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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 October, 2004, 16:27 GMT 17:27 UK
Respect teen mothers, Tory urges
By Ben Davies
BBC News Online politics staff in Bournemouth

A senior Tory has thrown her weight behind a campaign to treat teenage mums with more respect.

Jessica and child
'Young mums should not be punished or judged'
Shadow women's minister Eleanor Laing told a fringe meeting at the Tory conference that it was time politicians took the issue of teenage pregnancy seriously and "not be judgemental".

She distanced herself from the way some in her party had dealt with the issue in the past perhaps most famously in the 1992 speech by the then social security secretary, Peter Lilley.

M Lilley's remarks at that party conference took the form of a pastiche of a Gilbert and Sullivan song.

He said he "had a little list" of people he wanted to "root out" including "young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list".

No joke

Ms Laing told a fringe meeting organised by the YWCA who are behind the Respect campaign: "What Peter Lilley said and the way he said it was a long time ago.

"He was wrong in the way he put it - you shouldn't make a joke about these things. It's not a joke to a girl who is 16 and she's about to have a baby or she's had a baby."

Ms Laing had earlier called for the issue of teen pregnancy to be treated in a 21st century way.

"There's absolutely no point in pretending that girls who are teenagers don't get pregnant, shouldn't get pregnant, and should be told they've done something wrong if they do," she argued.

Encouraging ignorance?

"That is negative, hopeless, old fashioned, outdated and doesn't do anybody any good.

She called for compulsory, comprehensive sex education in the National Curriculum.

"Ignorance even in very young children and certainly in children from the age of 10 onwards is never good and our society has encouraged ignorance.

"There should not be any element of punishment in the way in which our society treats girls who give birth to babies in their teens however strong one's religious beliefs might be about having children out of wedlock.

Time for changes?

"Once a girl is going to have a baby the time for moralising is over.

"Ostracising mothers and babies and saying 'we don't want you because you are a teenage mother' is simply not acceptable.

"And whatever outdated attitudes there might have been up until fairly recently on these matters we absolutely must change them now."

She welcomed the YWCA's campaign which includes a charter for young mums that calls for equality and respect and is aimed at "changing negative attitudes to young mums among policy makers, the media and people who work with them".

We still believe that marriage is the best environment for bringing up children
Theresa May
There were no young mothers present at the meeting, but the organisers played a video of young women talking about the difficulties they faced with the attitude of fellow school students, teachers, doctors and the general public.

Ms Laing said: "I really, really welcome the YWCA's campaign and I think that the word respect is absolutely perfect because someone who is the mother of a child is doing and extremely difficult job."

Families spokesman Theresa May meanwhile pledged to put the family "back at the heart of government" arguing that did not just mean married couples.

Different families?

"There is such a thing as society and at the heart of society lies the family, however we define it," she told representatives in her keynote conference speech.

"We still believe that marriage is the best environment for bringing up children," said Ms May.

"But we live in the real world and we know that today people support each other in many different ways."

She went on to say that included "a single mother on benefits, two elderly sisters or a same sex couple with a commitment to each other".

"You are all families and I will stand up for you," she promised.

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