US firms may help single parents

Peter Lilley outlines pounds 20m scheme to get lone mothers back to work and outflank Tony Blair
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American companies will be open to bid for government contracts to help lone parents into work under a pounds 20m scheme announced by Peter Lilley in an attempt to outflank Tony Blair's plans for getting single mothers off benefit and into jobs.

The Secretary of State for Social Security announced that the "Parent Plus" programme would be expanded over the next three years to help 100,000 lone parents on income support to get work. Private firms, including US agencies, will be paid by their results to advise mothers on how to find work and child-care facilities.

"Most lone parents say they want to get back to work but they perceive problems and we want to help them overcome those problems, which are undoubtedly quite severe and particularly severely perceived," Mr Lilley said on BBC radio. But he insisted: "It is a voluntary scheme. No one will be compelled to take work."

All lone parents in 12 pilot areas making a new claim for income support will be invited to attend an interview with a caseworker who will show how they would be better off in work than on benefit. Existing claimants will be contacted in mail shots from the Benefits Agency, and urged to find work through the scheme.

The drive to get lone parents into work follows the call by Mr Blair for those with children of school age to be given advice and counselling on job opportunities.

The scheme underlines the closeness between the parties in tackling the issue of lone parents, which hit the headlines when John Redwood, then Secretary of State for Wales, highlighted the extent of unmarried or deserted mothers living on benefit on a council estate.

Mr Lilley claimed the Government's scheme was superior to Labour's plans, which followed a study of lone-parent help in Australia. "We have looked closely at other such schemes around the world to learn from their experiences. It places emphasis on getting lone parents into real jobs, rather than just promising training and counselling. Private sector contractors will be paid by results."

But Stephen Byers, Labour's employment and training spokesman accused the Government of hypocrisy for helping lone parents with one hand, while cutting their support with the other. "It is hypocritical of Mr Lilley to be launching this when the Department of Education and Employment have just made a pounds 5.5m cut, taking 57 per cent from the budget which Training and Enterprise Councils [TECs] have for out-of-school child care," he said.

"This new scheme will do no good if parents have nowhere for their children to be cared for at the end of the school day."