Thursday, February 25, 1999 Published at 09:00 GMT
Lone parent: Working makes us worse off
Julie Singleton lives in west London with her son. She works part-time as a marketing officer.
Ms Singleton would like the chancellor of the exchequer to turn his attention to the way the government is trying to get lone parents back to work.
She describes it as all very well in theory, but in practice "most of the people I know in my situation are being asked to take jobs which would make them worse off than they are on benefits".
In general, she says that lone parents' experience of the New Deal is that they are offered only low-grade jobs which do not pay enough to make them worthwhile.
Ms Singleton says this is the case even for highly-qualified people who are clearly capable of better things - far higher than the horizons suggested by the scheme's administrators.
One particular problem which Gordon Brown could remedy is the fact that New Deal training schemes are only allowed to go up to NVQ level.
Ms Singleton cites the case of another lone parent who wanted to do a postgraduate course in computing - something which would qualify her for a well-paid job - but was not allowed to do so.
This is something which she says should be changed and the money allocated.
Another problem is that when someone goes back to work, they do not usually get paid for one month, yet their benefits stop immediately. They immediately go into debt. She would therefore like Mr Brown to provide a fund under which the benefits could be paid until the first wage packet - and not repaid.
This would be costly but, she argues, would actively encourage people to return to work whereas the current system is a big deterrent.
Another practical suggestion which would need funding from the chancellor's pocket is for specialist lone parent job centres or clubs. Ms Singleton would like to see pilot schemes set up where lone parents were trained, then matched to vacancies after taking into account their needs for child care and housing.
In fact, Ms Singleton says that these two factors are crucial in getting lone parents back to work.
Tax relief for 'granny-care'
One practical step she would like the chancellor to take would be in the realm of tax relief on child care. At the moment, there is tax relief on the first £60 of child care costs if using an official service such as a council-run playgroup or registered childminder.
If, however, a parent prefers to use people they know and trust - such as the child's grandparents - but want or need to pay them properly, then there is no tax relief at all.
Officialdom argues that the grandparents can register, but Ms Singleton points out that they then have to go through a four-day course, just to look after their own grandchildren and many feel insulted and unwilling to do so.
She agrees that registering is necessary to look after non-related children, but wants a special category of childminder, allowed to look after only their own close relatives. These would then attract tax relief - and this would need Gordon Brown's approval.
Low-rent schemes needed
Housing is the other key area for which Ms Singleton would like to see Mr Brown put his hands in his pockets.
People on very low incomes are priorities for council housing and housing associations - something with which she agrees.
But when a lone parent is struggling upwards economically to become the kind of positive role model which the government wants them to be, then the only choice is private renting - and that is usually far too expensive. This and childcare costs are the main reaons why so many lone parents find themselves worse off by working, she says.
Mr Brown should therefore encourage more low-rent schemes, either among councils or voluntary associations. One specific suggestion she puts forward is to create housing schemes especially for lone parents - on the model of those frequently seen for the elderly - with particular facilities for children and their care.
'Disgusting' pension proposals
More generally, Ms Singleton says she would like to see lower income tax payments for the less well-off, either by a lower starting rate or higher personal allowances.
Above that, however, she would be prepared to see income tax rise by perhaps 2p - but only if the money was earmarked for "useful things such as the NHS and schools and not just put in some general government slush fund".
Current thinking on pensions is another subject which attracts her anger and which she believes the chancellor should address.
She describes as "disgusting" the idea that people who have worked 40 or 50 years should suffer reduced pensions because they have not had the opportunity to provide top-up schemes.
Ms Singleton also points out that there are many people, nearly all women, who choose to stay at home looking after their children and will therefore be unable to top-up their plans. Given that such households will thefeore be living on a single income, many of them will be unable to afford extra pension contributions - condemning them to poverty in old age.