UNICEF has damned Britain and the United States as the worst places for children to live among wealthy nations, in a new report which caused widespread soul-searching.
The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Finland topped the 21 industrial powers assessed for the child well-being report released Wednesday.
Britain's youngsters had the worst relationships with their family and peers, suffered more from poverty and indulged in more "binge drinking" and hazardous sex than children in other wealthy nations, said the report.
The United States placed 20 and Britain 21 on the list.
Stung by the ranking, which featured on the front page of virtually every newspaper, the British government said much of the data used by UNICEF was outdated.
A government spokesman said: "We recognise that UNICEF does vital work in this area ... But in many cases the data used is several years old and does not reflect more recent improvements in the UK."
But a children's policy watchdog warned of "a crisis at the heart of our society."
"Despite being a rich country, the UK is failing children and young people in a number of crucial ways," said Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of The Children's Society.
Britain came in last for two of the main six areas studied by UNICEF: relationships, especially with their peers; and risky behaviour such as sex, drink and drugs.
It ranked 20 for children's own assessment of their happiness, finished at 18 for poverty and inequality, landed at 17 for education over the long-term and scored 12th for health and safety.
More broadly, Britain joined the United States and Sweden in having the highest proportion of children living in single-parent families, while Italy, Greece and Spain had the lowest.
UNICEF said child poverty -- defined as the percentage of children living in homes with equivalent incomes below 50 percent of the national median -- remains above the 15 percent mark in Britain, the United States and Ireland, as well as Spain, Portugal and Italy.
Britain's young people are also shown to live up to their infamous reputation for "binge-drinking," hazardous sexual activity and drug use.
Almost a third of British youngsters aged 11, 13 and 15 reported being drunk on two or more occasions, against just an average of under 15 percent in the majority of OECD countries.
Britain did make progress however in the field of child safety, having cut the incidence of deaths from accidents and injuries to the "remarkably low level" of fewer than 10 per 10,000.
Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy also achieved the same rate of progress. Britain's opposition Conservative party accused Gordon Brown, the finance minister who is expected to succeed Tony Blair as prime minister this year, of "failing" a generation of children.
The government hit back at the charges, saying improving children's well-being is a "real priority."
A spokeswoman said the report confirms that children's educational attainment at age 15 in Britain compares well with many other EU countries, even if it fell later in terms of continuing education and training.
She also said the rate of teenage pregnancy was now at 20-year lows and the number of houses where neither parent worked was declining.
Professor Sir Albert Aynsley-Green, Children's Commissioner for England, whose office was set up in 2004 to monitor policy, said UNICEF's findings were disheartening but not surprising.
"There is a crisis at the heart of our society and we must not continue to ignore the impact of our attitudes towards children and young people and the effect that this has on their well-being," he said.
Copyright © 2007 AFP