The single mums who say that going out to work is just impossible

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Lesley Sheridan lives on a council estate in the south of England. She left an abusive relationship to bring up her two children alone, unemployed and surviving on benefits. She would fit the popular view of a single mother, as targeted by Labour's plans to lower the welfare bill by increasing the number in work.

But one of Lesley Sheridan's children has just finished university, while the other is at college. The state's investment in her time at home, she says, has been more than returned by the calibre of adults she has helped nurture.

"I'm no one special, I live on a council estate where it's not expected for children to do well. But my children's success is down to the fact that I was there, the time and energy I've put in. Shoving them from pillar to post wouldn't have been successful; they were already emotionally damaged," she said yesterday.

As part of a drive against welfare dependency, the Prime Minister is expected to announce today that jobless single parents with schoolchildren will be given help to find work or training. Government sources said the nine out of 10 single parents who wanted to work but could not, would be invited to "discuss career plans". Mr Blair is also set to promise a project inspired by American "single mother clubs", where lone parents can leave their children until they finish work.

But many single mothers, like Lesley Sheridan, believe that the Government's plans ignore a fundamental truth about their circumstances: that their children are largely a product of broken relationships, and therefore in need of stability; and that until there is a radical shift in childcare arrangements, working will continue to be an impossibility. Not only is it expensive, ranging from pounds 2 for playgroup sessions to pounds 70 per day for registered childcare, but employers still fail to take an enlightened approach to the irregular hours of parenting.

Julie Ward, 39, a mother-of-three from Keighley, West Yorkshire, is not a single mother by choice. Her husband left her a year ago for another woman and she had to give up her job in a factory to care for her two sons, both under five. Her 11-year-old daughter lives with her father.

"My children must come first and for the moment that prevents me from working. I want to work and I will when both boys are at school full time. I've never been out of work before," she said.

But she added: "I don't think it will be easy getting back to work - employers will want to know how dependable I am. If my boys are ill or need their mother, they will have to come first. No one else can care for them. And who among employers will give me time off for school holidays?"

Jackie Gallagher, 18, pregnant with a six-month-old daughter, also from Keighley, has worked since she left school, first at a factory and then on a YTS scheme as a hairdresser.

"I was with a local hairdresser for a year when I fell pregnant," she said. "My employer was also a single mother, so I thought she would understand. But I couldn't keep my job after all because I was sick during my pregnancy."

The massive growth in the number of single mothers - now around 1 million - has made them an easy target. They are blamed for everything from an inflated welfare bill to soaring crime rates. Some reports yesterday suggested that benefits would be withheld from mothers of school-age children who refused to go back to work, although Labour spokesmen were keen to downplay this yesterday, saying that there was "no question of compulsion".

"Crime studies show that it's the relationship between the parent and child that is the key thing, not whether that parent is working," said Radiance Strathdee, a research consultant and single mother from south- west London. She put herself through university while on benefits. Her own son is now studying at university.

"I wouldn't like to see a compulsory scheme. There's a danger of forcing parents into low-grade, long hours of employment which would do no one any good at all," she said.

"I realised very quickly that if I had to support my child I had to earn what a man can earn ... so I went back and got a degree. I had to survive on a grant but the welfare state at that stage was sufficient to do that. It was a leg up," she said. "You couldn't do that now."

Compulsory or not, some single mothers believed that the tone of the plans smacked of a view of single mothers as "lazy".

For these women, the chance to be back at work would be welcomed. But any change, they say, cannot be purely administrative. It has to weigh up the emotional cost on children, provide realistic, consistent childcare - and has to take into account the kind of adults society wants. None were too optimistic that Mr Blair's speech was going to provide that.

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is being urged to extend the tax exemption for workplace nurseries to all forms of registered childcare provision funded by an employer. The Campaign for Tax Relief and Childcare says that the existing exemption, introduced in 1990, has not led to more workplace nurseries being set up.

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