Britain has highest EC number of lone parents: A study shows two million children live in one-parent homes. Jack O'Sullivan reports

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The Independent Online
THE United Kingdom has more lone parents than any other European Community country, according to an analysis published yesterday by the Family Policy Studies Centre. In addition, a larger proportion of families is headed by one parent than in any other EC country.

The figures are a mark of the high divorce rates over the past 15 years, plus a recent rise in the number of unmarried mothers who live alone with their children.

Given evidence that lone parents and children run a greater risk of poverty than families headed by a couple, the statistics have particular significance for the economic circumstances in which many children will grow up during the 1990s.

Lone parents are now in charge of almost one in five British families with children under 18, about 1.3 million parents living with 2.1 million children, the report says. This compares with one in seven Danish families and one in eight families in Germany and France. In Greece, Spain and Italy, the proportion of one-parent families with dependent children is little more than 1 in 20.

Lone parents are twice as likely as two-parent families to be poor, although the extent of lone parent poverty varies between states. Mothers who head lone parent families - around 90 per cent of the total - are twice as likely to be poor as lone fathers.

British lone parents fare better than some of their contemporaries. One in ten of them is living in poverty (have an income below half the typical national income), compared with a quarter of German lone parents, and one in six of their French counterparts.

Few lone parents in Europe are able to rely on maintenance payments by the absent parent for their major source of income. With the exception of Britain and Denmark, a higher proportion of European lone mothers work than other mothers.

Seven out of ten British lone parents are dependent on income support, nearly double the proportion in 1971. Only three in ten received regular maintenance payments in 1989, the average amount being pounds 27 a week.

The new Child Support Agency, with responsibility for setting, collecting and enforcing child support payments, aims to increase the numbers paying maintenance and reduce the burden on the state. The study suggests that lone parenting could become an even bigger issue in Europe over the next decade as rising divorce rates, and the increased numbers of births outside marriage, result in southern European countries following the north European trend.

For example, the legalisation of divorce, now being actively considered in the Republic of Ireland, is expected to increase the numbers of lone parents.

Lone parents in the European Community; by Janet Roll; Family Policy Studies Centre, 231 Baker Street, London NW1 6XE; pounds 7.95

----------------------------------------------------------------- Proportion of families with children under 18, headed by a lone parent (1989) ----------------------------------------------------------------- Country Percentage UK. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17 Denmark. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .15 France & Germany. . . . . . . . . . . 11-13 Belgium, Luxembourg, Ireland, Netherlands & Portugal. . . . . . . . 9-11 Greece, Spain & Italy. . . . . . . . . 5-6 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Source: Family Policy Studies Centre -----------------------------------------------------------------