The Journal of Lynton Charles, Deputy Minister without Portfolio

Wednesday The day starts with a row. Cheryl decides that a minor domestic failure on my part (I forgot to do the twins' homework with them yesterday when she was at her Unison South-Eastern Women's Network Conference) is analogous to the absence of key measures from the Queen's Speech. "It's typical," she calls at me as I exit ministry-wards, "of you and new Labour, that we have no Transport Bill and no Freedom of Information Act!"

I say nothing. I always worry that if Cheryl and I fall out too badly, I will come home one day to find Rodney Bickerstaffe on my sofa offering tough conciliation.

Ironically I am setting off for a half-day meeting of my own family reconciliation sub-committee, which means five hours in the worrying, exciting company of the one-eyed Zero Anstiss. Cheryl and I are nowhere near divorce, of course, but I must admit that I often relate the discussions we have about family tension and breakdown to my own situation.

Anyway, today's work begins with a presentation by a bearded academic from the University of West Hertford, or somewhere, dealing with American research on the question of monogamy counselling. Most marital disasters, he tells us, are originally due to infidelity on the part of one or other of the partners (and by no means always the man). So illicit bonking leads to divorce, leads to damaged children, leads to unhappiness and a predisposition towards delinquency and crime.

But, asks the beard, can anything be done? There are two logical routes, he argues. One is to try and educate couples to tolerate adultery, to make it less stigmatised, to return us, as he puts it, "to a culture of mistresses".

A Clark from either the Home Office or the Lord Chancellor's Department harrumphs loudly, making it clear that a pro- adultery stance is unlikely to become government policy. "Can you imagine the posters?" he whispers to me. "A bloke with his hand up a barmaid's skirt and the slogan: 'So What?' I don't think the Witchfinder General will go for that one, do you?"

Beard has anticipated this reaction. "The other strategy is to try and educate people out of adultery; to persuade them that the risks are great, the damage permanent, while the rewards are transitory at best."

He projects a series of statistics on to a white screen at the front. "This is a study from the University of Minnesota," he tells us, "which monitored a pilot scheme in a series of small lakeside towns. Called the 'Think Again' campaign - and strongly backed by Hillary Clinton - this used TV ads, classroom education, church groups, Rotarians and sports clubs to get the message over. As you can see, the results are dramatic. Among the population as a whole the incidence of adultery in marriage went up from 2.8 per ten couples in 1994, to 3.1 in 1997. But on the Minnesotan lake shores, it actually fell from 2.5 to 0.2 in the same period. Any questions?"

We are stunned by the dramatic nature of this evidence. Someone whistles through his teeth. "Just wait till the Master gets hold of this!" I tell Zero, who cackles hoarsely, showing me her perfect, sharp teeth.

The group then discusses the presentation. Cautiously we agree that there is something very interesting here, but that there are two problems. The first is that we need to study Minnesota a bit more carefully to make sure that its lessons really are applicable to places with fewer churches and less active Rotarians. The second is that we recognise the political difficulties inherent in a government-sponsored campaign to say "no" to infidelity.

"Why," asks Zero, fixing me with her one glittering eye, "do we not go to Minnesota and seek there the answers to our questions?" What a very good idea!

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!