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Sunday, September 5, 1999 Published at 17:35 GMT 18:35 UK

UK Politics

Blair criticised over moral crusade

Tony Blair: Moral crusade - or Back to Basics?

The prime minister's call for Britain to rediscover its sense of morality has been criticised by party leaders and pressure groups.

In an interview with a Sunday newspaper Tony Blair urged parents and the government to work together to develop a "modern, responsible nation of citizenship" for the new generation.

He said parents should take more responsibility for their children, adding that 12-year-olds should not be on the streets at night.

Charles Kennedy: "It's best to leave the bishops to the pulpits"
But his comments immediately attracted criticism, with the new Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy drawing parallels with John Major's infamous "Back to Basics" campaign.

Mr Kennedy told GMTV's Sunday programme: "I think it's better that we stick to what we are supposed to be doing and make a success of that," he said.

And David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, said Mr Blair could not exclude Northern Ireland from the scope of his remarks.

'Society without prejudice'

The prime minister's comments come in the week that two 12-year-old girls announced they were pregnant.

The news had appalled him and it was this that was uppermost in his mind when he gave the interview to The Observer, a Labour Party spokesman said.

Mr Blair said: "You've got to make youngsters aware of the undesirability of having sex at 12.

The BBC's Carole Walker: "Ministers insist they have a responsibility to tackle the number of teenage pregnancies"
"We need to find a new national moral purpose for this new generation," Mr Blair told the paper.

"People want to live in a society that is without prejudice, but it is with rules, with a sense of order."

Mr Blair said he wanted to make Britain a "real 21st century model country, which it can be".

Ambitious challenge

BBC political correspondent Guto Harri said emotive language with a strong moral undertone has always been part of Mr Blair's political armoury.

But his latest comments amount to an ambitious challenge to government and people alike.

He did not hide his frustration with police and local authorities, who have yet to use their powers to impose curfews on anti-social teenagers.

However, Downing Street later quashed any suggestion that Mr Blair was talking of imposing general curfews on youngsters.

Labour blamed

Mr Blair immediately came under fire from the independent think tank, Family and Youth Concern, over his comments.

Spokeswoman Valerie Riches said: "Mr Blair should be aware that it was under a Labour government that the policy was introduced in 1974 that parents should not be told about the provision of contraception to their under-age daughters.

"This has been extended to include abortion and his own government has said that parents should not be told if their children in schools are involved in underage sex, homosexual sex and drugs.

"On the one hand the government wants parents to be responsible for their children's behaviour while on the other hand makes it virtually impossible for them to be so. Tony Blair cannot have it both ways."

'Sexualised society

Ian Sparks, director of the Children's Society, said adults had to ask themselves what moral message they gave children.

Andrew Neil talks to Children's Society director Ian Sparks and Geoff Dobson of the Chief Probation Officers' Association
"What the prime minister may be getting into is that a moral purpose starts with us as adults working out what our morality is. People mirror the way they see the rest of our society behaving.

"There is a danger of tarring all young people with the same brush. Beneath it all we need to recognise that we live in a very highly sexualised society."

But Scotland's first minister backed Mr Blair.

Speaking on Sky News Sunday, Donald Dewar said: "I think it's important government does take the lead on this matter to make sure people who are at risk have the information and have the support that they need."

The Conservative Party declined to comment on Mr Blair's remarks. "We're not getting involved," said a spokesman.

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