Ministers keep up campaign against single mothers: Benefits system faces further criticism as pressure for savings grows. Patricia Wynn Davies reports

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS pressed on yesterday with their moral crusade against single mothers and the social security system which they claim encourages lone parenthood.

Tom Sackville, a health minister, said benefits and free housing reinforced the illusion that people could have children at any time regardless of the consequences. He said: 'We do need a change of attitude and, to use the fashionable jargon, we need to change to a fairly judgemental attitude on these matters.'

His remarks came on the eve of the publication by Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, of projections for benefits spending by 2000. The total is likely to be pounds 14bn, even if unemployment falls to 2.25 million.

Mr Sackville told a Liverpool conference to mark the anniversary of the Health of the Nation White Paper: 'It has to be said, and it is something people are very shy of saying, that the existence of a very comprehensive benefit and free housing system has further reinforced the illusion that anyone can have a baby at any time regardless of their means or the circumstances in which they would bring up that baby.'

Marjorie Mowlam, Labour's citizens' rights spokeswoman, said: 'Mr Sackville believes that children should not be born to 'inappropriate' parents, namely poor single-parent families.'

Alistair Burt, a social security minister, said in a radio interview that the fastest-growing number of single parents were in the young 'never married' group. Placing them on an isolated council estate without family or social support gave them only 'sham independence', which made them more vulnerable.

'I want to see a situation in which there are fewer single mothers 'by accident',' he said.

A clutch of ministers has already claimed that benefit and housing rules encourage young women to become pregnant in order to jump the housing list.

Amid the exhortations about changed moral standards and family values are concerns over high levels of spending on housing benefit, which covers non-working lone parents' housing costs in full, income support and related benefits.

Ms Mowlam said: 'How can they seek to cut the living standards of children because the Treasury is desperate to save money because it has failed to successfully run the economy?'

Ministers have been quick to invoke the support given by David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, to the idea that housing waiting lists should be structured towards parents who have tried to create stable relationships before having children.

Such arguments, however, provide few solutions to the wider problem of social security spending.

Harriet Harman, shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said that the answer was a national childcare programme of nurseries, childminders and clubs for children to attend after school.

'Lone mothers are caught in a trap. They can't work because they can't earn enough to cover the cost of childcare. So the state foots the bill and the children live on the breadline.'