Working mothers at bottom of heap

While the Tories have failed to uphold the pledge of 25 years ago to provide better childcare, there are also no clear signs of what a Labour government would offer

As the demand for women in the British workforce grows until they are expected to exceed the number of men in employment by the year 2006, the Government and Labour are determined to seize the opportunity to coax lone mothers off welfare and back into jobs.

But neither ministers nor Labour have solved the question of who will be mother while the nation's estimated 1.3 million single parents go to work. If they join the growing army of female workers, what will happen to their children?

Although the Government pledged to bring down the barriers to childcare yesterday, Britain has one of the worst systems in Europe. For women struggling to bring up children alone without back-up, the task of combining caring for their family with holding down a job that may include unsocial shifts is bewildering.

Contrary to the stereotypical image of the feckless lone mother, Karin Pappenheim, director of the Council for One Parent Families, says recent surveys show that most are eager to return to work. But they do not see how they can look after their children at the same time.

Ms Pappenheim said: "The barrier of childcare is immense. These parents are also acutely aware they are the only parent their children have, and they are very protective of them because they have often been through a traumatic experience with parents breaking up."

She added: "They're very concerned their children should have security and quality care. They want to improve standards of living for their children and families, but a greater targeting of their childcare needs is crucial before they can juggle being the main carer with being the main breadwinner."

Those nurseries that do offer care are bursting at the seams. The Buffer Bear chain, which opened a new base in Reading, Berkshire, recently, filled places immediately and has a waiting list for parents who hope to get their children in when it is extended. But, like most facilities, it closes at 7pm, when many women returning to employment are just starting their working day because often the only jobs available to them are those where they have to do evening and weekend shifts, such as in supermarkets or pubs.

Kay Turner, managing director of the company that runs the chain, said: "Our experience is that there is a lack of supply of the right quality of childcare that parents are looking for.

"As soon as we open a nursery it's clear there is a whole wealth of people out there waiting for a facility like this."

Britain, which pays out an estimated pounds 9bn a year in benefits to single mothers, is not alone in attempting to push them back to the workplace. In the United States, President Bill Clinton this month infuriated many liberals by signing a controversial welfare-reform Bill that will cut back on benefits for single mothers.

For 60 years in the US, poor single mothers were guaranteed welfare payments by the federal government indefinitely, or until they found a job. That guarantee has been withdrawn, and now the head of every family must find work within two years of going on welfare, or lose their benefit.

Both the Government and the Labour Party have studied international models in the past year. While Labour has concentrated on an Australian scheme which includes retraining and childcare back-up, Andrew Mitchell, the social security minister, has set up a pilot scheme based on a Californian idea.

In April, job centres in 20 areas with a total of 100,000 single mothers will use specially recruited staff to concentrate on finding them jobs. According to an independent study, the scheme in California, visited by Mr Mitchell earlier this year, cut welfare by 15 per cent in three years.

However, the theoretical schemes of both parties mean little on a practical level to single mothers, who have to cope with pre-school infants or older children outside school hours, when childcare facilities are not available.

Kamlesh Bahl, chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said: "Problems for lone parents are particularly acute, because they have to meet the costs from out of one wage rather than out of two. This obviously puts them at a great disadvantage and a proper framework of affordable care is essential to take them out of the benefits trap."

The most recent Department of Social Security research showed that only 11 per cent of lone parents with a child under five worked 24 hours or more per week in 1993, compared with half of those with teenage children. Three-quarters of lone parents said reliable childcare was "essential" or "very important" in helping them return to work.

While the Tories have failed to uphold Baroness Thatcher's pledge of 25 years ago to provide better childcare, there are also no clear signs of what a Labour government would offer following a similar pledge by Mr Blair last year. He said: "When single mothers are trapped at home for lack of childcare, we are poorer."

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