Nigel Purkis' presentation | conference on one parent families 2007

A European Voice for Lone Parents by Nigel Purkis, vice president by the British Gingerbread Lone Parent Association


Some estimates suggest that a third or more of the next generation of Europe’s children will spend at least part of their childhood being cared for by one parent on their own.  The future prosperity of the European Union depends on giving all its children the best opportunities to thrive and to meet their potential.  However, many of Europe’s children, those living in single-parent families, will continue to suffer disadvantage unless the voice of this group can be heard across Europe.


In some countries, this disadvantage results from the near-invisibility of lone parents:  their status is simply not recognised.  In other countries, the needs of lone parents and their children are recognised, but not addressed.


In this short presentation, I want to say something about the progress that has been made in the UK – and the great amount of work still to do – and the lessons that might be learned from this experience.  I will argue that meeting the needs of lone parents is an objective that must be shared between the private sector, government and the Third Sector of voluntary organisations and social enterprise.


I will also argue that meeting the needs, and fulfilling the aspirations, of lone parents is central to the Lisbon objectives of full employment and social justice as an engine of prosperity.


First, it is important to understand the nature of lone parenthood.  This will vary from country to country, but there are certain characteristics which will be shared by single parent families everywhere.  This is the pattern in the UK.


The nature of lone parenthood


Single parents are often characterised as teenagers.  In the UK, only three per cent are aged under 20, and the average age is 36.  Single parenthood is often also popularised as a ‘lifestyle choice’, yet this is also far from the reality, certainly in the UK.  Most lone parents have been in a couple relationship before finding themselves on their own with the children of that relationship, either due to bereavement or relationship breakdown.  The average length of lone parenthood is about five years, after which parents re-partner, or their children grow up.


Understanding the characteristics of lone parenthood is important in addressing the needs of this group.  An assumption that lone parenthood is a life-style choice, a permanent state of being or a largely youthful pre-occupation can lead to serious misjudgements about the appropriate policy response.


It is also necessary to understand the causes of lone parenthood.  Much public debate has centred on ‘the breakdown of family values’ or the impact of the benefit system in generating a growth in lone parenthood.  In the UK, however, the fastest growth in single parenting occurred during the 1980s and 1990s, when benefits for this group were curtailed.  The main cause for the growth was the impact of economic recession, unemployment, indebtedness and home repossession on relationship breakdown.  In the past ten years of economic stability and rising living standards in the UK, the proportion of lone parents has hardly changed.


The role of government


The debate about responses to lone parenthood in the UK, as in other countries, falls into two categories: those who think the needs of lone parents are best served by marriage and those who think they are best served by employment.  Into the first category fall those prescriptions that propose greater fiscal incentives for marriage.  Into the second fall measures such as the New Deal for Lone Parents in Britain.


A central tenet of the Lisbon agenda is that increased employment is a vehicle for increased prosperity, both for the individual and for the economy as a whole.  This has been the approach pursued in the UK over the past decade.  During that time, lone parent employment has increased sharply, from about 45 per cent to 57 per cent of all lone parents.


This falls short both of the UK Government’s target of 70 per cent, and the aspirations of lone parents themselves, most of whom say they would like to work if the right job and childcare was available.  Nevertheless, it is remarkable progress, achieved through targeted support of the New Deal, delivered through Jobcentres, an extension of childcare and the general growth in employment.


The achievement is such that the entry rate to work of lone parents is now comparable with that of other groups.  Their overall level of employment is lower, because their exit rate from employment is twice the average.  Indeed, a third of parents leave employment following relationship breakdown.


New measures are now proposed in the UK to increase the requirements of lone parents to seek work once their youngest child reaches a certain age:  twelve next year and seven in 2010.  This is linked to the provision of childcare through extended schools, planned to be universally available at secondary school level by 2008 and at primary school level by 2010.


