Fleet has been named as the town with the lowest rate in England of babies born out of wedlock.

But even though Fleet is the lowest, nearly one in five children in the town is now being born illegitimate, according to official statistics just published. In the North East the figure is one in every two babies.

Some 19.3 percent of Fleet babies were born to unmarried parents last year. Of those, 83.5 percent were registered with the father and mother giving the same address.

Hart Council's Leader, Liberal Democrat David Simpson, said he was delighted that Fleet was the lowest in the survey. He added that he tried not to make pronouncements on moral issues, but as a Christian he believed that children should be brought up in a loving relationship of two people, preferably married.

He said families were the basis of society and when children were socially deprived, society had to pick up the bill. "We end up paying for the extra help people need," he said.

Retiring Hart councillor Maria Armstrong, the outgoing Mayor of Yateley and a nurse who teaches a class on baby care at Courtmoor School,Fleet, thought the figures were disgusting. "We wonder why we have so many emotionally damaged youngsters," she said, "but we have to obey God's principles to have blessings."

She said couples co-habited because they did not want to commit to a permanent relationship. They formed a sexual partnership, but that was not the same as a family.

"They want to retain their own names and identity and usually the child is registered in the mother's name - not a family name. Then when the couple separate, they form a new relationship.

"Marriage creates a new family. Co-habiting just creates a new relationship."

She said the issue was vitally important for our society and she had already asked the council what allowances were due to her so that she could spend the money to buy literature on marriage and good citizenship to give out in local schools.

Mrs. Armstrong, a Liberal Democrat, said parents could help their youngsters learn wisdom by getting good literature on sex and marriage into their hands before they made decisions which could spoil their lives. One good book to get was "How to help your child say no to sexual pressure" by Josh McDowell (Word Books, ISBN 0850091500). Parents could also contact the Family Education Trust on 020 7401 5471 (www.famyouth.org.uk) or Viz a Viz on 01268 530531 for teaching materials. Another website was www.ProjectReality.org

At Relate, the marriage guidance centre, Mrs Claire Howe, manager of the Farnborough & Fleet branch, said that Relate would never judge people's relationships, but that children obviously benefitted from having two committed parents, whether or not they were married. She thought that 19 percent was "a relatively small proportion of children" and "not excessive nowadays" and added that the fact that a couple were not married was no measure of how committed they were as parents.

In the South East region 34.1 percent of births were outside marriage, the lowest regional percentage. The North East of England had the highest number of illegitimate births - 50.5 percent - the first time that over half of babies in a region were born outside of marriage.