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Unmarried Mothers

Volume 164: debated on Monday 8 January 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement about the level of social security payments made to unmarried mothers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security
(Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

At May 1988, the annual cost of income support for families headed by an unmarried lone mother was estimated to be about £700 million. Information by marital status on other benefits paid to those families is not available.

Has my hon. Friend anything to say about recent newspaper reports that payments to single mothers are now in excess of £1,000 million? The traditional family has no resentment when it comes to maintaining mothers who have been deserted by their husbands or treated badly by them, but what of those who leave their husbands for no good reason? What about those who have never been married, who have children? Is it not true that a young woman having a baby need not work until the child is 16 years of age, is entitled to free council housing accommodation, and costs other people about £70,000 to bring up her child until the age of 16?

The Government are concerned about the increasing numbers of lone-parent families, including unmarried mothers, and their reliance on benefit. We are constantly examining the benefit arrangements for them and those for other groups. It is important that the benefit system should not create incentives for lone parenthood or for dependence on benefits, but it should provide support for those who are in need. Of course, fathers should pay maintenance for their children, whether or not they are married to their mothers. The Department takes action to try to secure maintenance and it is considering actively how to make its procedures more effective. I remind my hon. Friend that decisions on maintenance payments are made by the courts.

Why do the Government continue to stir up apathy on this issue? Are the Government aware that the proportion of young single mothers drawing benefit who gain help from the fathers has halved during the past 10 years? When will the Government bring forward new plans for the House to discuss, so that mothers can make over maintenance orders to the state, with the state taking responsibility for collecting the money and paying it regularly, weekly or monthly, if the mothers want that? When are we to hear about plans on those lines? They would reinforce parental responsibilities and increase the freedom of single mothers.

As always, the hon. Gentleman makes an interesting contribution to the debate. He is, at least partly, describing what is happening in Australia. The findings from a recent visit to Australia are being closely studied by my Department. I repeat that the Department is continuing actively to review how to make its own recovery of maintenance payments from fathers more effective. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Department has commissioned some independent research, involving lone parents who are served by 44 local offices, to examine the motivations and perceptions of lone parents. When the research is completed, the results will he fully examined.

Will my hon. Friend consider taking as many increased powers as may be necessary to pursue fathers through the courts and, if necessary, genetic testing to prove paternity where there is doubt?

The measures that my hon. Friend describes are more suitable for consideration by the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Will the Minister give an assurance that the Government will not adopt a punitive attitude to lone parents? After all, a significant number of the members of the Cabinet have created lone parents themselves—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] That is true. We heard the comments of the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell), and Conservative Members should not have double standards. Is the Minister aware that the number of parents dependent on benefit has grown under the present Government because their benefits policies and cuts have created many poverty traps? Many lone parents cannot take a job because that would reduce their income. Is not the answer to restore child benefit to a proper level, to implement a national minimum wage and to allow lone parents to offset child care costs when they want to work? The Government are trapping lone parents into dependency on benefit, which is not what those parents want—and it should not be allowed.

Nothing that I have said in reply to questions so far has suggested that the Department wants to take a punitive attitude towards lone parents. It simply does not want to create perverse incentives. I remind the hon. Lady that incentives for lone parents to work already exist within the benefits system. There is an earnings disregard within income support, the same adult credit is given for single lone parents as for couples in family credit. and an increase in the housing benefit earnings disregard from £15 to £25 was recently announced.

Will my hon. Friend take it from me that many of my married constituents who pay to bring up their own children resent additional taxation to pay for bringing up other people's children? Can she state the amount of subsidy to local authorities through the rate support system because of the number of unmarried mothers in their areas? That situation is highlighted in my constituency, where Middlesbrough council receives millions of pounds more than Langbaurgh council, solely because of the number of one-parent families that Middlesbrough must support.

I have already mentioned the Government's concern at the increasing number of all lone-parent families. Matters relating to the rate support grant are for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.