Hiccups, yes, but Harriet's lone parent deal works

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT WAS the work ethic writ large: the declaration on the form said: "I declare that I will be better off in work." This was to become our mantra - that we single parents living on income support who had joined Harriet Harman's project to get us off benefit and into work would reap the rewards.

After several years in Paris I was unprepared for this new version of Britain. I returned here with my three-year-old daughter, only to be shocked at the scarcity of childcare and the lack of opportunities. In France lone parents who choose to stay at home receive much higher benefits than in Britain. Childcare is subsidised; you pay 10 per cent of net income.

Like many women with children, the most attractive solution was part- time work, but finding something suitable is difficult. So I was interested in trying one of the Government's New Deal courses, New Labour's answer to lone-parent poverty.

Gingerbread, the lone parent charity, in partnership with Training for Life, (which usually provides training for young people) runs a six-week course, during school hours. Job search workshops are provided, with help in deciding career direction and CV writing. It also offers the all important help with the cost of childcare.

Most of the employees are unemployed "volunteers" working for either pounds 10 extra a week on their benefits or, in two cases, working for the cost of childcare. Every day of the fast-track week started at least an hour and a half late and, three weeks into the course, there have been no workshops to date.

For people with pre-school children there is either an in-house creche or pounds 35 weekly towards childcare but I pay pounds 70 a week for my daughter's nursery.

We were also told we would be introduced to "Family Friendly" employers. When Barclays Bank gave a recruitment talk offering part-time positions as cashiers, we were told the pay was pounds 8,000 gross but sick pay and carers' leave (for when a dependant is ill) had to be taken out of the 10 days' annual leave. Full-time workers are entitled to four weeks.

The course promised a "personal action plan and targeted CV" but unlike a job club, it does not provide individual help, telephones, free postage or fax facilities. Yet the cost of finding work is one of the biggest barriers for lone parents.

The group has discussed whether to be honest in interviews about having children. In my experience employers were almost exclusively interested in childcare arrangements rather than my ability to do the job. One of our advisers, neatly side-stepped the issue: "Try not to bring up the subject, because you won't get the job if you do. If employers have the choice between a person with no dependants and a single mother, you know who they will pick."

I have enjoyed the camaraderie of the course and the pseudo back-to- work atmosphere. It has given me confidence to send off for jobs and re- establish old work contacts.

It has also been interesting also to watch how the people on the course have subtly changed even in three weeks. Gone is the softly scruffy look of motherhood. The women have started wearing jackets, shirts and make- up - an office image.