Lilley offers hand to lone parents

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The Independent Online
A scheme to help 100,000 lone parents escape the benefit trap was announced by Peter Lilley, the Social Security Secretary, in a move to erase the impression that the Tories are intent on attacking single mothers.

The announcement marked a softening of rhetoric for ministers who have accused lone parents of jumping the council- house waiting-list by getting pregnant. Mr Lilley said all the evidence suggested lone parents wanted to work but needed help to get back into the labour market. Twelve areas will be selected for pilot schemes due to start in April and costing pounds 20m.

Lone parents who volunteer for work will be assisted by caseworkers to assess any barriers to jobs and to devise a plan to get them into employment. In some areas, lone parents will be eligible for help with childcare expenses.

Private firms will be invited to supply the help to lone parents in four areas drawn from North Hampshire, Preston, Wirral, Northants, Buckinghamshire, Wiltshire, Blackburn, Hackney, Central Manchester and Bradford. The companies will be paid according to results.

The scheme, called Parent Plus, will be operated by social- security or employment offices in Warwickshire, Cambridgeshire, North Worcestershire, Motherwell, North Surrey, North Cheshire, Cardiff and Vale, and Sheffield East.

Mr Lilley also confirmed a Fraud Bill to be introduced in the Queen's Speech next month to enable inspectors to cross- check income-tax returns, VAT returns, and benefit claims to stop welfare cheats.

The powers would be targeted at specific fraud and would not allow the disclosure of confidential tax information for general fishing expeditions by fraud inspectors, Mr Lilley said. He left the announcement of the Bill out his speech for lack of time. "The word-counter said I was within my budget, but I was 76 words over," he said later.

"We ought to be able to cross-check this information to find fraudsters who are working and claiming benefit but unintended barriers prevent us. That's absurd," added Mr Lilley. A Compensation Recovery Bill will also be introduced, to force employers to foot the bill for accidents at work.

Mr Lilley has been the party conference darling in past years but the ovation for his speech appeared more restrained than before. He faced a demand from a councillor for more action to help the elderly avoid having to sell their homes to qualify for means-tested long-term care. Mr Lilley did not reply to an appeal by Jean Burnham, who cited the case of a 79-year-old widow who had to sell her home in order to pay for care after contracting Alzheimer's disease.

Supporters like her will be disappointed that the Government is delaying until after the election the implementation of legislation promised by John Major to tackle the problem. A draft Bill will propose a capital disregard for those who have taken out insurance schemes to pay for their long-term care.