A legacy of disadvantage

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Yesterday John Redwood returned to one of his favourite themes - single mothers and what should be done about them. Readers of the Mail on Sunday were treated to a worried piece about the fate of 14- and 15- year-old girls who have babies, leave school and head for a life of "low income, dependence and marriage to the state".

At the same time a plea was entered for those couples in their twenties who "do things properly" and wait to have a child only to find their place on the council house queue jumped "by much younger women with illegitimate children". These days, Mr Redwood lamented, "the assumption is that the illegitimate child is the passport to a council flat and a benefit income." Action must be taken.

There is much in Mr Redwood's argument that makes sense. The father should accept his financial responsibilities, he says. Quite right. The wider family should rally round. So it should. The girl should continue her education. Absolutely. And she should consider adoption. She should. Only then, Mr Redwood says, should "the state step in" - and then it should consider hostels for mother and child, not a life alone on benefit in a council flat. Who could disagree?

It is just that he appears to have failed to notice that for 14- and 15-year-olds with babies much of this already happens.

Such child-parents do not have a right of access to benefit income and a council flat. The Child Support Agency will indeed pursue fathers for maintenance. Efforts are made to ensure the mothers continue their basic education. Families often do rally round. And if not, the young mothers and babies go into care - or indeed into the mother and baby hostels that some local authorities already run.

There is indeed a problem in Britain with pregnancies among teenage lone parents - but it is not the one that Mr Redwood misdescribes. There are too many of them - though thanks in part to the Government's Health of the Nation initiative, their numbers are falling. They do too often bring in their train the problems that worry the former Welsh Secretary. And there are incentives to lone parenthood for girls over 16 who see little purpose in life other than to have a baby.

But in debating how the issue should be tackled, Mr Redwood should remember why such mothers were originally given relatively generous treatment - not through some mad desire to encourage single parenthood, but in an attempt to ensure that their children were not in turn disadvantaged, creating a cycle of deprivation likely to produce more young lone parents in the next generation. The methods may need to change, but that goal remains worth preserving.

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