Politics: New Deal: Lone parents face benefit cuts

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The Independent Online
SINGLE MOTHERS who fail to attend JobCentre interviews may have their benefits cut, Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security, hinted yesterday.

Lobby groups and opposition MPs immediately condemned the minister's comments, made as the Government launched its nation-wide New Deal programme for lone parents.

Mr Darling refused to rule out punitive benefits cuts and gave his strongest hint yet that the voluntary scheme could be made compulsory.

Launching a pounds 2.5m advertising campaign to promote the scheme, he said that although no one would be compelled to work, all claimants had "responsibilities".

"I want to see how we can better ensure that people are fulfilling their responsibilities and take advantage of what the Government is doing to try to help," he said.

"We are examining ways in which we can ensure that people know of the opportunities available to them."

David Rendel, the Liberal Democrats' social security spokesman, attacked the remarks and claimed parents should be given the choice to stay at home and raise their children if they so wished.

"By introducing compulsion and threatening the withdrawal of benefits, the Government are seeking to punish children and their families," Mr Rendel said.

Maeve Sherlock, director of the National Council for One Parent Families, said: "The New Deal has had a promising start and clearly has a good future, but it can only be damaged by threats of compulsion."

In an effort to target lone parents whose youngest child is aged five or over, the new campaign will appear on radio and television and in TV listings and women's magazines.

The scheme began in pilot areas in July last year and all single parents on Income Support became eligible from yesterday. The scheme came under further attack yesterday when new figures showed that only one in 10 of those invited for interview with a personal adviser had found work.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives called on the Government to review the programme, claiming that it was costing pounds 20,000 per job. The pounds 7m pilot scheme found jobs for just 300 people.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Tories' spokesman on social security, said that the fact that the Government was considering compulsion was a tacit admission that it had failed.

"How can the Government claim that their flagship project for creating employment has been successful?

"The reality is that the entire programme has been an abject failure that has wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers' money," he said.

Frank Field, the former minister for welfare reform, said he was "disappointed" at the statistics and he backed the idea of requiring parents to attend interviews.

Mr Darling claimed pilot schemes had been a success and proved that the New Deal, together with the Working Families Tax Credit and Childcare Tax Credit, meant that all lone parents had options to find work.

"The Welfare State is reflecting the needs and aspirations of lone parents, not writing them off to a lifetime of dependency," he said at the scheme launch in Croydon, south London.

"We are moving from a system which simply pays out benefits to an active, modern service which offers people real options for a better life."