Letter: Symbolic cuts to lone parents

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The Independent Online
From Professor Ruth Lister

Sir: Hamish McRae (29 November) refers to the Chancellor's "carefully neutral statement on single parents - that they should be treated in the same way as couples with children, not specially favoured". There is, though, nothing "neutral" about the decision to phase out the modest additional help provided to lone-parent families, both in work and out of work through one-parent benefit and the lone-parent premium, nor about the Budget of which it was a part.

The Chancellor justified this decision on the basis that "the cost and responsibilities of having children are the same for couples as they are for single people". Ten years ago, this Government published a Green Paper on social security reform in which it made the case for the lone-parent premium, which replaced a long-term rate paid after a year, on the grounds of the "greater needs" of and "extra pressures faced by lone parents". Similarly, it proposed continuing one-parent benefit "as a contribution to the additional costs faced by lone parents in bringing up children alone".

I am not aware that the difficulties faced by lone parents compared with couples raising children have eased over the past decade. If the Government has research which underpins this significant change in policy, it should publish it. In the absence of such research, one can only conclude that what has changed is the political saliency of lone parents as the Chancellor came under pressure from the Right of his party to do something to shore up the traditional two-parent family.

It is unlikely that they really believe that such measures could affect current family trends. Instead, they amount to a piece of punitive symbolism, but a piece of symbolism which will gradually push many lone parents and their children further into poverty. Ironically, the removal of the non- means-tested one-parent benefit could serve to undermine the more welcome proposals to make it easier for lone parents to move into full-time paid employment. However, even these proposals will have only limited effect so long as the Government refuses to invest in our inadequate child care facilities.

Yours sincerely

Ruth Lister

Professor of Social Policy

Department of Social Sciences

Loughborough University

Loughborough, Leicestershire

30 November