Poverty-stricken policy for the poorest

Tory plans to cut lone parents' benefit are more about morals than money, says Anne Spackman
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THE welfare state appears in two very different incarnations. To politicians and wealthy observers it is a monolithic creature with an insatiable appetite, gradually forcing all its siblings out of the Treasury nest. To those on benefits, it is a safety net woven from a few threadbare strands of income support, housing benefit and free school meals. It would seem the Government is preparing to take hold of that delicate net and cut a little hole in the area marked "lone parents".

The figures explain the different perceptions. Support for lone parents now costs pounds 9bn a year, about one-tenth of the social security budget. Of 1.4 million lone parents more than a million bring up their children on benefits. But a mother living alone with one child gets only pounds 78 a week. The cost to the country is vast, but the individual family is poor.

Part of that pounds 78 comes from the lone-parent premium of pounds 5.20 a week. This benefit was introduced by the Conservatives in 1988 in recognition of the fact that many household costs, such as heating and furniture, do not halve because one parent leaves the family home. For a mother with one child, lone-parent premium represents 7 per cent of her income - or a packet of the cheapest nappies.

Now the Government is planning to cut this benefit for new lone parents and freeze it for existing ones. This is all that remains of its welfare strategy: to reduce the income and expectations of the poor. Its impact in economic and social terms will be to give those on the margins of society a little push nearer the edge. In practical terms it will mean badly fed women and children going even hungrier in the run-up to benefit day.

Until now, this has not been the Conservative way. Since 1992 the National Council for One Parent Families has been running back-to-work programmes for lone parents, supported by the Government and private companies such as Northern Foods. Two are taking place in Newcastle upon Tyne and Milton Keynes. For lone parents they are a lifeline out of poverty and into the mainstream of work, status and opportunity. For companies they are a good way of recruiting reliable employees, many of whom want to work part-time. Where in 1988 there was one lone parent on family credit (the top-up benefit for low earners) for every 10 lone parents on benefit, by 1994 the ratio was one to four. This is partly the result of back-to- work training and partly of the Government's helpful changes in benefit rules.

Now the government view seems to be, that having given a few hundred lone parents a carrot, it's time to give one million others the stick. Instead of throwing down the ladder of opportunity, they are pulling it up a few notches, extending the gap between those who have and those who don't.

Almost all Western nations face the same dilemma and there are more ways of tackling it than making lone parents poorer. Labour plans a welfare- into-work strategy for lone parents. Each mother with children over five would draw up a work and child-care strategy with the Employment Services, which might involve grandparents or that forgotten figure, the child's father. The scheme mirrors aspects of the Australian Jets programme launched in response to the mounting costs of family breakdown. It is not cheap: after five years, savings are only just overtaking costs, primarily those of child-care. But it is a positive long-term strategy for reducing the benefits bill, without making the poor even poorer.

France has twice the proportion of lone mothers in work that Britain has - 82 per cent compared to 41 per cent. The crucial reason for the difference is that full-time, free nursery education begins in France when a child is three. In addition, the benefit and tax system has a more generous over-lap, reducing the dependency trap which catches many potential British workers.

The Conservatives are trying to tackle the problem from the other end. They believe that by making lone parents poorer, they will discourage others from following suit. This determination to punish lone parents is built on the myth that women bring up their children alone by choice, rather than being forced into it by high rates of divorce and relationship breakdown.

The one country which has tested the notion that if you cut benefits, women will have fewer children, is the United States. New Jersey introduced a law whereby any unmarried mother on welfare who had another child would receive no extra money. A preliminary study in June 1995 by Rutgers University researchers, comparing a control group with the affected women, concluded that the cap on benefits had had no impact on birth-rates among women on welfare during its first year.

But this is as much a moral as an economic crusade. The Tories want to be seen as the party of the two-parent family. More to the point, they want to be the party that disapproves of poor, unmarried mothers, in the way it did 100 years ago. The fact that two-thirds of lone parents were once married and may well be on lone-parent premium because their husbands abandoned them is irrelevant. The divorcees, the separated, they all have to suffer pour encourager les autres.

The Government will argue that its own research has shown that 18 per cent of lone parents are claiming benefit fraudulently. The figure of confirmed cases is actually 9.5 per cent - which no-one would condone. But the suspicion of fraud centres on the complex issue of whether or not a couple are living together. It is about transient relationships rather than downright deceit.

The Government's own figures show that 90 per cent of unemployed lone parents would like to go out to work. A report earlier this year by the Institute of Fiscal Studies showed that a means-tested subsidy of child- care would result in 60,000 people entering the workforce, with a further 45,000 increasing their hours of work and that most of those affected would be lone parents. For every lone parent who moves from income support to family credit there is an average benefits saving of pounds 2,000 a year, plus the contribution they make to tax and national insurance.

This would be one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing the benefits bill and improving the lives of a large number of women and children. But the Government has its eye on the general election. The Conservatives see the issue of lone parents as one where they can open up clear blue water between themselves and Labour. They will have to accept that many mothers and children may drown in it.

Anne Spackman is Chairman of the National Council for One Parent Families