Ministers intensify pressure on lone parents to return to work

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The Government is to draw up proposals to ensure that more lone parents go out to work in a move that threatens to spark a rebellion by Labour MPs.

John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, will today open the door to reforming state benefits for single mothers - a sensitive area on which the Government has soft-pedalled since 47 Labour MPs voted against benefit cuts for them in 1997 after Tony Blair won power.

Options for reform will be included in a review of the welfare system to be published in March. Ministers want to offer carrots rather than sticks but the options are bound to include cash penalties for lone parents who do not try to find work. At present, they have to attend work-focused interviews four times a year to avoid losing part of their benefits but do not have to take up job opportunities.

In a speech in London, Mr Hutton will say: "As we develop childcare and improve the support available, so we should be prepared to look again at the way we help lone parents get ready for a return to the labour market, and the steps they need to take to get back into work and so lift their family out of poverty." He will promise that Labour will not return to the attacks on single mothers made by Tory ministers in the early 1990s.

But he will warn: "Politicians and campaigners on the progressive left risk failing future generations of children if we are not prepared to learn from other progressive countries and assume that a childhood spent on benefits is good for children and their parents; it isn't.

"We must raise our aspirations for every family in Britain. The best way we can do this for lone-parent families is by helping all those who can work to get work. This is the next big challenge for the welfare state; not tackling unemployment in the traditional sense - but tackling economic inactivity."

Mr Hutton has been shocked by figures showing that Britain has one of the highest proportions of families headed by lone parents in Europe - and one of the lowest employment rates among lone parents. He is also worried that a third of lone parents move on to incapacity benefit or income support on grounds of disability within 12 months after their youngest child reaches the age of 16, when they stop receiving lone-parent benefits.

The minister will argue that it would not be right-wing for Labour to adopt a more pro-active approach, as countries held up as "beacons of progressive values" like Sweden and Denmark make little distinction between single parents and other claimants when deciding who should seek work. They have lone-parent employment rates as high as 80 per cent.

Although the employment rate among single parents in Britain has risen by more than 11 percentage points to 56.5 per cent since 1997, he will say that Britain has one of the least stringent conditions in return for benefits - with a requirement to seek work only when the youngest child reaches 16. Mr Hutton will say: "If we are to eradicate child poverty, then we will need to go further in challenging existing assumptions."

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