Britain Plans to Rescue Its Endangered Families

Prime Minister Tony Blair, seeing a threat to social cohesion, outlines steps for his government to improve family life.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

One in 4 British families is headed by a single parent. More than 1 in 3 births are outside of marriage. Britain leads Europe in teenage pregnancies. The marriage rate is a record low.

Is British social cohesion fraying? Prime Minister Tony Blair thinks so, and he set out a plan last week to return the family to the heart of British life.

He wants his Labour-led government to help rebuild faith in marriage and to teach parenting skills across the nation.

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Mr. Blair promises to put money into courses on parenting, marriage counseling for couples who plan to wed, tracking of children by family-support services, a one-stop service for families with children under three years old, curfews for preteens, and holding parents legally responsible for their children's behavior.

"The family is central to our vision of a modern Britain built on the kinds of rights and responsibilities that we learn in the home," Blair told a Labour Party's annual conference last week. "Strong families mean a strong Britain."

His plan takes him into politically sensitive territory.

Borrowing from the US, adult 'mentors' will counsel teenage girls on the risks of pregnancy.

Five years ago his Conservative predecessor, John Major, promised to promote family values. But the "back to basics" campaign backfired when several senior supporters were forced to admit to marital infidelity and other indiscretions.

The Labour government, however, is promising to go beyond rhetoric with a series of concrete measures designed to bring parents and their children closer together, and reduce the incidence of teenage pregnancies and single-parent families.

Among key measures in a government action plan to be unveiled this week:

* Creation of a government-funded national family institute to promote family life. The institute will offer parents courses in child rearing and, in a country where 3,000 children every week see their parents divorce, advise couples on how to strengthen their marriages.

* A $918 million dollar "Sure Start" program in 250 areas of Britain. It will bring together services for under-three-year-olds and their parents, including state-funded day care, playgroups, and post-natal advice.

* Arrangements for health visitors, community nurses, and volunteers from family support organizations to monitor the progress of children through school.

Instead of making contact with young mothers and babies only at the time of birth, health visitors will continue to track their charges for several years.

* Borrowing from US experience, a system of adult "mentors" to advise and counsel teenage girls on the risks of pregnancy.

* Marriage registrars to offer guidance to young couples who are not connected with a particular church and might otherwise wed without any marital advice at all. At 279,000 a year, marriages in Britain are at an all-time low, and 58 percent of all weddings are civil ceremonies.

* Stringent new laws giving police powers to pick up children for truancy, and to subject 10-year-olds and under to a 9 p.m. street curfew. Parents will be made legally responsible for their children's behavior, and will be fined if their offspring persistently offend.

Police say pilot schemes in several British cities have cut youth crime significantly. One such teenage-curfew plan has been running for some months in Hamilton, in the north of England. Chief Constable John Orr says, "The vast majority of parents and most of the children are telling us that they agree with what we are trying to achieve. Various people, including politicians, have been practically banging on my door pleading for the Hamilton scheme to be launched in their own areas."

Blair is pledged to stick to the previous government's spending limits for two years, but it is a measure of his determination to boost the family that he has called on ministers to trim their budgets so that the family initiative can be adequately funded.

Commenting on the planned family institute, which promises to be a centerpiece of the government's program, Health Minister Tessa Jowell says, "We're talking about the kind of support men and women would have got at times when society was more stable and families lived closer together."

The Sure Start program will include literacy classes. It will seek to identify children who need help from an early age. All parents will be visited by a Sure Start representative within three months of the birth of their child.

"We are aiming at a society where children's life chances are handed out on the day they are born," Ms Jowell says.

Britain's opposition Conservatives have been slow to criticize Blair's family initiative, largely because in office they themselves advocated a return to family values.

It is thought likely, however, that opposition leader William Hague will attack Blair's action plan once it is published and the full details are known.

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