A Government policy stolen from King Canute

Trying to prevent lone-parent families rather than help them is both futile and hurtful
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The Independent Online
The emotion which informs Government policy towards single-parent families is fear rather than compassion. To help lone parents, ministers seem to believe, is mistakenly to give respectability to the very notion of single-parent households and to contribute towards the break-up of families. In his Budget, Kenneth Clarke announced the ending of both the pounds 6.30 per week One Parent Benefit (which goes to working lone parents) and the pounds 5.20 per week Lone Parent Premium for those on Income Support.

Family structures have been through so many changes in their long history that we should not be surprised to find ourselves living through another upheaval. The early Church viewed love as a subversive and destructive passion. Later in the medieval period, children were seen as future earners and procreation became an obsession. Then in the middle of the 19th century, after a long period of stability, fertility rates began to fall. The size of the average British family in 1995 was 2.4 people, the lowest level ever recorded in this country.

To this trend we can add three recent changes. Cohabitation is partly replacing marriage. In 1995 a third of women in the 25- to 29-year-old bracket were cohabiting, compared with 11 per cent in 1979. Working mothers have become the norm; in the past decade their number has trebled. More and more children are brought up in single parent families. Nearly a quarter of all families with dependent children are headed by a lone parent, 90 per cent of whom are women.

The Government cannot influence these deep and powerful currents. There should be a statue of King Canute in Whitehall to remind politicians and their advisors of the limits of their powers. If policy makers were to work with the tide, they would take as their starting point the fact that 2.3 million children are being brought up by lone parents. This is a fifth of all our children. So the question should be "how can we help the many children with only one parent in their household?" rather than "how can we have fewer single-parent households?"

These children have been twice hurt. They accept their status but they do not rid themselves of the absent parent. Dr Sebastian Kraemer, a consultant child and family psychiatrist in London, spoke very eloquently about this recently.

He said that there was always a space in a child's mind for both parents. Children know that the missing father exists and they have to work out for themselves why he didn't stay to look after them. They often think that it is in some way their own fault; that he left because of them.

Children are also hurt because of the sheer stress which is likely to arise from the poverty and the overwork of their single parent. A decline in living standards is an inescapable concomitant of family breakdown and managing is more difficult without a partner. As a result, the average outcomes for groups of children whose parents split up are less good than those for children whose parents stay together.

Judging Government policy in this context, it is straight away obvious that Government rhetoric is harmful. Preaching the undoubted virtues of the traditional family unit is neither reassuring nor comforting if you don't happen to live in one.

For 1.5 million lone parents and their 2.3 million children it is an excluding sentiment. It marginalises them. It tells them that they are the unfortunates who have fallen short of the ideal, with the implication that their sorry state is the result of their own fecklessness. In this way the hurt which parent as well as child have suffered is made worse.

Furthermore, the Government believes the answer to lone parents' economic problems is paid work. To make it easier for mothers to take jobs, the Government introduced a childcare allowance for all families in 1994 to help pay for child-minders and nurseries until children have reached 11 years. Having done that, the Government feels safe in withdrawing top- up benefits available to lone parents.

But what is the Government saying here? It is this: lone parent families have no special financial difficulties as compared with two parent households.

Common sense tells us that this is plain wrong. Lone-parent families have higher costs per child. This is largely the result of time pressures on lone parents. They are, for instance, more apt to buy convenience foods and use taxis for shopping than two-parent families even though there is, by definition, no second wage.

Look at the statistics. Sixty per cent of one-parent families have an income of less than pounds 150 a week compared with 11 per cent of two-parent families.

I would like to hear Kenneth Clarke explain his Budget measures to the children of lone parent families. What would he say? It would have to go something like this: "Although your mother is bringing you up on her own, we think your financial situation is no different from families where the mum and dad are together. You will be fine if your mum gets full-time work. If her salary is low, we will give her some help with paying child- minders until you are 11, and after that ... well, you will just have to manage as best you can during the school holidays."

This simply isn't convincing. Indeed I even wonder whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer really believes in his measures, because he has postponed their application until 1998. It is almost as if he is leaving the way open for their reversal in next year's Budget - whoever may be delivering it.