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Labour to speed lone parents back to work

Lone parents would be invited for jobcentre interviews as their youngest children were settling into infant school, under plans being drawn up by the Labour party.

To lure them back to the job market, such parents - predominantly single mothers - would get the chance to discuss local vacancies and childcare possibilities, especially after-school clubs.

Under-25s with poor qualifications would be helped to improve their job prospects by studying, while the group would also be targeted to get Labour's planned Individual Learning Accounts to upgrade their skills.

The plans, first mooted by the then shadow social security spokesman Chris Smith last summer, were given a high profile last weekend by party leader Tony Blair in a speech in Amsterdam. The plans are a central plank of Labour's welfare-to-work strategy.

In his speech, Mr Blair said Britain had one million unemployed lone parents, a far greater proportion than in France or Sweden. The tax bill to support these families was Pounds 10bn a year.

He said half of these families had children in school. "Our proposals are not about compelling them to work or interfering with their arrangements for their children. They are an attempt to offer them a choice, if they can, to work and escape a life of dependence on welfare benefits, and often, poverty."

Labour says it intends to transform jobcentres into places where people can get information on jobs, benefits, childcare and training under one roof.

However, the success of the initiative will depend largely on whether the necessary network of after-school care can be built on the largely voluntary basis envisaged by the party. It is talking about putting Millennium money into the scheme, but discussions are continuing on exactly how adequate provision would be created where - and when - it was needed.

* Research published this week by the Daycare Trust shows there is only one childcare place for every nine children under eight. It says the shortage of places is likely to become more acute as more mothers of dependent children work and Government policies encourage more lone parents to do so.

The research also shows that childcare can cost an average family more than food during a year. In a family with two small children, costs are almost Pounds 6,000 a year - 20 per cent of gross income.


* There are about 1.5 million one-parent families, with 2.3 million children; * in 1994, 23 per cent of families were headed by a lone parent - almost always female - according to Government figures published last year. The figure was 11 per cent in 1979 and 19 per cent in 1991; * one in three births in England and Wales is outside marriage, according to figures published last May; * conceptions by girls under 16 peaked in 1990 at 10.1 per cent per 1,000. By 1993, they had fallen to 8.1 per cent per 1,000; * from April, benefits for lone parents will be brought more into line with those for couples, as the Government responds to calls for more recognition and reward for marriage.

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