Single mothers 'threatened with cuts in benefits'

BENEFIT office staff are threatening single mothers with cuts in their social security even though they have no legal right to do so until next spring.

The recent Child Support Act requires single parent claimants to name the absent partner so that attempts can be made to recover maintenance payments in full. Provisions of the legislation, which enables social security staff to dock the benefits of claimants who do not co-operate, come into effect next April.

However, Gingerbread, the single parents' support group, has received calls daily over the past two months from women who say they are already being threatened with benefit cuts.

Inquiries received by the organisation's telephone helpline about the rights of unmarried parents have more than doubled since April. The sharp increase reflects widespread confusion about new legislation among claimants and benefits' officials alike, according to Mary Honeyball, Gingerbread's chief executive.

'Our research shows that one in three single mothers fears violence from her ex-partner, yet we can see that women are not being given the protection and privacy to which they are entitled,' Ms Honeyball said. 'Attempts to reduce the benefits bill by extracting maintenance payments from fathers are putting women at risk.'

Groups representing single parents feared, during the passage of the child support legislation through Parliament, that state payments would be cut routinely from claimants refusing to name the absent parent without proof that they would risk violence for disclosing the name.

Alistair Burt, Under-Secretary for Social Security, confirmed last month, however, that the Government was planning to take a less stringent approach. Corroborative evidence of a risk of violence or undue distress would be 'welcome, but not essential', he told the Commons on 22 June.

Staff are required to question single parent claimants in a 'discreet and sensitive' manner, according to the regulations. But those who refuse to disclose names without giving any good reason still face losing benefit of up to pounds 8.50 a week.

The Department of Social Security confirmed yesterday that lone parents were not required at present to name the absent parent. 'If Gingerbread passes to us the details of where these threats have been made, we will certainly look into them,' a spokeswoman said.

The second largest increase in telephone requests for help received by Gingerbread concerned difficulties with getting grants. Holidays for disabled children, and grants for further education courses and school uniforms have been cut in many areas because of pressure on council budgets.

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