Sharp division on solution to the crisis of family life: The invoking of a moral Golden Age has polarised debate. Mary Braid and Helen Nowicka report

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A RETURN TO the mythical Golden Age of the family would force women and children to give up every right gained in the 20th century, according to Sue Slipman, director of the National Council for One-Parent Families.

But right-wing Tory politicians and think-tanks, who have attacked the rise of lone-parent families, believe the ideal of the traditional family must be resurrected or society will pay an exacting economic and moral price. Individuals, they say, must rediscover the notion of self- sacrifice for the good of family.

The debate surrounding lone-parent households, usually headed by women, is becoming increasingly polarised. While both camps share concern that the United Kingdom has more lone parents - 1.3 million, one in five families - than any other country in the EC, campaigners such as Ms Slipman argue that the solutions being put forward are unworkable and unacceptable.

She said: 'The whole of the last century has been a journey of rights for women and children who were once seen as the property of men.

'That has created a crisis between men and women and in family life. It can be seen in the number of lone women bringing up children. The traditional role of the father as breadwinner is dead with more women now at work and the death of the well-paid manual job. Men have yet to establish a new parenting role for themselves within the family.

'The Institute of Economic Affairs solution is for women to surrender and men to reassert themselves. But it is men who must change.'

But views put forward by the IEA, the free-market think-tank, appear to be having more influence on Conservative policy. Dr David Green, director of the IEA's health and welfare unit, maintains Victorian values such as self-sacrifice deserve to make a comeback.

Dr Green has enraged feminists and women's and children's charities with his suggestion that unmarried mothers should live in hostels to qualify for benefits. He argues this would deter women from becoming single parents, and the hostels would be good for children.' Supervision would mean the mother could not have a string of boyfriends, and would be given guidance on how to bring up a child. It would be to their advantage but it would be a restrictive lifestyle. When someone has got a child their interests come second and the child comes first,' he said.

Dr Green also wants young fathers to be forced to take responsibility for their offspring. He suggests single mothers between 18 and 24 should not receive more state benefits than childless women of the same age. Payments, he argues, act as an incentive to fathers to abandon their responsibility. He says studies show children from single-parent homes are more likely to suffer from impaired physical growth or infant mortality, to achieve poor school results, or to become drug users.

The IEA's opponents say its arguments are based on myth and groundless prejudice. John Perry, policy director of the Institute of Housing, claims there is no evidence to suggest that young women get pregnant to gain priority on housing lists or to increase their benefits.

With divorced and widowed mothers apparently higher on the right's moral totem poll than those cohabiting or not in a relationship at all, Mr Perry believes making moral judgements in the allocation of housing is dangerous. 'Ministers are attacking the victims rather than the problem which is the gross shortage of rented accommodation,' he said.

Sociologists, Jane Millar and Jonathan Bradshaw, carried out a DSS study on lone parents in 1990. Four out of 10 were under 20 when their first child was born, and only one in 10 had planned to get pregnant.

Ms Millar, a lecturer at Bath University, said: 'There is a lot of uninformed comment right now both in relation to the facts about who lone parents are and what the Government's current policies are. Some politicians seem to be starting from a rather idealised view of the family.

'We questioned 1,800 lone parents all over the country. There was no evidence that young women were getting pregnant to secure their own homes. Although single mums were the fastest growing group, more than two-thirds of lone parents were divorced or separated. We found that four out of 10 lone parents without jobs would have preferred to have worked. Lack of childcare, lack of jobs and low pay were the main obstacles. Only 29 per cent were receiving maintenance and in about half the cases contact with the fathers had been lost.'

They found break-ups occurred because of adultery and a complex mixture of difficulties. Violence by men against women was a factor in 20 per cent of cases. Only one in 11 lone parents regretted the split later.

Karin Pappenheim, spokesperson for the Family Planning Association, said she was astounded by recent comments by ministers on teenage single mothers.

'The political pronouncements have been very puzzling and so contradictory. It is all about blame and nothing about strategies. The fact is that sex education in this country is patchy and not all GPs are helpful to teenage girls. Family planning services have actually been cut back recently.'

She cited a 1981 study which showed that the United States had the highest teenage pregnancy rate (96 per 1,000). The figure for England and Wales was 45 per 1,000, while the Netherlands had the lowest rate at 14 per 1,000.