LEADING ARTICLE:Exposed: the myth of the single mother

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The Independent Online
Another urban myth falls apart. Young pregnant single women are not flooding into our council estates. Ministers have blamed single mothers for many ills, from ill-disciplined offspring to ballooning welfare payments. Given that so much has been made of them politically it is strange then that the highly respected Economic and Social Research Council could find so little evidence of them. A report it published yesterday says the number of single teenage mothers is small and most of them stay at home with their own parents until well after their baby is born. Those who do get a local authority flat usually have a partner as well as a baby in tow.

Yet the myth of the reckless, feckless single mum displacing prudent married couples in their wait for council housing has been cynically maintained and exploited. In 1993, at the Conservative Party conference, the then housing minister Sir George Young invoked an image of teenage girls leaping up the council house waiting lists with new babies, while childless couples were forced to wait. The BBC backed him up with a controversial documentary - Babies on Benefit - interviewing young single women who claimed to have conceived a child just to get a nice place to live.

The research just published is far from conclusive: it draws largely from data in the late Seventies. But the report's author, Professor John Ermisch, argues that the pressure of young single mothers on social housing has not grown much: data from the 1990s shows that half of all single mothers under the age of 21 were still living at home with their parents. Evidence available when Sir George made his speech showed that teenage mothers were only ever a small proportion of those demanding housing from their local council. Research published by the Institute of Housing showed that teenage mothers made up between 2 and 14 per cent of local council lists.

Yet the consequences of Sir George's speech two-and-a-half years ago have been far-reaching. It paved the way for the Housing Bill, which will remove the duty on councils to give families with children - whether one parent or two - priority for permanent homes. They will take their place on the waiting list alongside everyone else.

The pain of this policy will be most felt by hundreds of children who will find themselves stuck for years in temporary accommodation. Ministers should make amends for their vilification of teenage mothers and, more important, make amendments to the Housing Bill.