Helen Martin: Single parents need a (tax) break

DAVID CAMERON supports the idea of tax breaks for married couples. Nick Clegg disagrees and says the tax system shouldn’t favour one family set-up over another.

The Law Commission, which advises the government on legal reform, feels cohabiting couples need greater legal recognition, a view shared by the Office for National Statistics, which is now giving cohabiting couples equal status with those who are married.

No prizes for guessing which group in society is left out in the cold with no support from any quarter. Single parents are getting it in the neck again, particularly since a new report has shown the UK has one of the highest percentages of children living in single parent families in Europe, after Latvia, Estonia and Ireland.

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The latest figures relate to 2008 and show that in Britain 65.1 per cent of children had married parents, 12.8 per cent had cohabiting parents and 20.8 had single parents. And that is enough to fuel right-wing outrage that our system allows feckless girls who get pregnant to live off benefits while “respectable” couples get no encouragement at all, and to foster the belief that stopping benefits will somehow boost marriage.

Having been a single parent – and written often about this issue over the years – it is soul-destroying that in 2012 it’s still on the agenda with the same tired old – and flawed – arguments being trotted out based on prejudice, ignorance and misinterpretation.

Even the phrase “single parent” is misleading. Many people still assume “single” means unmarried rather than “lone”. But among that 20.8 per cent are the children of widows and widowers, divorcees, and of men and women whose partner – often their legal husband or wife – has simply legged it, leaving them to manage on their own.

Nor is there any indication in the statistics of how many single parents are working, either full or part-time, their lone salary stretching to cover childcare costs as well as household and family bills. We don’t know how many of them are in receipt of any benefits at all; or how many are in well-paid executive jobs, employing nannies and sending their “single-parent” children to independent schools.

So for economic purposes, the figures are meaningless, just as meaningless as they are for social purposes. We are told children of single parents are less likely to do well at school, more likely to suffer poor health and go on to live less successful adult lives. But does that apply to the child of a wealthy, divorced or widowed, single parent lawyer or banker? Or isn’t it just as likely to apply to the child of an unemployed married couple in a deprived area?

And so to the cliché that single parenthood is a lifestyle option, something that people choose, allegedly in order to get their own council house. Maybe there are some who are dim enough to think that’s a good deal. I’ve never met one, but I do know of career women who have willingly embarked on single parenthood with their eyes open because they didn’t find Mr Right (or even Mr Wrong) in time, yet still wanted a child. Benefits didn’t come into it.

Life is always going to be tougher for a lone parent, whether they expected to find themselves in that situation or not. And whether they are rich or poor, one salary doesn’t stretch as far as two. Couples can alternate on childcare. Singles have no choice but to pay for it.

Benefits are paid to those on low incomes who need them. Single parents who don’t need them, don’t get them.

There could be many reasons for Britain’s comparatively high number of single parent families . . . lack of faith in marriage, long working hours, unemployment or financial pressures, the modern “acceptability” of adultery and the ease of “no blame” divorce, domestic violence . . . compile your own list.

But demonising the parent who is left to bring up children doesn’t help, any more than we would want a return to the days of unmarried pregnant girls being forced to choose between abortion, a life of stigma, shame and poverty or the workhouse.

And if we really do want to reduce the number of single parent families, we need something more than bald percentages and the erroneous conclusion that every child of a single parent is the result of a transient shack-up.

Bum rap at Christmas

I CAN’T remember much about Christmas and New Year apart from having to stand to eat Christmas dinner. What I thought was a pulled bum-cheek muscle turned out to be a compressed disc.

The festive season passed in a haze of strong pain-killers augmented with a couple of glasses of wine – strictly against medical advice but absolutely essential – before bed at 9pm followed by nocturnal limps round the house to relieve the agony.

Maybe it’s the drugs or paranoia . . . but is it possible some witch or wizard in Hearts, the city council or anyone else I offended in 2011 has put a hex on me? If so, please lift it. You’ve made your point.