Single mothers on benefits are to be made to actively seek a job as soon as their youngest child reaches 11, in a government clampdown on unemployment in lone parent households.
The best way to help their children is "by bringing a wage home", ministers will say. The drive to get more lone parents of secondary school-aged children into jobs is to be launched by David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, in a Green Paper on "Welfare to Work".
Single mothers on benefits with children in secondary school must engage in "work-related activities", including drawing up job-finding plans, and attending regular interviews with employment advisers, and taking training courses. The proposals are designed to cut child poverty and help the Government meet its target of raising from 56 to 70 per cent the proportion of lone parents in paid work.
But the move will infuriate some single mothers' groups and lead to accusations that they are trying to force mothers to leave the home. Currently parents with children must attend work-focused interviews when their youngest child is aged 14.
The move to wean more single mothers from the culture of welfare dependency is being spearheaded by Margaret Hodge, Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform. She was heckled last week at a conference held by the Single Parents Action Network when she floated the idea that lone parents should seek work at an earlier stage.
She believes that paid work benefits both parent and child. "If you are a lone parent and you have a child in secondary school, I think you have a responsibility to support and provide for your family and that is as important as being there for children," she told The Independent on Sunday.
"Every lone parent I have talked to who has made that leap back into work says it transforms them. It's about feeling valued.
"The target is not just important for lone parents - it's important for children."
Lone parents who co-operate with the work-seeking programme will receive a financial incentive, expected to be in the form of enhanced benefits or tax credits. They will also have greater access to babysitting with the Government's plans for school-based childcare before and after school.
Children in lone-parent households are three times more likely live in poverty than children brought up by couples. But the plan to get the parents of older children to find jobs would lift around 300,000 more children out of poverty, the Government believes.
Kate Green, director of One Parent Families, welcomed the aim to help more lone parents find work, but warned that a two-tier benefit system could emerge, penalising single parents who did not find work.
"There seems to be a suggestion that you would be required to do these activities and there would be more money ... but if you did not, you would be on current rates of benefit, below the poverty line," she said.
"This is not about the age of the youngest child. It's about the barriers lone parents have, such as very low skills levels and no qualifications."