Single mothers should rejoice

Labour's plan is not a threat, says Polly Toynbee, but the promise of something better
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The Independent Online
Is Tony Blair making a threat or a promise to single parents? After last week's Clinton visit, some right-wing commentators hope they read in his words a hint that we are about to enter the tough, mean world of the new American welfare system. They lick their lips with glee as they look across the Atlantic where large numbers of the poor are being thrown off welfare with as yet unknown consequences, single mothers get no extra money for babies born on welfare, and no one can claim benefit for more than five years over a lifetime. How they rejoiced at imagined signs that Blair's rhetoric mirrored Clinton's.

This is utter bunk. Blair's plans for single mothers are nothing new. Harriet Harman outlined them publicly long before the election - including in interviews with this columnist. And it was written into the manifesto. It is not a threat, it is an important promise.

This summer 12 pilot projects called Parent Plus begin. All single parents with school-age children in pilot areas will be invited to JobCentre interviews. Currently more than a million single parents drawing benefit costing pounds 10bn are never even asked if they want help to find work. Five hundred thousand have school-age children, yet all they receive is a letter once every three years checking their address. In some pilots there will be new after- school and holiday childcare, in others there is none, so that the cost- effectiveness of each scheme can be compared.

No one is talking about compelling them to do anything, and reports that Frank Field has been arguing in the Welfare to Work Committee for a big stick are just not true. No one who has looked at the research thinks it necessary. Most single mothers say they want to work but are caught by the benefits and childcare trap. Fewer British single mothers work than in any other European country.

What will happen in these interviews? Single mothers will be asked, nicely, if there is anything they need to help them. If they are not ready for work at once, they will be offered the chance of joining in voluntary work or taking a course at a local college. They might be encouraged to help with reading in their local school just to help get them back into the mainstream world.

The hope is that these interviews will create a huge climate of change. There are plenty of part-time jobs for women and, apart from childcare, no real obstacles to getting them work, topped up with family credit. This is all carrot and no stick.

Experts estimate that it will be far easier to get these women into work than tackling the 250,000 unemployed young people, who are often jobless because they have deep-seated problems: many are from care, with mental and addiction problems or criminal records. Many are profoundly illiterate and innumerate. Single mothers are a far better bet.

One piece of research published recently by David Stanton of the DSS shows the alarming cycle of very young single mothers whose daughters also become teenage mothers. But he showed how this deadly pattern can be broken: when single mothers go out to work their daughters are far less likely to get pregnant young. This makes sense, as young girls with youngish mothers at home have someone to help them bring up a baby. But if their mothers are out at work they know they will have to manage all on their own.

The mystery is why, for 18 years, the last government did nothing but berate single mothers. The Tories were partly constrained by a strong moral lobby that thought it wrong for mothers to work. However, leaving single mothers to fester on benefits while the great majority of married mothers work was an odd way to promote family values.

The windfall levy and possibly the lottery will help to fund the new after-school childcare schemes. Caring for school-age children for a few extra hours a day is relatively cheap at under pounds 20 a week, compared with the phenomenally high cost of creches for the very young. If the Parent Plus pilots pay the expected rich early dividends, there will be pressure to put more emphasis on single mothers than on to the young unemployed. There is, however, a problem: single mothers are not registered unemployed, and so do not fall within the 250,000 target Labour has promised.

As for the alarm bells that may be set ringing by Tony Blair's speech today, single mothers have nothing to fear. They are not about to be punished because compulsory work schemes would cost a fortune. Whatever ambiguous language Tony Blair may use, his initiative is the best possible news for single mothers.