Lilley v Harman: riding the tiger of single motherhood

Big talk, small solutions: will either party spend the money needed to help mothers into work?
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The Independent Online
This afternoon Peter Lilley will get up in the debate on the Queen's Speech to talk about social security. Harriet Harman will reply. Judging from his remarkably low-key conference performance, Mr Lilley will probably not return to his rabble-rousing, single-mother bashing "little list". But he may boast of his new Parent Plus pilot to get single mothers back to work - an admirable scheme, but minuscule, covering less than 30,000 mothers a year for four years. (There are a million on social security.)

He will probably repeat his personal assault on Harriet Harman's brainpower with some little quip to get the boys in pin-stripes guffawing and haw- hawing. They know women in the Commons are either dim, horrible to behold or mad. Of course they are. Haw haw!

Harriet Harman shrugged in a sod-him sort of way when I spoke to her yesterday. Undeterred, she plans to walk straight into a minefield of mockery. What would the oafs on the green benches expect of her? Why, of course, that she would whinge on about single mothers and child care. Every time anyone talks about child care at Westminster there is a collective groan and a hasty rush for the exit.

Fortunately, the Labour party does not speak with one tongue on family matters. Only this week Tony Blair was at it again, earnestly asserting on radio that two-parent families are better than one-parent families. What does he mean? Any old two parents? Battering, drunken, aggressive, beastly fathers are always better than none? Good single mothers are worse than bad married ones?

So Harriet Harman's speech will be a welcome antidote to all that knee- jerk moralistic nonsense that seems to have addled her leader's brains of late. Let us hope he is suffering only a mild brain fever which may pass and that it is not a chronic condition.

She produces an alarming graph. It shows how many more mothers go out to work than in 1979. But as those numbers soar, the proportion of single parents in work has plummetted, caught in a benefit trap. Fewer single mothers work in Britain than the rest of Europe. Yet it is the single mothers who most need to become breadwinners, since they are currently costing the taxpayer pounds 10bn a year. And the key to it is child care. (Boring.)

Sensibly, she starts her programme with a promise to set up before- and after-school clubs for over-fives. These are exceedingly cheap compared with nurseries - about pounds 15 a week in term-time, pounds 10 for breakfast before school and pounds 40 a week for all-day care in the holidays. So far, only one in seven schools has one. Her proposal ties in with Blair's promise of homework clubs - keeping children off the streets, out of trouble and danger, encouraging them to like school better. Above all, it lets their mothers work.

She lists other initiatives, including, for the first time, publishing the statistics of the number of lone parents who are unemployed but not registered, because of the way the figures are fiddled. Ninety per cent of them want to work, but they are prevented from registering unless they already have child care.

So how will she pay? She stresses these are modest expenditures, and indeed they are. Potentially she could get her hands on some of the billions that would be released from her social security budget if more lone mothers went back to work. A similar scheme in Australia, called JET, started in 1992, got 20 per cent of single mothers back to work immediately. But that is a Treasury Catch 22. Without money up front to get them back to work, how do you release those funds? The Treasury does not make bridging loans.

She explains that her afterschool clubs are part of the proposals already announced for a windfall tax on public utilities for education and training and for a Citizenship Service scheme. She murmurs the magic words, lottery money - since the lottery has just dished out pounds 60m for the National Playing Fields Association.

But in truth, it is always depressing listening to members of the Shadow cabinet shadow-boxing with their budgets. They are all bursting with well- researched, practical and hard-headed ideas - things that really might make a difference. But what can you do if you can only rearrange the deck chairs within your existing budget? Not much.

There must be a way to convert current hysteria about crime and disorder, bad children and bad parents into a willingness by the electorate to pay for something that might work. Maybe Tony Blair is attempting that by riding the tiger of family values and moral crusades. But someone somewhere ought to be telling the truth every voter already knows - what you get is what you pay for. If you want to stop the underclass frightening the life out of you, stealing, vandalising, mugging and disrupting your children's schools, it costs.

Intensive nursery education for children from the worst backgrounds has been proved in US studies to cut crime in later life by an astounding 30 per cent. The children who have been through that Head Start programme over the past 30 years do better in every way. The scheme is, of course, expensive, but a great deal less expensive than crime and prison. Every dollar spent on the scheme in the US saved another seven later.

So why not try explaining that to the voters instead of feeding the moral frenzy? People fear throwing money at the poor, wasting it on wastrels, but why not tell them the evidence about things that do work? Harriet Harman is imaginatively doing what she can - within existing budgets - but where is the brave political leadership to tell people what they already know: that there's no such thing as a free lunch.