Politics: Harman spells out her mission: a hand-up, not a hand- out

A new project to help single mothers into work is showing sensational early results. The scheme could become the model for a `New Welfare', giving the underclass an escape from a life on benefit, says Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Social Security, in an exclusive interview with Anthony Bevins, Political Editor
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Official advisers have been given the freedom to cut corners and red tape as part of the Government's determination to find "what works" in getting single parents into jobs. In one case, an adviser drove a woman to her interview and looked after her child while it took place.

The enthusiasm of single mothers, their social security advisers and Harriet Harman, the Secretary of State, is infectious. "Now I've got a life," one single mother said after she had been helped to escape a sentence of life on benefit.

Under the "New Deal" demonstration project, which started in July, 180 lone mothers have so far been helped into work after just one interview. With 1,000 mothers seen so far, the hit-rate is beyond all expectations; without precedent.

Those who have not been helped into work so far will be given follow- up interviews, help and guidance, and with many of the women who find work getting more than pounds 50 extra each week - on top of all their benefits - the incentives are real.

There are now 1 million single parents looking after 2 million children, at a cost to the state of pounds 10bn a year in benefits, which means that the advantages of the new deal project are not only measured in terms cash in hand for one of the most deprived groups in society.

One official source estimated that eventual savings could exceed pounds 100m a year in benefits for the lone mothers alone. But Ms Harman wants to apply the principles of success to people who are receiving disability benefit, too.

"These women are being liberated from the idea that they've got a government that is just dumping on them all the time; criticising them for `jumping the housing queue', " Ms Harman told The Independent yesterday.

The pilot project, which started in July, covers eight areas in England, Scotland and Wales, with an estimated 40,000 single mothers with children of school age. The scheme is to move on to a national basis in October next year - with a target of helping all 500,000 single mothers with an estimated 1 million children of school age.

Ms Harman said: "This is what government is for - not about pointing the finger at people, but tackling poverty and social exclusion and tackling workless households and child poverty. Right, then what's the programme that delivers that?"

The women and the advisers were so keen back in July, that people were jumping the gun; asking for interviews before they were invited, and giving interviews to women with children under five.

"I have told the advisers, `Just do it. Don't worry about the red tape'," Ms Harman said. "If the regulations are in the way, I'll change them. If they hit any obstacles from other departments, I'll get it sorted out ...

"They hit the ground running and far from there being any resistance, with women saying, `Leave me alone, get the jackboot of the state off my neck', most people have been incredibly welcoming. Some have been slightly apprehensive to start with, but then they've been converted.

"They are ahead of us. Of those turning up for interview, 14 per cent are women with children under five. Nobody has written to them and invited them in, but they're turning up anyway, and once they come in they get the programme."

That means that they are taken through the labyrinth of benefits, the jobs on offer, the hours and terms, and given a computerised calculation of the net increase in income they will have at the end of the week.

"This lot," said Ms Harman, "when it comes to Christmas, they're going to have money for presents. They have moved from just coping to actually getting a life." Everyone benefits: mothers, children, the employer, the taxpayer - and the community at large.

"This is about real people, real lives," the minister said yesterday. "It is what government is for. It is very exciting; it's liberating people. This is part of the process of creating a new welfare state. And it works."

HOW `NEW WELFARE'has already helped

Age Wage Better-off by Hours Perm/temp Type of job

22 pounds 76.80 pounds 33.84 16 Perm Tele-sales

31 pounds 112.03 pounds 40.74 24 Perm Junior technician

25 pounds 102.35 pounds 35.94 39 Perm Child-care

39 pounds 113.75 pounds 51.34 35 Perm Care assistant

31 pounds 99.00 pounds 47.10 33 Perm Cleaner

35 pounds 87.10 pounds 42.06 26 Perm Sales assistant