Deborah Orr: The good old days? I don't think so...

It is important to remember that inadequate parenting is not some modern ill
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The Independent Online

Sir Richard Tilt, chairman of the Social Security Advisory Committee, is just one of a number of people and organisations who are calling on the Government to halt or postpone its welfare reforms, in the face of the economic downturn. In particular, there are worries over new regulations, which came into force this week, and that seek to get lone parents into work.

The idea is that lone parents, at first only those with a youngest child of 12 or over, should be transferred from income support, which is paid without conditions, to jobseekers allowance, which is paid only to people looking for work. If claimants cannot prove they are actively seeking employment, or turn down suitable work, they can face a cut in their benefit of up to 40 per cent. By 2010, these new rules will have been extended to include lone parents whose youngest child is seven.

Organisations representing single-parent families have never been especially keen on these reforms. They argue that the new regulations jeopardise good parenting, since jobs offering family-friendly working hours are hard to come by. Single parents, it is true, will only be expected to work 16 hours a week. But carving out even 16 hours, plus travel time, can be tough during the school holidays.

Many people have little patience with such arguments. Vast swathes of the population no longer believe that lone parents really are committed to putting their children first. Instead they are all dismissed as belonging to a feckless underclass, which has children precisely because this provides them with housing and benefits, and neglects them horribly ever after. Evidence confirms that in a lot of cases, this is true.

In the wake of the Baby P trial, a number of commentators were inspired to suggest that the way some people live in Britain now is "Dickensian". Which is odd, when you think about it. Those very same commentators are often of the opinion that contemporary squalor is fostered by the welfare state, even though they must know there was not much chance of developing welfare dependency during the Dickensian period. On the contrary, the state welfare system evolved from the growth in the late 19th century of the voluntary and self-help organisations that tried to protect people from the effects of poverty and ignorance, with cross-party support.

Before the movement towards social reform began in earnest, there was little problem with getting mothers out to work, because their children would work alongside them, with children aged 7-12 in the Dickensian era forming one-third of the factory workforce at one point. There, you could argue, lie the roots of one problem society is still grappling with – how to get mothers without skills or reliable family support to make financial provision for dependant children, when they can't cart them into work with them.

There is a myth that this problem had at one time been solved. Mothers stayed home to look after their children, while fathers worked, and all was well, the socially conservative say. It is the decline in marriage that has done for children, and the decline in the nuclear family. It is the permissive society that has destroyed our happy children.

Yet, again, history does not quite bear this out. Yes, there was a short period when manual wages were high enough, and social housing available enough, for even unskilled families to live well on a single wage. And we all know what came along to put a stop to that.

Yet are we really to believe that in the post-Victorian period, when the life expectancy of working people was so low, lone parent families didn't exist? Are we really to believe that after the First World War, when nearly a million died, lone parent families didn't exist? Are we to believe that the economically viable happy nuclear family thrived during the Great Depression, or after the Second World War?

Far from it. It was the Curtis Report of 1946, into the murder of two brothers placed hurriedly by a voluntary organisation in a foster family, which ushered in the Children's Act of 1948, transferring the welfare of vulnerable children to local authorities. In the same year, family allowance was introduced, offered universally to the mother in acknowledgement of the fact that in any family, no matter how well off, a breadwinner might not be passing the bread on to the children.

It wasn't even until 1967 that the last child emigrants were sent out of Britain to Australia, by Barnardos, bringing an end to a practice that had seen unwanted children shipped abroad in their thousands since the 17th century. Financial assistance in doing this had been provided by the Government since the Empire Settlement Act of 1923. Happy days, indeed.

The idea that child neglect is a novelty, or something that has been recently revived after a long period of stability, is a delusion. The number of children taken into care barely changed from 1960 to 1980 (though it is true that the number of babies adopted at birth declined rapidly after the Abortion Act of 1968). In the mid-1980s there were double as many children in care as there are now.

Again, it is forgotten that the shift in emphasis that resulted in strenuous efforts by social workers to keep children with their birth families, was prompted by a slew of scandals about abuse in children's homes. That's rather Dickensian, as well.

Taken in this historical context, the idea that decent British people should now be up in arms because lone parents are receiving a small stipend in order to care for their children, is horribly uncivilised, and a wilful denial of the fallibility of humanity.

Of course, it is repugnant when some particularly egregious example of welfare dependent family life comes to public attention. But it is important to remember that inadequate parenting has always been around, and is not some modern ill.

Welfare dependency is not good. But its removal is not the only key to promoting responsible parenting. Placing so much emphasis on this single lever ignores too many of the hard lessons of recent history. Sir Richard Tilt is right to suggest that we'll be in no position, by 2010, to be providing flexible work for the unskilled parents of seven-year-olds. We'd be better off providing them with meaningful parenting support, right now.