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 Featured 5 reasons Theresa May is wrong about “mass migration”

    5 reasons Theresa May is wrong about “mass migration”

    Theresa May yesterday took to the podium at Tory party conference and channelled her inner Enoch Powell. In a bid to prove her leadership credentials she made a virulently anti-immigration speech, but it was riddled with inaccuracies. She somewhat confusingly tore apart her own record on immigration as Home Secretary and warned that “mass migration” makes social cohesion impossible. The subtext of this: if you’ve got problems, blame migrants. Here’s why she is so sorely wrong. 1. Migrants aren’t responsible […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse risks being all fur coat

    Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse risks being all fur coat

    It’s a movement that shows no sign of slowing down. As cities and counties line up for devolution, the Chancellor is casting himself in the role of Commander in Chief. It took the Labour Party too long to recognise that after years of debate about Scottish independence and Welsh devolved government those of us who remain might rightly ask as well, what about us? Whatever your political view it is hard not to credit Mr Osborne and the many local leaders […]

    Read more →
  • Comment The Tories aren’t evil – and it’s not helpful to think of them so

    The Tories aren’t evil – and it’s not helpful to think of them so

    I am a Labour voter.  I am in fact a Labour member as of about 6 weeks ago.  Despite the best attempts of the triumphant ideologues of the far left who are have taken over the party, I have as much right to be in this party as they do (and potentially more given that so many of them have supported far-left anti-Labour parties such as the Greens and Trade Union and Socialist Coalition). As such, I’m not particularly fond […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Dinner snatchers: Are cuts to infant school dinners the dish of the day?

    Dinner snatchers: Are cuts to infant school dinners the dish of the day?

    With November’s Comprehensive Spending Review fast approaching, what is and isn’t mentioned in ministerial speeches at Conservative Party Conference should be taken as an indication of what is and isn’t up for grabs. Having been a general election commitment is no guarantee. The media coverage of Nicky Morgan’s speech today is likely to touch on her newly acquired status as an ‘outsider’ for next Tory leader. She is speaking on the same day as other higher profile pretenders to the […]

    Read more →
  • News Video “I never want to be remembered particularly” – Denis Healey’s final interview

    “I never want to be remembered particularly” – Denis Healey’s final interview

    Last night Newsnight aired the final broadcast interview that Denis Healey took part in before his death at the age of 98 this weekend. Filmed just a few weeks ago, the former Chancellor is asked how he would like to be remembered, replying modestly that “I never want to be remembered particularly.” He also says that he had entered politics in the 1940s because he wanted “to change the world”, but would probably not do so anymore “because the class […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends