Lone parent benefit - how can Labour MP's let it go?

Suzanne Moore: don't pick on the weak
Click to follow
Yes, I've had it all politely explained to me. It is necessary to further impoverish women and children by cuts to lone parent benefit because it will do them good in the long run. Yes, I know that everyone who voted Labour should have voted with their heads and not their hearts and realised that sticking to Tory spending also means sticking to Tory "family values". In other words, some kinds of families are valued while others are thrown on the scrap heap. And yes, I know that money is not limitless, that hard choices not only have to be made, but also have to be fetishised by this Government, which is as concerned with showing its toughness at it is about the choices it is making. Yet someone should explain to the happy couples of this Government what it is to be a single parent, how such a life is lived; for however many sink estates they visit, however many after-school clubs they drop in to, they really have no idea.

I'm a single parent and I am no longer poor, but I have been. Like many others I relied at the beginning on a patchwork of child care from friends and neighbours and childminders and state nurseries in order to work. I have used after-school clubs and can in no way be persuaded that they are anything close to a "national child care strategy". They are a stopgap, sometimes good, sometimes bad, suiting some children and not others.

Of course, many single mothers want to work and better their lives. They want to build-up the self-esteem that work may provide at the same time as feeling they are good enough mothers. Some will want to work while their children are babies, some when they go to school. This, most of us would agree, is a matter of choice; but even in an ideal world when women go back to work, it is far from easy.

To put a five-year-old in an after-school centre till six o'clock means that little children are often exhausted by the time you collect them. Nine to six is a very long day for a small child. Then you might have to get the bus to pick up your other child from his friends. You hope you will be home by seven. The children are starving as they haven't eaten anything but a packet of crisps since lunch time. There is no one else to take over. No father, no nanny, no au pair. This - day in, day out - is tough on kids and tough on mums. These are the hard choices single parents face all the time.

Welfare to work, our dazzling new future, depends on the continuing struggle of women to be both good providers and good parents. The responsibility falls on to women because no politician wants to address the underlying issues. Personally, I cannot stomach the Blairs and the Harmans of this world talking about social exclusion when they belong to a socially exclusive club. Local schools are not good enough for their own children, who must go to more socially exclusive establishments, yet single mothers must leave their infants at any old drop-in centre, whether they want to or not.

Even if we understand that this Government inherited the Tory limits on spending, did we fully realise that it would also appear to inherit a Victorian ideology which demonises single parents? Here the electorate is far more sophisticated than the politicians - Labour or Tory. Most people understand that single parents usually didn't start off that way but are the result of breakdowns in relationships which leave women bringing up children on their own. Most people will know someone this has happened to, and will not recognise the stereotype of the teenage girl who deliberately gets herself pregnant to secure a luxurious council flat. The Back to Basics campaign floundered because the public simply did not accept the demonisation of the single-parent family when, at the same time, certain government ministers were, for recreational purposes, in the business of creating them.

The same is true today. The majority of the population is not in favour of penalising single parents; though they quite rightly feel that once their children are older, mothers should look for work. Punitive measures against the poorest women and children in our society are not popular. Nor is spending millions of pounds on a giant tent to celebrate the millennium, but the government is keen to make this tough choice too.

Pursuing children - and there is no other way of making this cut - for being born into families in which a man is not around is not only immoral, it ignores the root causes of these problems. I was amazed that in identifying the causes of social exclusion, the cycles of deprivation that wind through generations, Mr Blair never once mentioned gender. Who creates single families? Mostly young men. Who are the majority of truants? Young boys. What sex are most young offenders? Male. Who are the least likely to find secure employment? Long-term unemployed men.

I am not suggesting that women do not contribute to, or are not part of, this problem; but so many of our difficulties seem to stem from a section of the population that feels let down and continues to wreak havoc socially, emotionally and financially.

Gender-blind policies - this cut is a perfect example - are another form of denial. Women and children are being punished for the sins of their fathers. Those for whom pounds 11 is just another cab fare cannot possibly understand what a significant proportion of a low income that is. The macho stance on this proposal, featuring Iron Man Brown and rough, tough Tony, rides roughshod not only over its own backbenchers but public opinion. This obscene measure may be mistaken for strong government, but only by those who think taking candy from a baby is an heroic act. It sucks, and while those who vote for it may kid themselves that this is a show of strength, everyone else know that picking on someone worse off than yourself is always a sign of weakness.