Leading Article: Feckless critics of lone parents

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS have misled the public about lone parents. For months they have vilified this vulnerable group as council house queue-jumpers, benefit scroungers and the nurturers of criminals. Yet, since September, advice from their civil servants has been that the accusations are groundless. This disclosure inevitably places a question mark against the credibility of certain ministers.

Publication of the leaked Cabinet Office document on lone parents suggests that members of the Cabinet have ignored evidence that contradicts their extreme points of view. Mr Howard, Mr Lilley, Mr Redwood and Sir George Young could reasonably claim to be unaware of, or to disagree with, the conclusions of the paper. But before making such a zealous assault on any group they should have been absolutely certain about their facts. The Cabinet Office document demonstrates that the facts are in dispute. It seems inconceivable that ministers were simply ignorant of this: if they were, they should not have been.

If, as seems the most likely explanation, ministers have long been aware of evidence that undermines their evangelical assertions, they stand accused of covering up that inconvenient evidence. Now that it has been leaked, they are obliged to explain why they are at odds with their own advisers. The Cabinet Office document is no Bible - experts disagree about the factors behind single parenthood and its impact on children - but the paper cannot simply be brushed aside.

In brief, the document finds no evidence that women become pregnant to obtain council housing, nor that they have children to gain state benefits. It identifies no clear link between delinquency and single parenthood. The only connection is indirect: crime is associated with low educational achievement, which is most common in poor families. The children of lone parents are more likely to be poor than those living with couples, hence they are more likely to commit crime.

Ministers also seem to have ignored recommendations in the Cabinet Office document that might genuinely alleviate problems associated with single parenthood. The paper highlights how lone parents in the UK are less likely to work than their counterparts overseas. It identifies various ways in which the state could help them back to work with support for child care. This, more than all the hectoring of the last few months, could really encourage lone parents to take jobs and lift their families out of poverty and off benefit. Yet it has barely featured in ministerial speeches.

There are worrying aspects to the document. It is shocking to find that senior officials have seriously discussed cutting benefits to single mothers and making their parents financially liable for them. But policy papers often sketch out controversial proposals that never see the light of day. Of far more concern is the revelation that more than a million parents and their children have been vilified by respected politicians for no apparent good reason.

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