in The Guardian. We still talk about sex within the context of biology classes at school, exactly the same as in my day, and I couldn’t wait to lose my virginity at 15. Sex education made no difference. I had had two abortions by the age of 18, despite having passed eight O-levels and knowing what happens if you don’t use contraceptives. Young people have sex because it is not stigmatised by those around them.

It’s important to talk to primary school children about the importance of meaningful relationships, and sex should be addressed within that context. But there is no guarantee it will work for everyone, and it would also be helpful if we stopped talking about teenage girls having babies as if they had committed a crime, or were a piece of trash. Columnist after columnist over the past few days has, whether consciously or not, talked about Alfie as if he is a little scallywag, whereas Chantelle, by implication, comes out of this saga as someone a little less naïve.

Over the past decade, 385 girls under 14 have become pregnant, and 44 boys aged between 11 and 14 have fathered children. The figures do not make pleasant reading, but neither |do they signify that Britain’s young people are in terminal decline.

What bothers me more than young parents is the parallel rise in older dads. One in 10 babies is now born to a man over 40, and one in 100 to a dad over 50. It’s perfectly OK in our society for men to divorce their wives and swap them for younger models, leaving the number of single women in their forties and older on the increase.

What kind of message does that send to kids like Alfie and Chantelle? Serial monogamy is OK? Increasingly, middle-aged macho man decides to breed with his new partner as a way of validating his masculinity. Robin Gibb, 59, has just fathered little Snow Robin with his 33-year-old housekeeper, and his wife puts on a brave face. High-profile older dads proliferate. John Humphrys discusses the moral climate on Radio 4, but when he became a father at 55 it passed with little comment. Des O’Connor fathered a child at 72, Jonathan Dimbleby at 62, John Simpson at 61, David Jason at 61 and Rod Stewart at 60. Woody Allen married his former babysitter, 35 years his junior, and adopted two children in his mid-60s.

All these men are intelligent and comfortably off. Is that why we secretly think they make more acceptable parents than Chantelle and Alfie?

Give tourism a break

Ructions in the tourism industry. Bigwigs have written to the Prime Minister complaining that the Government does not take them seriously. They have a point.

In an economic downturn, more of us than ever are likely to take holidays in Britain. Tourism employs more than two million people and generates £110bn in revenue, but is submerged within the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, whereas farming (worth less to the economy) is seen as important enough to merit a dedicated team. The sector would be better housed within the Department of Business and Enterprise, and needs a passionate and well-informed champion, not a series of junior ministers moaning about the last hotel they stayed in.

Don’t forget the real world, Victoria

Fashion editors are falling over themselves to lavish praise on Victoria Beckham’s second dress collection, unveiled this week in New York. The skin-tight offerings have been described as “timeless”. All of which only goes to prove that those at the cutting edge of fashion don’t inhabit the same world as you or me.

Victoria’s first collection was said to have sold well, meaning that a handful of clothes was snapped up by wealthy women prepared to spend an evening as trussed up as an M&S lamb fillet. I can’t see the appeal of hobble skirts and waistlines that don’t allow snacking. These dresses are designed to look fabulous as long as you suck your tummy in. In the real world, women eat, drive and even laugh.

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