Leading Article: Vilification of heroic parents

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The Independent Online
THESE DAYS, lone parents in more than a million homes must be feeling unusually despondent. A minority may go to work after packing children off to school or a minder, but most are trapped reluctantly at home on meagre incomes from welfare benefit. Even a part-time job may be out of the question: child care is frequently expensive and nobody will help pay for it. A partner to share the financial or emotional burden is often little more than a dream.

To make matters worse, they face a continuing stream of public abuse. Conservative politicians are subjecting them to vilification that would be illegal if addressed to racial minorities. After so many attacks, single mothers may fear disapproving glares as they walk down the street. As for their children, some may be taunted at school with the age-old refrain: 'Where's your father? Where's your father?'

As Tory ministers contemplate further attacks on this group after last week's party conference, they should remember a few realities. First, many single parents - almost all women - are heroic. Making the best of broken relationships, they usually act just as responsibly as other mothers towards their children. Their menfolk have generally shirked that role. The Government - despite all its pro-family rhetoric - has refused help with child care. Yet still these mothers have not given up. Less committed people might have filled children's homes and produced long queues of young people awaiting adoption.

Where specific ministerial allegations are concerned, most are inaccurate or, if true, apply only to a tiny minority. There is no evidence that single mothers jump the queue for housing ahead of other families with children. Most want to work, not to draw benefit. Few are 'breeding on the dole'. Teenage mums comprise only a small fraction of single mothers, and their number is falling. Finally, there is no proven link between delinquency and single parenthood. Blaming lone parents for crime is dishonest as well as unfair.

Ministers should acknowledge the resilience these parents show in the face of enormous difficulties and accept that it is a strength the Government should be building on, rather than undermining.

Most politicians know that their charges against single parents are largely nonsense. Research from within their departments refutes the allegations. Recent attacks have been more about telling the party faithful what they want to hear than about finding workable solutions. They were also designed to pin the blame on single parents for problems arising from the recession and budget deficit. Their rhetoric has the same vicious, opportunistic feel as Liberal Democrat leaflets used during the Tower Hamlets by-election that gave the British National Party its first taste of elected office.

The party conference is over, and now it is time for a more rational approach. Cutting benefit to single parents and pushing their children into adoption will do nothing to bolster family life. A more practical approach is required. Single parents need help with child care so that they can work; men must be encouraged to reintegrate with family life; teenage mothers need to be trained for work and parenting. The right answers lie not in punishment, but in providing genuine help.