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

26th February, 2010 7:18 pm


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.


  • Comment Full text of Momentum’s draft letter to Labour MPs about airstrikes on Syria

    Full text of Momentum’s draft letter to Labour MPs about airstrikes on Syria

    Momentum, the pressure group founded out of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign, is urging its supporters to send this letter to Labour MPs. I am writing to you as a Labour voter to urge you to oppose Tory proposals for the UK to join military action in Syria against ISIL/Daesh. I am sure we would both like to see the defeat of both ISIL and the Assad regime – but it is not clear that this is an achievable aim. The military […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Full text of Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to Labour MPs about airstrikes on Syria

    Full text of Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to Labour MPs about airstrikes on Syria

    Dear Colleague, The Prime Minister made a Statement to the House today making the case for a UK bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria. A copy of my response has already been circulated. We have all been horrified by the despicable attacks in Paris and are determined to see the defeat of ISIS. Our first priority must be the security of Britain and the safety of the British people. The issue now is whether what the Prime Minister is proposing […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News Corbyn tells Labour MPs he cannot support airstrikes on Syria

    Corbyn tells Labour MPs he cannot support airstrikes on Syria

    Jeremy Corbyn has written to Labour MPs today to say he cannot support airstrikes against Isis in Syria. The Labour Leader wrote that he remains unconvinced that they would make Britain safer or contribute toward a comprehensive negotiated political settlement in Syria. His letter comes after David Cameron tried to persuade MPs of the case for military action this morning. Corbyn’s stance puts him at odds with senior members of the Shadow Cabinet, which met to discussed the issue after […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Join the Labour team in marching for climate justice and jobs

    Join the Labour team in marching for climate justice and jobs

    By Barry Gardiner MP and Clive Lewis MP On Sunday 29 November, on the eve of the international climate change talks in Paris, the Labour DECC team will be joining tens of thousands of people on the world’s biggest ever climate demonstration. It comes amidst a Conservative Government unleashing the biggest and most systematic assault on environment policy in decades. Whether slashing support for renewable energy and energy efficiency to boosting support and tax breaks for fossil fuels, it has […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured Sleight of hand is no way to run an economy

    Sleight of hand is no way to run an economy

    The Chancellor giveth, and the Chancellor taketh away. And taketh away, And taketh away. Don’t be fooled. While the abandonment of Tax Credits cuts is to be welcomed – and should be rightly lauded as a genuine victory for Labour’s leadership – it is not enough. And if the Godot-like Universal Credit is ever rolled out, proposed cuts to that mean this is a delaying of pain, not a end to the problem. Now it may be that the widely panned, […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends