Singling out the one-parent families: Rosie Waterhouse examines the leaked Cabinet Office document

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The Independent Online
CHANGES affecting almost every aspect of the lone parent's life are revealed in the leaked Cabinet Office document, from the amount of benefit she receives and the involvement of her parents to entitlement to housing and incentives to work.

Stamped 'policy in confidence' on every page, the draft report is a summary of possible policy changes covering every department with an interest in lone parents.

Methods of reducing the number of teenage pregnancies and encouraging couples to marry and stay together are also discussed in the document, which gives the first comprehensive picture of how far ministers are prepared to go in targeting single mothers. In key areas the report, written for a Cabinet meeting in September, reveals research and statistics that contradicts statements made by ministers at the Tory party conference last month. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, partly blamed lone parenthood for an increase in juvenile crime. The report makes clear that other factors, such as poverty, lead to a propensity to offend. 'It does not appear, therefore, that the fact of lone parenthood is in itself asociated with crime; it is the quality of care within the family which counts, not whether it is given by one parent or two.'

The report also throws doubt on comments by Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, who recited his little list 'of young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list' last year.

The report notes that 5 per cent of lone mothers are teenagers, 88 per cent of pregnancies are unplanned, most single mothers did not know the benefits to which they were entitled and that 90 per cent of 16- and 17-year- old mothers lived with parents.

In introducing the report, which has been considered by the Cabinet's Ministerial Committee on Home and Social Affairs, officials say the main intention of the proposals is to reduce public expenditure on lone parents.

The report says the number of lone parents has risen from 840,000 in 1979 to 1.3 million in 1991 of whom 1 million receive Income Support.

The number is expected to rise to 1.7 million by 2000, of which 1.4 million would be on Income Support at a cost to the state of almost pounds 4.9bn.

The biggest changes being discussed by Mr Lilley and Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, are to social security benefits. They focus on tackling the incentives to become a lone parent, providing incentives for lone parents to support themselves through work, obtaining more child support maintenance through the Child Support Agency and increasing the responsibility of the lone parent's own parents and the father's parents.

The hit list includes: cutting the amounts payable to separated couples, both of whom are dependent on benefits; restrictions on benefits to discourage those lone parents who continue to have children while on Income Support; changes to the child support scheme to increase the amounts paid by absent parents; encouragement to families to keep young lone parents at home; changes in the provision of One Parent benefit and of the lone parent premiums in income-related benefits.

The report says officials have considered making both sets of grandparents of the child being supported financially responsible. Automatic entitlement to Income Support for 16 and 17-year-olds could be withdrawn and replaced by an assumption of parental support.

The parents of the child's father, when under 18, could also be made liable to contribute through a child-support type scheme. Other measures under active consideration include:

Changes to the homelessness legislation so that lone-parent families no longer receive automatic priority.

Increasing the marriage guidance role of Relate, a charity that counsels couples having marital problems.

More comprehensive sex education in schools and improved health guidance to discourage unwanted pregnancies among teenagers. This could involve changing the law so doctors can treat under-16s without parental consent and research into contraception after intercourse.

The Lord Chancellor has separate proposals for divorce law reform, making divorce more difficult for couples with children. The report also says ministers should explore ways of making marriage more attractive.

Another proposal that is not under immediate consideration is lowering the legal age of consent to intercourse, possibly to 13, to remove obstacles to birth control advice. This is deemed too controversial.

Several pages of the report describe the importance of providing child care and increasing the amount of child-care facilities for lone parents but notes the cost would be between pounds 100m and pounds 200m. This is not on the immediate agenda.

Some of the report's suggestions are criticised by Catherine Baines, a senior civil servant, in an accompanying background report. She writes: 'There is little evidence that benefits contribute to the growth in lone parents. Most options would involve substantial losses of income which would affect the children, or would overtly discriminate against lone parents.'

On housing, she says that the measures would have a small effect on aggregate demand and increase local authority spending on temporary accommodation.

And on making grandparents more financially responsible, she says: 'It would appear to conflict with the parental responsibility concept and savings would be less than pounds 10m.'