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Wednesday, 10 December, 1997, 10:14 GMT
Briefing - Lone parent benefits
Most lone parents receive state benefits. 1.1 million lone parents - around 80% - receive income support, which is paid to those on low incomes. There are currently more than 2 million children being brought up in lone parent families on income support. In addition, all lone parents are entitled to receive a higher level of child benefit (previously known as one parent benefit). A total of 10 bn was spent by the state on lone parent benefits in 1996/97.

Prior to April 1997 lone parents were entitled to two special benefits: lone parent premium (introduced in April 1988) and one parent benefit (introduced in April 1977). All lone parents received one parent benefit which is a supplement to child benefit and is worth 6.05. In addition, lone parents who received income support could receive an additional 4.95 on top of the family premium (10.80) as lone parent premium (15.75).

From April 1997 lone parent premium and one parent benefit have been incorporated into the income support family premium and child benefit respectively. Lone parents now effectively receive these benefits in the form of a higher rate of the benefits which are paid to two-parent families.

The rates of one parent benefit and lone parent premium have been frozen since April 1995. This means that lone parents have already experienced cuts in their benefits over the past two years because their benefits have not been increased with inflation. The current Government has said that it will continue the freeze on benefits for lone parents when other benefits go up in April 1998.

In the 1996 Budget the then Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, announced the Conservative Government's intention to end entitlement to the additional benefits for lone parents from April 1998. Peter Lilley, then Social Security secretary, in a statement on the day of the budget announcement said: " My overall strategy is a move towards an even-handed treatment of one and two-parent families. Research shows that the only substantial extra expense lone parents have over couples is the cost of childcare."

From April 1998 lone parents claiming benefits for the first time will not be entitled to receive one parent benefit or lone parent premium. Those re-claiming one parent premium after a period of not claiming the benefit will also lose entitlement. Lone parents who move from previously claimed income support, move onto family credit (losing the lone parent premium) and then move back onto income support will retain entitlement.

In the debate on the Finance Bill (the measures introduced in the 1996 Tory Budget) Harriet Harman, then shadow Social Security spokesperson, strongly opposed the Conservative Government's proposals. She said: "The way to get lone mothers out of poverty and cut spending on benefits for them is not by cutting the amount on which they have to live year by year and plunging them further into poverty (House of Commons Hansard, 28 November 1996, col 500)....

The proposals to cut the benefits of lone parents while giving them no help to get work are wrong, and we will oppose them. In Government, we will have a welfare-to-work approach for lone parents. We cannot sort out the 10 billion benefit bill for lone parents by shaving their benefits bit by bit." (House of Commons Hansard, 28 November 1996, col 501)."

The Labour Government has since made clear that it does not intend to reverse the previous Government's proposed changes to lone parent benefits. This was announced alongside the publication of the Social Security (Modernisation) Bill on July 9 1997 (amendment included as Clause 68 of the Bill). The change to one parent benefit is covered by the Bill; the change to lone parent premium is being dealt with through changes to regulations. The change to lone parent premium will take effect in April 1998. The change to one parent benefit is now expected to come into effect from June 1998.

60% of lone parents were living on incomes of less than half the average in 1994/5 (the latest figures available published November 1997). The risk of poverty (by this measure) is higher among lone parents than any other group. In 1994/5 50% of average income for a lone parent with 2 children aged 2-4 years was equivalent to 117 a week (1997 prices).

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