Announcing help for every lone parent with a child aged 12 or younger, the Chancellor said childcare would finally become an "integral part of ... economic policy" as yesterday's Budget almost doubled the disregard for childcare costs to pounds 100 a week for lone parents who qualify for benefits .
Allocating pounds 200m from the windfall fund to help lone parents back to work, Gordon Brown said that, under his programme, when the youngest child is in the second term of full-time schooling, lone parents would be invited for job search interviews and offered help in finding suitable work.
As many as 50,000 young people will be trained as childcare assistants through mainly voluntary organisations over the next five years to meet increased demand and lottery money will be made available for after-school clubs.
"A generation of parents have waited for their government to introduce a national childcare strategy," the Chancellor said. "From this Budget forwards, child care will no longer be seen as an afterthought or a fringe element of social policies but from now on, as it should be, an integral part of our economic policy."
The New Deal will start with 40,000 lone parents in eight parts of the country from 21 July. The full national programme for half a million lone parents will follow from October next year.
"One million lone parents are now bringing up 2 million children dependent on benefit, at a cost of pounds 10bn a year and growing," said Harriet Harman, Secretary for Social Security.
Martin Barnes, welfare rights officer of the Child Poverty Action Group, said: "We welcome the recognition of the importance of childcare. It is a first step that is welcomed but a comprehensive strategy needs a lot more investment than pounds 200m over a five-year period. It needs to go a lot further."
The near doubling of the current disregard was also a help to lone parents but Mr Barnes added: "We worry that because it is for registered childminders, a lot of lone parents on low incomes are not with registered with childminders but have more informal arrangements and they will not benefit."
Karin Pappenheim, director of National Council of One Parent Families, called it a "good news budget for lone parents". "The new scheme represents 10 times the investment made by the previous government in welfare to work for lone parents," she said. "The additional support with childcare costs will help break down one of the greatest barriers to work combined with the new national employment scheme for lone parents whichpromises a route out of poverty for these families."
Liz Sewell, chief executive of Gingerbread, said it was "at last a recognition that lone parents want to work and the guts to put money upfront to ensure that they have the chance to do so".
"Advice, training and childcare are key measures, but we also need jobs," she warned. "Employers must now recognise the value of lone parents as employees."
Lone parent groups had also hoped the Government would reverse the previous government's decision to axe the lone parent family premium in income support for new claimants but the Department of Social Security confirmed last night the withdrawal of entitlement would be going ahead. "It runs counter to the aim of helping lone parents into work," said a spokesman for CPAG.