If David Cameron wants to support single parents he can start by ditching his marriage tax breaks

February 26, 2010 7:18 pm

Author:

Share this Article

Gingerbread

By Tim Horton

The news this week that David Cameron has backed the charity Gingerbread‘s campaign to challenge prejudice against single parents must have struck his Tory advisors as a perfect piece of brand decontamination.

Mention “Tories” and “single mothers” and most people will think of Peter Lilley absurdly breaking into song at the 1992 Conservative conference to describe his “little list of benefit offenders,” which of course included “young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list”. These theatrics heralded an especially nasty streak of judgemental social conservatism that was to mark the dying days of the last Tory government. Who can forget John Redwood’s angry tirade in 1995 about “illegitimate” children, in which he argued that single parents should be denied state support until they had first tried to give their children up for adoption?

So goodbye to all that? If only. For Cameron combines his pledge not to stigmatise single parents with political language and policies that risk only deepening the social prejudices they face.

The sad truth is that single parents are all too often subject to attacks in our politics and media – not least in the tabloid press, who seem to trade in painting single mothers as irresponsible freeloaders and bad parents. Talking to single parents, Gingerbread found they felt hurt and angry about being portrayed, as one put it, as “second-class citizens who are blamed for the majority of social ills”.

Gingerbread’s research shows just how wrong the public stereotype of a teenage mum on benefits is. Just one in fifty single mothers is a teenager (and only one in eight is under 25). Their average age is 36. Most have been married before and never expected to be raising a child alone. Most are in paid work.

What proportion of girls under 16 get pregnant each year? The public’s average estimate was 23%. The actual figure? 0.8% – thirty times less. To be fair, though, the public are nearer the mark than Conservative Central Office was last week. Its claim that under-16 pregnancy rates were 54% in deprived areas, ten times the actual figure, suggests one would scarcely be able to walk the streets of our inner cities without tripping over pregnant teens. (And the attempt to play to public stereotypes is a far worse offence than misplacing a decimal point).

Lone parents spending benefit cash on booze and fags? Also wide of the mark. They spend just £2.32 a week on alcohol and tobacco, compared to over £8 a week by couple families out of work. Recent social research also undermines this popular suspicion. Jane Waldfogel studied how the spending patterns of low-income families changed when their financial support was increased through tax credits in 1999. These parents didn’t spend the extra resources on alcohol or tobacco, but on their children and on household necessities.

Given public attitudes are often so far adrift from reality, it’s welcome that all main party leaders have signed up to Gingerbread’s “Let’s lose the labels” campaign pledge. But for this to be more than warm words, it will require real changes.

On policy it will mean ending the ‘Dutch auction‘ among political parties on ever-tougher welfare conditionality for lone parents, couched in the punitive language of ‘crackdowns’. Especially distasteful is the latent double standard that’s often implied: it’s OK (or even preferable) for parents in couples to be out of work caring for their children, but single parents must be herded into work at all costs.

While there are challenges for all politicians here, it is the Conservatives who will need a seismic change in their language and political culture to live up to this pledge.

When David Cameron puts his name to an article suggesting single parents on income support looking after their young children are “paid to sit on the sofa” and in danger of “turning into Karen Matthews“, that is profoundly offensive. When Conservative Party policy documents describe single parent families as “broken families”, responsible for “Broken Britain”, that is profoundly offensive. When Cameron justifies his proposed tax break for married couples by saying “we will reward those who take responsibility” (implying that millions of hardworking cohabiting couples and single parents are necessarily being irresponsible), that is profoundly offensive.

Indeed, perhaps the best way to show support for the spirit of this pledge would be for the Tories to drop their proposed marriage tax break and instead give financial support to all families. Over half of all children in single parent families are in poverty, yet they would get nothing from it. That the Government should not pick and choose which children to support depending on the marital status of their parents is an important principle of fairness. Besides, it is perfectly possible to support the ideal of marriage without believing the tax system should discriminate against those who aren’t.

Early on in his leadership, David Cameron sought to reassure the public that the Conservatives had changed in their attitudes to single parents: “Not only is the war against lone parents over,” he declared, “but the weapons have been put permanently beyond use.” On current evidence, we should not rest easy until they have been publicly decommissioned.

Comments are closed

Latest

  • Featured Try to imagine for a moment that you are Jeremy Hunt

    Try to imagine for a moment that you are Jeremy Hunt

    It may be an uncomfortable exercise, but brace yourself and try to imagine for a moment that you are Jeremy Hunt. Now, in your new role ensconced behind a desk at the Department for Health, it’s not difficult to imagine the huge pressures that are heaped on your shoulders at the moment. The English NHS is undergoing the worst year in A&E for a decade, with almost a million people waiting over 4 hours, elderly care is in crisis as […]

    Read more →
  • News Wales Mass Exodus? Figures show number of Welsh NHS patients using English NHS is FALLING since 2010

    Mass Exodus? Figures show number of Welsh NHS patients using English NHS is FALLING since 2010

    The Tories have been trying to use the Welsh NHS as a stick with which to beat the Labour Party, so it wasn’t too surprising to see the Daily Mail parroting Tory attack lines today with this front page splash: Now if you look beyond the (largely anecdotal) stories and carefully selected numbers in Daily Mail piece and look at the complete figures (available here) – they reveal that the number of Welsh patients using the NHS in England is actually falling. Here’s how […]

    Read more →
  • Comment No child should live in danger. Now is the time to end violence against children

    No child should live in danger. Now is the time to end violence against children

    Every five minutes somewhere in the world a child dies as a result of violence. These tragic deaths are not just confined to the war zones that dominate the news. Too often they happen when children should be safe –at home, at school or in the communities where they live. Today’s new report by Unicef UK outlines how violence is now a leading cause of serious injury and death among children. In Bangladesh, more than 20 per cent of girls […]

    Read more →
  • Europe News How would an EU referendum pledge affect Labour’s support?

    How would an EU referendum pledge affect Labour’s support?

    A poll conducted for the Daily Mirror by ComRes has found that most Labour-leaning voters aren’t bothered whether or not the party pledges to have an EU referendum. The poll saw 2,000 Labour-leaning people asked how the party’s stance on an EU referendum would affect their voting intention. 13% said it would make them more likely to vote Labour, while 7% said they would be less likely to do so. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people (67%) said that an EU referendum […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Labour’s London Primary must be as accessible as possible

    Labour’s London Primary must be as accessible as possible

    The two-party system is on the way out. If there is a political lesson from the last two months, then that is it. The SNP’s popularity in Scotland and the rising stock of UKIP south of the border tell a clear story of people fed up with politics as usual. They are sick of the tribalism, bored of the politicking, tired of trying to work out who stands for what. They want something different: to be treated honestly, listened to, […]

    Read more →
7ads6x98y