No 10 Backs Plan To Force Lone Parents Back To Work

Downing Street is backing plans for an overhaul of the welfare state which would force single parents back into work much earlier than at present and make English lessons compulsory for people who cannot get jobs because they struggle with the language.

Officials are examining schemes in Germany and France where single parents with children as young as three are required to attend job interviews in order to qualify for lone parent benefits. At the moment the British system means lone parents do not have to attend interviews until their children reach 14.

John Hutton, the secretary of state for work and pensions, is in Australia examining the way church groups and the private sector are used to get people back into work and has spoken of increasing the duties on a lone parent to find work once a child reaches 12. But some in Downing Street believe that as childcare improves, it will be possible to reduce this, perhaps to the age of three. The current employment rate among lone parents is 57%, far behind many other countries.

Some of the plans are emerging from a government welfare review led by David Freud, a former investment banker, and due to be published in the first week of March. The review, looking at welfare over the 10 next years, is more wide-ranging than previously thought and has been embraced by Tony Blair.

Number 10 is also examining plans for the private and voluntary sectors to take over responsibility for finding jobs for the 4.5 million people out of work in Britain.

In addition Mr Freud is examining ways to encourage the private sector to lend money to pay for an expansion in the number of employment schemes. Contractors would be paid by the state, first to find an individual a job, and then for keeping people in work initially for 13 weeks, and possibly for more than a year.

Jim Murphy, the welfare minister, will announce today that benefit claimants unable to speak English adequately will be required to take language lessons or lose benefit.

Mr Murphy will say “15% of unemployed ethnic minorities cite language difficulties as a barrier to work. Potentially, that’s 40,000 people being denied the opportunity to work because they do not have the language skills to get a job”.