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Step-parents can take it for granted

Pour yourself a nice, hot, sweet cup of tea, sit down and prepare yourself for a shock. What I am about to say sounds impossible, but is true. There can be financial benefit in being a single parent. Not overall, I quite agree. The odds, financial and predominantly otherwise, are firmly fixed against anyone who tries to bring up a child outwith a conventional relationship. "Let them eat cake" cries the system which meantimes wants to eat that confection as well as having it.

And if, or when, the time comes that you rejoin the conventional twosomes, be sure to take into account (current, deposit or Post Office) that you will be expected to pay your dues and more for the privilege. When it suits the public purse, the income of a new partner is included in means testing, such as when welfare benefits are calculated, and, not surprisingly, it is ignored on those occasions when it might benefit the claimants. Those who have trekked this insecure road learn to take the accompanying miserly establishment attitudes for granted.

Then, just when you are getting used to the injustice of it all, the youngster applies for a place at university or college, sends for details about grants and something unexpected is revealed. Most people particularly if it affects them, don't believe the wording the first time they read it through. The application form defines relevant parental income as "income of a natural custodial parent". Not both natural parents, nor a custodial step-parent, mark you, but "natural custodial".

What on earth does it mean, and why should it be? It means that if a single parent remarries and the youngster goes off to university or college, then neither the income of the old or the new partner will be part of the grant assessment. However Scrooge-like grants have become for students, they are a better bet if you have a step-parent. Odd.

Why has it come about? I would like to believe that it is a conscious move to enable entry to higher education for all. However, for all the reasons I have mentioned, this doesn't really stand up to examination. So, since most things fall into one category or the other, it must be either cock-up or conspiracy. A friend is convinced it is a male conspiracy and her thinking goes something like this. Q: If custodial step-parents' incomes were to be included, who would lose? A: People with high incomes and a partner with a child from a former liaison. These folk are likely to be influential males, able to affect the law. QED.

Myself, I tend towards the cock-up. not just because I take for granted that we all make mistakes, but because things also get forgotten and overlooked. Take the case of grants and the new tax self-assessment scheme.

Small businesses are rushing around at the moment taking advice about this new Inland Revenue initiative. There will be a couple of years when things are up in the air while we move from the old system of assessment to the new. During this time, some businesses will not be able to declare what their income is, and nothing is more crucial to the grants department than an income declaration. It seems that grants for education were forgotten in the furore to create a different tax system. All those students with parents running businesses will have to wait until things are straightened out before grants can be awarded. Not that they will be worth very much, when they are, but that is hardly the point.

If your son or daughter is about to start college next term, you have probably been thinking about these issues for a while. Or perhaps you are at the proud stage of graduation ceremonies and believe that grants and gowns belong to a stretch of life that is over for you. Be warned. Unless young people have been self-supporting for three years, it will be your income that is used for grant assessment, if they choose to return to education before they are 25. As my son returns to college, older than I was when he was born, I find myself grateful I spent some time as a single mum. Weird world.

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