How many lone parents are there in this country? There are now 1.3 million lone parents; 90 per cent are women and 32 per cent have never been married. They represent 19 per cent of all families with children under 18 - a higher proportion than in all other Western industralised nations apart from the United States and Sweden. In Roman Catholic countries, such as Spain and Italy, the proportion is as low as 6 per cent.

But, contrary to what ministers imply, only a small minority (5 per cent) of British lone parents are teenagers. The number of teenage births overall has risen slightly, from 42,000 in 1987 to 43,300 in 1991. Last year there was a 9 per cent drop in teenage births.

Are children of lone parents likely to turn out worse? Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said last month: 'So-called 'progressive' theories in the Sixties and Seventies made excuses for crime . . . some parents neglected the difference between right and wrong. Part of this story has been the decline in the traditional two-parent family.' He quoted three sources to back up his argument.

Eileen Crellin, a researcher employed by the National Children's Bureau, studied 17,000 children born in Britain in March 1958 up to age seven and looked at the difference between illegitimate children and those born in wedlock. Mr Howard said she found that the illegitimate children fared worse. They weighed less at birth, more died before they were seven, and 45 per cent of them were rated at the bottom grade for reading. But the study did not look at the connections between illegitimacy and crime, nor at children whose parents were divorced or separated.

Another study, by Professor Israel Kolvin of Newcastle University, showed that more than half the children rated as 'severely deprived of proper parental care' had criminal records by the age of 33.

But in a 1985 study, Home Office officials concluded that 'it may be unwise to assume that more one-parent families must mean more delinquency or that they are necessarily more lax in their supervision or less able to provide support or affection than two-parent families.'

Other researchers who have reviewed the available studies argue that the root causes of ill health, poor educational achievement and delinquency are poverty and inadequate parental care.

One-parent families tend to have less money than two-parent families; they may also have more difficulty meeting all their children's needs and giving adequate supervision. As the Home Office study concluded: 'It is the quality of care within the family which counts, not whether it is given by one parent or two.'

The case against the single mother as such must be judged 'not proven'. But, if poverty in childhood is indeed the root of later criminality, it must be conceded that lone parenthood is the quickest route to poverty.

How much do lone parents cost the state? The only benefits lone parents receive which two-parent families do not are a lone-parent premium of pounds 4.90 a week plus pounds 6.05 one-parent benefit.

This year, the cost of income support and family credit for lone parents is pounds 3.4bn; the Government expects this to rise to pounds 4.9bn by 2000.

Is it true they get preference for council housing? Nothing in housing legislation makes special provision for lone parents,but local councils have a duty to secure accommodation for, among others, pregnant women, people with dependent children, and 'vulnerable' people. The leaked Cabinet Office report that sparked the controversy over lone parents last week suggests that lone parents are twice as likely as other eligible groups to be accepted as homeless.

Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, included 'young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue' in his 'little list' speech at the Tory party conference. But 90 per cent of teenage mothers aged 16 and 17 live with their parents and 88 per cent of pregnancies are unplanned.

Will the Government cut benefits for lone parents? It seems to be thinking about it. The leaked Cabinet Office document identifies savings including cutting one- parent benefit and lone-parent premium; limiting amounts payable to separated couples if both are dependent on benefits; restricting benefits to discourage lone parents who continue having children while on income support; and encouraging lone parents to live at home with their family. The document said ministers in the DoE were considering changes to the homelessness law so that single mothers would not necessarily get permanent accommodation.

What would the Government hope to achieve? It wants to save money and to discourage single women from having children because ministers believe that the two-parent family is better. But even Mr Lilley admits that cutting benefit will not reduce the numbers of single parents. It would, however, make them poorer. But this, if we accept the Home Office conclusion that delinquency is rooted in poverty, could prove self-defeating in the Government's long-term efforts to reduce crime.

Is there anything else the Government can do? Yes. It can improve the availability of childcare, to get more mothers out to work. This would help to achieve the primary aim of saving public money while reducing poverty. The UK has one of the lowest rates of lone mothers in work.

The leaked document has other proposals for encouraging more lone mothers to work, including removing disincentives in the benefit system whereby after earnings above pounds 5 she loses benefit, but this could prove costly. Another idea is to increase family credit to help pay for childcare but this would cost pounds 100m- pounds 200m. This has already been ruled out by the Treasury because of the short-term costs.

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