Tories clash over single mothers: Lilley rejects demand to axe benefits

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The Independent Online
PETER LILLEY, Secretary of State for Social Security, yesterday rejected suggestions by his Cabinet colleague John Redwood that single mothers should be denied benefits until absent fathers had been pressed to return home to support them.

Mr Lilley said that, if more fathers helped raise children at home, it would restore traditional family values and cut growing costs to the state. But he said: 'There is no question of us changing the benefit rules though it is certainly desirable that people should not become dependent on state benefit.'

In a speech to Conservative activists in Cardiff, Mr Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales, said: 'It must be right, before granting state aid, to pursue the father and see whether it is possible for him to make a financial contribution, or even a fuller contribution by offering the normal love and support that fathers have offered down the ages to their family.'

Mr Redwood told the conference, on the future of the welfare state, that he had recently visited a housing estate - St Mellons, in Cardiff - where 50 per cent of families were single parents.

A police officer at the conference who patrols there was outraged by Mr Redwood's suggestion. 'We spend half our time sorting out domestic disputes on the estate, removing violent fathers,' he said. 'There are about 240 injunctions preventing fathers from returning home. The other half are in prison.

'I don't think Mr Redwood had ever seen anything like that estate before. I think he is just motivated by financial cost. The thought of forcing absent fathers back is pie in the sky.'

Commenting yesterday on Mr Redwood's speech, Harriet Crawley, a single mother who has stood as a Tory candidate, said: 'There's no question that some of the poorest people in the country are single mothers, so any reduction in benefits would hit an already desperate group - it's an appalling idea. There's no snap solution. People have less faith in marriage and we now have a whole culture who don't believe marriage necessarily leads to happiness.

'I don't think you can legislate on people's mental attitude and morality by threatening them financially.'

Mr Lilley said: 'The Conservative Party has always been the party of the family. We realise that relationships do break down but that should not be brought about or encouraged by government policy.' Asked whether he thought single mothers deliberately got pregnant to exploit the benefits system, he said: 'Perhaps were it not for the availability of housing in particular, people would approach having children more cautiously.' At last year's Tory Party Conference, Mr Lilley recited his 'little list' of fraudsters which included 'young women who get pregnant just to jump the housing list'.

However, another speaker at yesterday's conference, Andrew Dilnot, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said that Mr Lilley was aware, when he said this, of the government figures. These show that, of the 895,000 single parents claiming benefit in 1991, only 45,000 were mothers between 16 and 19.

Britain, however has more single-parent families - 1.3 million - than anywhere else in the European Community. This partly reflects growing divorce levels, but 17 per cent of families with children under 18 are headed by one parent, compared with 15 per cent in Denmark and 5-6 per cent in Spain, Greece and Italy.

David Willetts, Tory MP for Havant, said young women were becoming mature early. He admired their courage in bringing up children alone while men were 'feckless and irresponsible'. He quoted an American academic who argues that the number of men worth marrying is shrinking. 'Increasing numbers of men are unemployed, engaged in petty crime and are possibly juvenile delinquents. Where are the men they are supposed to marry?' But, Mr Willetts added, some absent fathers would like to spend more time with their children.

Sue Slipman, director of the National Council for One Parent Families, said there was no evidence that women were deliberately getting pregnant to get state benefits. 'Many of the women who are getting deliberately pregnant are career women. About 8,000 teenagers get pregnant each year, mostly through ignorance.'

Mr Lilley is also believed to be considering proposals to force young single mothers to provide a court order to prove that they have been thrown out of their parents' home before they can claim benefit.

(Photograph omitted)

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