David Willetts, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, declared that "the Tory war against single parents is over" yesterday in outlining plans to reinvent the Conservatives as the party of social reform.
Mr Willetts in effect apologised for years of attacks on lone mothers and, in a dig at the past moralising of Tory governments, warned that "there's no point in twitching at the net curtains as our society changes around us".
The call for a new tone came as he unveiled the party's proposals to allow all adults to set up a lifetime savings account, a system of personal savings accounts topped up with state contributions. The policy, which lets individuals build up a pot of cash from which they can draw on as they wish, would reverse Britain's declining savings culture and offer an extra way out of the pensions' crisis hitting millions of people, Mr Willetts said.
Peter Lilley, a former social security secretary, famously used a previous Tory conference to launch a vitriolic attack on single mothers, claiming that he had "a little list" of women who had become pregnant to obtain a council house.
But in an attempt to distance the current leadership from the past, Mr Willetts made a stout defence of mothers struggling on their own and claimed the time had come to add "another great chapter" to the Conservative tradition of social reform.
Speaking after Kate Green, the director of the National Council for One Parent Families, had addressed the conference for the first time, he said the Tories should recognise that a million one-parent families were headed by divorced or separated women.
Mr Willetts said while there was "overwhelming evidence" that two-parent families were better for children, single mothers were "doing the responsible thing in the circumstances" by bringing up their offspring against the odds after a break-up or a father's desertion.
"So let me make it absolutely clear: the Tory war on lone parents is over. When they are not being ignored they are being blamed. When they are not being blamed, they are being taxed. Our approach will be very different. We'll support them and value them and, above all, we'll back them."
In contrast, several speakers from the floor stressed the importance of marriage in bringing up children, and one, Jill Kirby, claimed that single mothers in Liverpool's most deprived estates did indeed have children by different fathers and were dependent on the state.
Ms Green said that while she welcomed Mr Willetts' speech, it was thin on the detail of how to provide effective support and child care for some of the poorest in society.
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