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.