Lone parents could be forced to work earlier

John Hutton says lone parents should be helped to work
John Hutton says lone parents should be helped to work

Lone parents on benefits could be forced to look for work earlier under new government plans intended to cut child poverty.

Work and pensions secretary John Hutton said it was "not good enough" that a third of these people moved straight on to incapacity benefit or other support when their children reached 16, and they were legally obliged to look for work.

"If we are to eradicate child poverty, then I believe we will also need to go further in challenging existing assumptions about who - and at what point - someone should be in work," he said.

However, in a speech earlier today, he reassured members of his party that the plans would not see benefits for single parents cut. The last time this was proposed, in 1997, 47 Labour MPs rebelled against the government.

Britain has one of the highest proportions of families headed by a single mum or dad in Europe and the lowest rate of employment among this group, at 56.5 per cent, compared to 80 per cent in countries such as Sweden and Denmark.

Lone parents who do find work are twice as likely to leave their job as other people - just under one fifth who leave income support return within six months, and two fifths return within three years.

Today Mr Hutton said "none of this should come as a surprise", noting that people who had been shut out of the labour market for ten or 15 years "are obviously going to find it difficult" to move from benefits to work.

But he said that with increasing amounts of childcare being made available - there are now twice as many registered providers as nine years ago - the government should look at new ways to help lone parents rejoin the labour market.

"Let me be clear about one other thing. There is absolutely no case for cutting lone parent benefits - this would be wrong in principle and damaging to the health and well-being of children in lone parent families," he said.

"But politicians and campaigners on the progressive left risk failing future generations of children if we are not prepared to learn from other progressive countries, and assume instead that a childhood spent on benefits is good for children and their parents. It isn't."

Clare Tickell, chief executive of Children's charity NCH, welcomed the assurance that benefits would not be cut but said forcing lone parents into work was not the answer either. She argued many wanted to get jobs but "struggle due to a lack of help and support".

She added: "It is also essential to remember that for some lone families work may not be the best option, for example, families with disabled children. These vulnerable families must not be disadvantaged in any changes to the system."

Shadow work and pensions secretary Philip Hammond said he supported the idea that work was the key weapon against child poverty, but said that despite being in power ten years, Labour had failed to sort out the welfare system.

"A last minute rush at the end of Tony Blair's reign is not going to solve the deep problems plaguing the welfare system in this country," he said, asking why the new initiative was not included in the welfare reform bill.

Liberal Democrat spokesman David Laws welcomed today's plans but said the money saved should be invested into providing more affordable childcare. New research from the Daycare Trust suggests some private providers are charging up to £19,000 a year.


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.