HC Deb 25 February 1997 vol 291 cc140-1
8. Mr. Roy Hughes

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what assessment his Department has made of the availability of child care for lone parents. [15745]

Mr. Andrew Mitchell

The Government have taken, and are taking, effective steps to help those who need child care in order to work.

Mr. Hughes

Will the Minister tell us at last why lone parents in Britain are the most dependent on benefits, and the least likely to work, in the whole of Europe? Is he not concerned about the fact that that is costing the taxpayer more than £10 billion a year, and that the figure is rising? Is there not an urgent need for a national child care strategy?

Mr. Mitchell

The Government have made a good many changes specifically to help with child care costs. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the workings of family credit, and will know that the child care disregard was recently increased from £40 to £60. He should also know that, since 1993, the Department for Education and Employment has provided start-up grants which have generated more than 72,000 out-of-school child care places, and that, in his recent Budget, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer put £24 million on the table for further out-of-school places. We have invested £64 million in that scheme.

Again, all we hear from the Opposition is a reannouncement of our policies, along with a load of pre-election wind. The Government's out-of-school child care policies have been very successful.

Mr. Viggers

A typical lone parent is a woman bringing up children, but is my hon. Friend aware that I have been corresponding with his Department about a different classification—men who are widowers, and have the dual problem of trying to do their jobs and bring up their children at the same time? Will my hon. Friend take full account of widowers' interests in shaping Government support measures?

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. As he implied, some 5 per cent. of lone parents are men. I shall bear in mind what he has said.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I welcome the steps that the Government have taken, but Ministers will know that children under 16 should not be left unattended. At times, that is very difficult for mothers who are alone—not necessarily because they are single parents but for other reasons: for instance, their husbands may be serving abroad. Have the Government taken account of that clash between the law and pressures on mothers bringing up children? Those mothers need more family credit.

Mr. Mitchell

The Government recognise the tension to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. In such circumstances, they consider it right for a mother to choose whether to work or to remain on benefit. They also point out, however, that the way out of benefit and towards independence is returning to work. It is not good for a child to see the state as the sole breadwinner: it is important for the parent also to be seen as the breadwinner.