The Department of Social Security is urgently examining ways of reining in benefit expenditure, which, after a slight dip this year, is forecast to resume its inexorable upward curve and reach more than pounds 93bn by the year 2000.
Spending on lone parents has increased more than five-foldsince the Conservatives came to power, rising from pounds 1.7bn in 1978/79 to pounds 9.4bn in 1995/96. Yet the number of single parents has not even doubled in the same period - it was up from 800,000 to 1.4 million at the last count.
"Lone parents and the benefits they get must surely be high on the agenda for discussion in the public expenditure round," said a senior DSS source. "It has got to be an issue."
This is a sensitive subject for the Government, following the debacle of John Major's "back to basics" initiative last year, which triggered revelations about Tory MPs' private lives. But with more than a million lone parents claiming income support, child benefit, one-parent benefit and housing benefit, the Treasury will be demanding cuts in spending.
DSS officials are also scrutinising benefits. Housing benefit, which is paid to nearly five million council and private tenants, will swallow up pounds 10.2bn this year. Child benefit, which is paid to seven million mothers, will account for pounds 6.1bn.
"Ministers want to do something about it, and they would if they could," said a source. Although the Government made an election promise to retain child benefit, one solution would be to cut further the entitlement for second and subsequent children.
Last night pressure increased on the Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley when his former Cabinet colleague John Redwood floated the idea of teenage single mothers putting their babies up for adoption and argued that the benefit and tax system should encourage the two-parent family, instead of handing out benefits to single mothers.
Overall, the social security budget is growing at a daunting rate. It will increase by half a billion in 1995/96, before rising to pounds 85.9bn in 1996/97 and pounds 87.8bn the year after. Despite assurances of lower spending last week from Mr Lilley, it is projected to reach pounds 93.6bn by the end of the decade, and continue rising to the year 2010, when the equalisation of state pension ages for men and women takes effect.Reuse content