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One-Parent Families

Volume 955: debated on Thursday 3 August 1978

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asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement of the Government's record of help for one-parent families.

In the field of social security alone the total expenditure on cash benefits for one-parent families is now running at well over £800 million a year compared with under £300 million when the Government took office. The improvements in benefits next November will increase this expenditure to about £900 million a year.The Government have given priority to two main programmes in family income support. One of these is the child benefit scheme which, by replacing the dual system of family allowances and child tax allowances with a single cash payment, provides a benefit for all families but gives greatest help to those with the lowest incomes. This benefit is now £2·30 per child, and will rise to £3 in November 1978 and £4 in April 1979.For one-parent families we have introduced a special premium payment, the child benefit increase. This is now £1 per family and will rise to £2 in November. About 270,000 lone parents are now receiving this one-parent family premium. Like child benefits, its main aim is to help working families and, because it is disregarded as income for the family income supplements (FIS) scheme, lone parents in low paid jobs get the premium on top of their FIS.The Government's other main social security programme for families is to make regular increases in the benefits for those who are unable to work full-time. One-parent families have shared in those increases. In 1976, when there were an estimated 750,000 lone parents, over 320,000 of them were receiving supplementary benefit, and about 120,000 were receiving widowed mother's allowance.In addition to the increases in benefit rates, several important concessions have been introduced which have benefited one-parent families relying on supplementary benefits. Lone parents can earn £6 from part-time work, as opposed to £4 for other beneficiaries, before their benefit is affected; the earnings of dependent children are now completely ignored; lone fathers are no longer required to register for work as a condition for receiving benefits; 16 and 17-year-old lone parents are all now assessed at the adult scale rate. All these changes have been brought in since the present Government came to power.In 1975 the Government accepted the Finer Committee's recommendation that the additional personal allowance for lone parents should be raised so as to bring their personal allowances up to the same level as a married man's. Since then the additional personal allowance has been increased in successive Budgets to preserve this relativity. The current level of this allowance is £550 as compared with £180 in 1974–5. There is also a provision in this year's Finance Act to exclude maintenance payments in full from the investment income surcharge.Apart from cash help the Finer Committee identified day care as an important need for many children in one-parent families. The Government have responded by stressing to local authorities the need to give priority for available places to these children when their parent has to go out to work.

The Government are committed to the development of day care services. There has been a steady increase in the number of local authority day nursery places in recent years—between 1972 and 1976 an increase of more than 4,300 places or 20 per cent.—and this trend is expected to continue. The Government recognise, however, that further progress must depend on the availability of manpower and financial resources and has stressed to local authorities the need to diversify day care facilities and to co-ordinate their own services with those of voluntary bodies. Circular letters on this co-ordination of services for the under-fives were issued jointly by the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Social Security in March 1976 and January 1978.

Grants have also been provided under the urban programme to a number of the out-of-school and holiday care and play schemes which local authorities and voluntary bodies, often in conjunction, are setting up in many areas.

The Government have also acted in the field of housing, which is one of difficulty for many one-parent families. The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 requires local authorities to give help of some kind to all persons who are homeless or under the threat of homelessness. Families with children are among the groups who must be given special consideration under this Act.

Recognising the specific problems of one-parent families the Department of the Environment and Welsh Office last year issued a circular giving guidance on the housing of such families. The circular commended to local authorities many of the recommendations made in the Finer Report including the need for equality of treatment as between one and two-parent families—for example a one-parent family should not be placed lower on a waiting list simply because it contains only one adult. The guidance has, however, made clear the Government's view that one-parent families do not generally need specialised accommodation. A leaflet of advice about their housing difficulties will be issued shortly.

The Employment Protection Act 1975 contains a number of provisions of special value to one-parent families, including iprotection for a larger number of part- time workers than hitherto and women whose working lives are interrupted by pregnancy and confinement. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975, complementing the Equal Pay Act 1970, is an important measure which will lead to the improvement of employment opportunities and the conditions of women in lower-paid jobs.

The Government will take further measures to help one-parent families whenever possible and will continue to place their needs high on their list of priorities.