Lone parent plan stolen, say Tories

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The Independent Online
The Prime Minister yesterday accused Tony Blair of adopting copycat tactics and "jackdaw tendencies", picking up Tory-style plans to encourage lone parents to move from welfare to work.

Well before the Labour leader had even left Britain for Amsterdam, where he was due to make a speech last night on "The 21st Century Welfare State", the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats moved in to mock Mr Blair's pledges.

Mr Major said in his Huntingdon constituency: "From what I know of what he plans to say, the policy of after-school clubs for children has been our policy for some time, and we have devoted many tens of millions of pounds to it . . .

"I'm afraid this is another example of the jackdaw tendency in the Labour Party - that if we leave a good policy lying about they will certainly scoop it up, shine it brightly and claim it as another brand new policy for themselves."

Mr Blair was outlining a strategy to get lone parents off benefit and into work. This would involve single parents with children over the age of five going for interviews at a Jobcentre where they would be urged to look for work. The Benefits Agency would be asked to draw up employment and child care plans.

Labour said the plan, and other proposals to reduce the pounds 10bn cost to the state of single parents, had been modelled on Australia's successful jobs, education and training (Jet) programme.

Mr Major said Labour's scheme appeared to be a watered-down version of government policy; excluding more spending and private sector involvement. "So I suspect there's not a great deal in the speech except some copycat policies."

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrats' leader, said Mr Blair had come up with an old policy, reheated, adding that Labour must put its money where its mouth was.

"The best way to assist single parents," he said, "is to provide pre- school education for all from three years on, of a high quality basis."

Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, reinforced the Prime Minister's point, saying Mr Blair was imitating the Government's "Parent Plus" plans.

However, the pounds 20m Parent Plus project, a pilot scheme, is to be used in only twelve areas and does not start until April - the very last possible month of the current Parliament.

Mr Blair stressed there was no question of forcing single mothers into work by draconian measures such as cutting their benefits. It was about offering them choice, he said.

Many lone parents wanted to take up work but could not find child care, or found it was not worthwhile under the current system as they would lose some benefits.

Only 41 per cent of lone parents in Britain are in paid work, compared with 82 per cent in France and 70 per cent in Sweden.