John Gummer is demanding that 16-year-olds produce court injunctions to prove they have been thrown out of the parental home before they are allocated housing by the council. Alistair Burt, meanwhile, is reassuring us that the Government knows well that many lone parents are doing a splendid job of bringing up their children. Who are they really after?
There are now 1.3 million one-parent families in the UK. This is one in five of all families with children. Nine out of 10 are headed by a woman. Public opinion tends to lump these single parents together, seeing them as a mass of young - probably teenage - mothers who have become pregnant through carelessness and chosen fecklessly to have their child 'on the state'.
The truth is much more complicated. Single parents, while most commonly women, break down into several distinct groups with distinct needs. About 70 per cent of them are mature men and women who have been married and become lone parents through death, separation or divorce. There is a small percentage of mature career women who do not have a partner, but who choose to have a baby before their biological clock runs out. They are usually financially independent of state benefits. The remaining 30 per cent - or about 400,000 - are young single mothers. There are 8,000 teenage pregnancies each year, but contrary to popular view, the fastest-growing group of single parents is not teenagers but those between 20 and 24.
There are 845,000 lone parents living on Income Support; of these, only 45,000 are 16- to 19-year-olds. Most lone parents do not want to live on Income Support. In a recent survey conducted by the Department of Social Security, 90 per cent said they wanted to work at some time and 55 per cent said they would work immediately if they could get child-care support.
What most single mothers have in common is the difficulty they face in taking paid work. One of the features of one-parent family life is that the mature adult who has work skills becomes just as trapped in the benefit system as the teenage mother who is struggling to become a competent parent. Given that the breakdown of relationships is the biggest cause of homelessness and that 60 per cent of all lone parents live in public-sector accommodation, they often find themselves as neighbours on the same sink estates.
The Government always refers to the 'teenage mums' who, it is assumed, fall pregnant deliberately to obtain a council flat. Yet there is little evidence of this. They are teenagers; many do not know they are pregnant until they are five months into the pregnancy, and nearly all think that the boyfriend will suddenly become the knight on the white charger who will rescue them. These are the most vulnerable group and most stay at home with the support of their parents. Council housing is not automatic for this group because people under 18 are not legally able to hold a tenancy. Of those who do not stay at home, most go into mother and baby hostels or temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation before getting a flat of their own - most would not know what the word 'injunction' meant - let alone know how to obtain one.
The group the Government probably wants to target are the 20- to 24-year-olds. Many of these are young women who were, at some time, cohabiting with the father of their child or children, and many will have work skills. But for whatever reason, their relationship broke down and they find themselves in the same position as those young women who have never had a stable partner. There is no feminist cabal urging these young girls to go it alone, but there is an absence of potential partners. Many of the young men who have fathered these children are unemployed and lack the skills that would make them employable. Changes in our industrial structure have caused the death of positions for unskilled labour. The traditional route into maturity for these young men has been by becoming breadwinners and fathers.
But in many families, women are now the breadwinners as well as the main carers for children. If a young man can no longer bring home the bacon and plays no role in caring for children, why should young women put up with them?
This is recognised by the Institute for Economic Affairs pamphlet Fatherless Families, which depicts gangs of young men roaming the streets causing trouble because they are no longer civilised within the family. What the pamphlet does not explain is why any woman in her right mind should want to take one of these thugs home with her and why its authors think it would be in the interests of children for her to do so.
Extremists such as the American right-wing guru Charles Murray have argued that governments should cut out benefits for lone mothers to force them to be dependent on men again. He has called for the provision of adoption facilities and orphanages for the children of women who resist. Clearly this is not an option open to any civilised society.
It is time for the Government to recognise that it cannot turn back the clock. Relationships between adults will break down whether they are married or living together. Family life is in crisis. One in two marriages ends in divorce. But hope triumphs over experience and people marry again; more than seven million people live in stepfamilies.
Two out of three second marriages also end in divorce, further confusing the picture. But such is the strength of the two-parents, two-children image that we have treated these reconstituted families as though they were a replica of the first family - an unsuccessful prototype ripe only for abandonment and amnesia.
Only 30 per cent of lone parents receive regular maintenance for their children.
If the Government is serious about finding answers to the problem of state dependency among single parents, positive strategies should be applied to each group of lone parents. It is important, first, to develop a new political and social consensus about parental responsibility. Absent parents who are able should be forced to maintain their children and there should be a realistic longer-term education campaign to prepare young people for parenthood.
Second, lone parents who are willing and able to work must be helped out of benefits dependency by being provided with child-care support and vocational guidance. Very young mothers must be given the skills they need to become breadwinners.
Third, a positive campaign of prevention must be mounted to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies. At the same time, it must be recognised that it is not usually the first pregnancy that commits a single mother to a career in the benefits system, but the second and subsequent ones. The young single mother needs to be persuaded that she has a choice.
So often, with returning to work such a difficult prospect, it must seem to her that dependence is the only option for her future. Whatever action the Government decides upon, it must avoid lumping all single mothers into the same category - benefits dependant and even scrounger. If it does not, John Major the meritocrat will end up introducing a new category of discrimination. Lone parents, regardless of their motivations and needs, will become society's outcasts, and mothers and babies will join the homeless on our city streets.
The author is director of the National Council for One-Parent Families.