Leading Article: Prison in place of a childcare policy

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ALONE PARENT, trying to provide a decent living for her two-year-old daughter, leaves her alone at home while she goes to work. A judge, horrified by the woman's behaviour, jails her, separating mother and child for six months. When that little girl grows up, she will surely be angry that no one helped her mother, that the only response to her predicament was a prison sentence.

Her mother was, after all, doing what she considered to be in the best overall interests of the child. She took a job so that the two of them could move from a bedsit into a decent home. She made bad choices, placing her daughter in physical and psychological danger. There may have been other options available that she did not explore. Undoubtedly, this woman's best was woefully inadequate, but it was more than others did.

The child's father was no help. Equally, had the mother gone to her local authority for free or subsidised child care, she would probably have been turned away. The state's support for lone parents on benefit who want to work their way out of poverty is derisory. Most lone parents face low wages and loss of benefit when they take a job, making it difficult to pay for child care and family necessities. A report published today puts Britain well below other European countries in levels of childcare support for lone parents.

Yet the authorities, which are so slow to back up single parents, are quick to condemn. The judge threw the first stone, telling the woman that she had treated the child like a dog and jailing her, at considerable additional cost to the state. The architects of the 'pindown' regime in Staffordshire children's homes, where young people were kept in solitary confinement for weeks, did not even face criminal prosecution.

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, cast another stone yesterday, commending the judge for dealing firmly with the woman. One would have expected a little more insight from Mrs Bottomley. However, the Government's imperative is to attack those considered a drain on the social security budget.

The state spends pounds 5bn a year feeding, clothing and housing single parents and their children, a sum the Government would dearly love to reduce. Ministerial rhetoric is stigmatising single parents, so reducing public opposition to possible cutbacks.

The irony is that many lone parents would also like to reduce their dependency on the state. To achieve that a goal they need help so that they can go to work. Two-parent families have a similar problem where both partners would like to work but one is trapped at home because of childcare costs. The less well-off would be helped immeasurably by free or subsidised provision of local nurseries and creches. Such a scheme might be established if child benefit was reformed.

Help with child care is a proper role for the state, offering services the market does not provide and acting in a way that aids wealth creation. However, the Government seems unwilling during its social security review to consider a thoughtful reordering of priorities in the welfare state. Its aims are more short- sighted, focused on where costs can be trimmed, rather than how benefits can be modernised and made more effective.

The price of such a lack of imagination is that families remain trapped in poverty and some parents feel forced to put their children at unacceptable risk so they can earn a decent living. Instead of a policy, the authorities have offered only prison.