The Big Question: How many single parents are there, and should they be forced to work?

Why are we asking this now?

John Hutton, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, signalled yesterday that he is preparing new proposals to persuade more lone parents to seek work. He said he wanted to "go further in challenging existing assumptions about who - and at what point - someone should be in work". Britain, he said, currently "asks very little of lone parents in benefit", and pointed to figures showing that the UK has one of the lowest employment rates among lone parents in Europe. He said it "just isn't good enough" that lone parents received so little support move on to unemployment benefits, which require them to seek work when their children reach 16.

How many single parents are there, and how many are on benefits?

Of the 7.3 million families with parents of working age in Britain, 1.9 million are lone parents, in other words, nearly a quarter. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that nearly half of all lone parents are out of work. Only 56.5 per cent of lone parents are in work. Of the £92.8bn spent on benefits last year, some £3.9bn went on income support for lone parents. Income support is the benefit the overwhelming majority of single parents claim.

Ministers point to strong links between unemployment among lone parents and child poverty. Children of lone parents who are out of work are five times more likely to be in poverty than children of lone parents in work. Overall, 48 per cent of children in lone-parent families are below the poverty line, compared with 20 per cent of children in two-parent families. But campaigners insist that 66 per cent of lone parents with children of secondary school age are in work.

Is it the same story elsewhere in Europe?

No. The UK has far more single-parent families than any other EU nation. And of the major European nations, only the Netherlands has a lower employment rate for single parents, while the average across a selection of 14 EU states is about 65 per cent. In Luxembourg, about 95 per cent of lone parents are in work, while in Finland and Denmark the figure is about 80 per cent.

How do benefits work for lone parents?

Single parents have no obligation to seek work until their youngest child reaches 16. Jobless single parents can claim income support. They have to attend one "work-focused" interview with employment advisors a year and could lose benefits if they fail to turn up, but do not have to look for a job. From April, single parents will have to attend at least two interviews a year, rising to four when their youngest child reaches 14. When a single parent's youngest child hits 16, they are moved on to Job Seeker's Allowance, and have to look for a job, but many have been out of the job market so long that up to one third move straight on to incapacity benefit, a figure that has shocked ministers.

Why are so many likely to be on benefits?

Ministers believe many parents have simply not had the help they need to get off benefits and into a job. And campaigners in turn accuse ministers of doing too little to help parents with the huge cost of child care. They say child care is a major factor, with British parents paying about 70 per cent of the full cost of child care compared with parents in Europe, who pay as little as about 30 per cent of the full cost. They also argue that Scandinavian countries, where lone-parent employment rates are higher, help keep single parents in the labour market through far more generous parental leave arrangements than offered in Britain.

The pressure group One Parent Families argues that more than one quarter of lone parents are caring for a disabled child or trying to cope after a break-up. The group argues that lone parents in Britain tend to start off at a disadvantage in the jobs market, with lower levels of education and training than other groups.

Why is reform so controversial?

Ministers have treated the issue of single parents and benefits with extreme caution, being careful to open a debate before policy proposals are due. They remember the fury among Labour MPs when 47 rebelled and 20 abstained in protest at plans to reform benefits for single parents just months after Labour came to power. It is one of the reasons why Mr Hutton insisted yesterday there was "no case' for cutting lone parents' benefits. Today, with a much reduced majority, a similar rebellion would easily be enough to produce a defeat for the Government.

What can the Government do to wean lone parents off benefits?

A full-scale review of the Government's welfare-to-work policies is expected to report in March. The review is likely to look at requiring parents to seek work when their children reach secondary school age. Other possibilities include improving training and help to seek work and increased access to child care.

Campaigners welcome support to help lone parents get a job, but warn against a "stick" approach to force them to do so. They say parents should be free to choose how long they stay at home looking after their children. Commentators such as the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research say increasing conditions attached to benefits would harm children unless flexible and affordable child care is available.

Should they be made to look for a job?

Ministers reject the argument that lone parents should simply be left alone to get on with bringing up their children, regardless of financial circumstances. They say long periods on benefits compel people to live on low incomes and damage their long-term prospects. One senior government source said: "We need to explode the myth that people should just be left alone. The more you engage with people, the more you see the huge difference it can make for them to get a job and increase their income and the atmosphere at home."

Chris Pond, of One Parent Families, said: "Those with children in this age group who are not working often have good reasons for being at home full time, with one quarter caring for a disabled child and many others simply trying to provide stability in the aftermath of a family break-up.

"Lone parents want help in getting over the hurdles they face when they are ready to work, not further impoverishment when they are needed at home."

Additional research by Anne Giacomantonio

Should lone parents face more pressure to find employment?


* It would boost the prosperity of those on long-term benefits and cut the nation's social security bill.

* It would cut child poverty for a group where children are five times as likely to be poor as those with a parent in work

* Campaigners say nine out of 10 lone parents want to work


* Lone parents should be free to choose how much of their time to devote to their children without having to leave them to work

* Childcare support is inadequate at present to make returning to work a practical option for many lone parents

* Targeting people with secondary school age children might affect dropout rates

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