Cabinet file quashes lone-parent stereotype: Civil servants told ministers that quality, not quantity, of parental care was the vital issue. Rosie Waterhouse reports

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THE stereotypical single parent, as portrayed by government ministers in recent speeches, is an unmarried teenage girl, living in a council flat, who is dependent on social security benefits and fails to teach her child, or children, the difference between right and wrong. The father is nowhere in sight.

But statistics from a recently leaked Cabinet Office document, outlining proposals for curbing benefits to single parents, provide a very different profile of the single- parent family.

The number of lone parents has risen from 840,000 in 1979 to 1.3 million in 1991, while the number receiving income support has increased from 320,000 to 1 million. The Government estimates there will be about 1.7 million single parents in 2000, 1.4 million of them on income support. Ten per cent of single-parent families are headed by men.

Lone parents fall into four groups: the divorced and separated ex-married; the single, never- partnered; the ex-cohabiting; and widows. The total of divorced and separated lone parents in 1991 was estimated at 660,000, 52 per cent of the total.

The 'single, never-partnered' are the fastest-growing group of lone parents, having increased between 1981 and 1991 from 160,000 to 430,000, two-thirds of the total increase during that decade. They now make up 35 per cent of all lone parents, and more than 80 per cent of that group are under 30. The number of teenage lone parents is just 5 per cent - about 65,000 - although about 25 per cent of all lone parents became parents when teenagers; 88 per cent of teenagers said their pregnancy was unplanned.

The number of lone-parent 'ex- cohabiters' increased from about 75,000 in 1981 to about 100,000 in 1991. The number of births outside marriage rose from 6 per cent of all births in 1961 to nearly 39 per cent, or 210,000 a year, in 1991.

The number of lone parents who are widowed fell by 42 per cent from 135,000 in 1981 to 78,000.

In recent months, single parents have been targeted by right-wing ministers, who have blamed them for a decline in family values and accused them of getting pregnant in order to get benefits and a council house. More than half of all one- parent families live in local authority properties, but more than one- third are owner-occupiers. Ninety per cent of mothers aged 16 and 17 live with their parents.

Michael Howard set the agenda at the Tory party conference in October with a speech to a fringe meeting in which he said one cause of the rise in crime was 'the decline in the traditional two-parent family'. It emerged last week, from the leaked Cabinet Office paper, that he made the link despite advice from senior civil servants which concluded quite the opposite.

After reviewing academic research, the officials wrote in a consultation document for ministers, including Mr Howard, two weeks before the party conference: 'It does not appear, therefore, that the fact of lone parenthood is in itself associated with crime; it is the quality of care within the family which counts, not whether it is given by one parent or two.'

Challenged, following the leak, to justify his claim that lone parenthood was a cause of crime, Mr Howard said he had relied on three independent sources as the basis for his comments. But an analysis of these suggests his evidence is flimsy.

The first source he quoted was Elizabeth Crellin, a researcher employed by the National Children's Bureau, who studied 17,000 children born in March 1958. She examined how the 600 illegitimate babies fared compared with children born in wedlock, up to age seven.

In general, she found the illegitimate babies weighed less at birth, more died before they were seven, and 45 per cent of them were rated at the bottom grade for reading. However, the study did not look at the connections between illegitimacy and crime.

Mr Howard said another study, by Professor Israel Kolvin of Newcastle University, of 246 babies born in Newcastle in 1947, showed that more than half the children rated as 'severely deprived of proper parental care' had criminal records by the age of 33. However, the study also found that 12 per cent of the men from non-deprived homes also had a criminal record. This study is, by normal research standards, based on a small sample.

The third source was a pamphlet published by the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs and written by Norman Dennis, a reader in social studies, and George Erdos, who teaches psychology, both at Newcastle University, whom Mr Howard described as 'socialist academics'. In Families Without Fatherhood, they argued that 'physical weight, height, educational achievements, criminality, life and death itself, are on average connected with the presence or absence of a committed father'.

However, the authors did not conduct a survey of their own but quote only the Crellin and Kolvin studies.

Mr Dennis told the Independent this week: 'The central thesis of the book is an idea I had; it is speculation, and I have no evidence to support it. My idea is that it is not so much being brought up in a lone parent family that leads to crime; it's a question of the father's absence. My main thesis is that the liberation of young men from the responsibilities of the family is the more plausible source of the growth of crime and incivility in the last 30 years. I'm not scapegoating lone parents.'

Most researchers argue the causes of crime are complex and inter-related, but include poverty, unemployment, poor housing and bad parenting.