The UK Government argues that such measures are necessary to achieve the 70 per cent employment target, itself required to reach the aspiration of halving child poverty by 2010.  However, it is the subject of fierce debate as a departure from the largely voluntary approach of encouragement and support which has achieved so much to date.  NGOs are concerned that these proposals breach the principle that parents are best placed to choose whether their children’s needs are met at any point in time through their own employment or by staying at home. There are also concerns that the approach may be counterproductive, discouraging people from coming forward for the help they need to get into employment for fear of benefit sanctions.  There is also scepticism that the necessary childcare will be in place.


The role of business


Employers have a critical role to play in helping lone parents balance work and family responsibilities.  As we have noted, parents often abandon their employment when their relationship breaks down.  By offering greater flexibility during these periods, employers can help to retain valuable staff avoiding the costs of staff turnover, training and recruitment.


Demonstration projects, such as the Marks&Start programme operated by Marks&Spencer and One Parent Families can have a significant effect on lone parent entry to work.  The programme, identified as an example of best practice by the European Commission, provides work readiness training and work experience on employer premises, supported by mentors drawn from existing staff.  Not only is the programme successful in helping lone parents into work, but in retaining them in employment through the continuing support.


Marks&Start has been used as a template by the UK Government for a new network of Local Employment Partnerships between JobCentre Plus and around 120 major employers around the UK.


The role of the Third Sector


The Third Sector (voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises) are being called upon to make a greater contribution to public service delivery in the UK, particularly in areas such as the employment of lone parents.  The programme described above is one example of the type of approach that can be successfully developed.  New proposals advocate the greater involvement of Third Sector providers working alongside government agencies in training and placing lone parents in employment.   The foundation for these proposals, which is sound, is that JobCentre Plus is well-equipped to help lone parents into work initially, but not to help them stay in employment, This continuing support is more effectively provided by NGOs.


However, the role of the Third Sector is not confined to helping lone parents into employment.  It also has an essential function in advocacy, policy development and research, support, information and advice.  The National Council for One Parent Families has been fulfilling this function for almost 90 years, since its establishment in 1918 as the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child.  Recently, it has merged with the other leading lone parent organisation in the UK, Gingerbread.


OPF|Gingerbread provides information and advice to about 50,000 lone parents each year, either through its telephone Helpline or its web-based Helpdesk.  As noted above, the organisation helps hundreds of lone parents into employment every year.  It undertakes research and contributes to the policy debate and provides training, not only for lone parents but for the professionals who work with them.  It acts as a means of breaking down the social isolation that so many lone parents feel, through Gingerbread groups around the country, and it is able to channel material help to lone parents and their children in the form of discounts and donations from the corporate sector.  Most importantly, it acts as a voice for lone parents in public and policy debate.


Although the organisation is highly valued by lone parents, and respected by policy-makers, it appears to be a rare species at European level.  Despite very high levels of lone parenthood in many EU countries, Hungary included, few examples exist of equivalent support organisations elsewhere in the EU.


A Voice for Europe’s Lone Parents


Many of the decisions affecting lone parents are made not by local and national governments but by the Commission, European Parliament and Council of Ministers.  In many respects, this is appropriate:  EU level targets on employment, the Lisbon agenda, poverty and social exclusion, can only be achieved through pan-European action.


Yet, at present. there is no effective voice for lone parents themselves which can be heard across Europe.  There is no mechanism for coordinating the activities of organisations representing lone parents in each Member State.  Worse still, in many Member States no such organisations exist at all.  The range of services described above as provided by OPF|Gingerbread in the UK are conspicuous by their absence elsewhere, despite equal or greater need.


That is why this conference in Budapest is of such significance.  Not only does it mark the beginning of provision of such services in Hungary, but it also represents an opportunity for organisations to work together across the EU.


OPF|Gingerbread has been proud to work with Anna Nagy and her colleagues in helping to establish a sister organisation to our own in Hungary.  We have worked together effectively to bring these issues to the attention of the European Commission and Parliament.  Now it is time to build on the foundations already laid to ensure that lone parents and their children in Hungary have access to the services they need, and the voice they deserve.  And it is time that we strengthened alliances with other such organisations elsewhere in the EU to make sure that lone parents and their children really do have a voice that can be heard across Europe,