Should Lone Parents of Under 5s Have Their Benefits Cut if they Don’t Attend Government Courses?

A couple of days ago I started a thread on the discussion site Mumsnet. I had been following a debate in parliament which had cumulated in Labour MPs voting to cut the benefits of lone parents of under 5s who won’t attend government run “back to work” courses. My post was removed from the site, but not before it had prompted some debate.

My posting had said:

Labour to Cut Benefits for Lone Parents of Under 5s who Won’t Attend Back-to-Work Courses

On Tuesday the majority of MPs, including all but 22 Labour MPs, voted to allow the benefits for single parents of under 5s to be cut if those parents are not enthusiastic about participation in government run schemes aimed at helping address the barriers to work such as training, CV writing, help with literacy and numeracy and financial advice.

As I’ve just spent some time understanding what MPs did I thought I’d post here where people might be interested.

Personally I don’t think financial penalties for single parents of 3 to 5 year olds who don’t participate in government classes is appropriate. The Labour government, which supports the proposals, claim the measure provides an “opportunity for people to take responsibility” and that this is all about “trying to help and support this group of lone parents”. Providing appropriate opportunities, advertising them properly, and encouraging people to make use of them would be putting the emphasis on personal responsibility in my view. I think coercing parents to take courses with a threat of losing benefits if they don’t is a scheme with no connection to “personal responsibility”. I think help should be focused on those who need and want new skills.

I think it it would be good for the parent, children, the country and society for lone parents to get back to work when they feel the time is right. Support to overcome obstacles getting back into work needs to be available but I don’t think it’s right to coerce and blackmail people into taking courses when they might rightly decide they’re not appropriate fro them. Running the courses for those who don’t want them will be a waste of everyone’s time and money.

I’d be interested in others’ views; would you expect a Labour government to be taking an action like this?


The responses which I saw before the thread was pulled indicated a support for treating benefits for single mothers of 3-5 year olds in much the same way as those receiving Jobseekers Allowance; in that in order to continue receiving them people should be expected to agree to complete certain state prescribed activities. My view is that single mothers of under 5s are in quite a different position to the unemployed. One view which helped illustrate why this action was so popular with Labour MPs was that there are many who like to have aspects of their, and others’ lives controlled by the state, and don’t want, or value, personal freedom and responsibility. Other respondents didn’t see the requirement to attend courses as a condition of receiving benefit as an imposition, but as an opportunity. I’m all for offering opportunity, it’s the compulsion which will result in those not wanting the courses wasting time and resources which I oppose.

A number of those responding targeted my use of the phrase: “when they feel the time is right”, and argued the state ought be more prescriptive.

I agree with the position Liberal Democrat Steve Webb set out in debate:

Is it the Government’s view that lone parents with children of that age are simply too stupid to see the good that this engagement will do for them, and so need to be threatened to persuade them to take it up? If it was all so good and so positive for them, why would they not take it up anyway? Why do we need a threat to make them do that?

The Government are not proposing to “encourage”: they are proposing to force, blackmail and threaten. We have no problem with encouraging lone parents with children of three or four to start the process of becoming ready for work, but why did the Minister use the word “encourage”, not “force”, “threaten” or “blackmail”, because that is what a sanction regime does? It does not solely encourage; it goes much further than that.


I was surprised at Mumsnet taking down my post so wrote to them to ask why. I noted my request did not, as far as I could tell breach their rules, I wrote ” I’m sure my post did was not obscene, did not contain personal attacks and did not break the law. The post provided useful information and the question raised was being discussed reasonably and rationally when I last saw the thread.”

Mumsnet responded to say:

The thread was removed as a number of members had reported it as market research, which we don’t allow on the boards. We have a media requests board for those who are looking to gather information, whether it be for media, marketing or research purposes here:, which you’re welcome to post on for a nominal fee.

While the operators of the website are of course free to reject postings as they like, the possibility that the post was silently removed because it did not match their political viewpoint is concerning. In many ways Mumsnet’s actions reflect what often happens when a political point is raised in other contexts; an all too common first reaction is to try and shut down debate. In lots of places there is an unwillingness to enter into discussion about how we ought organise our society.

4 responses to “Should Lone Parents of Under 5s Have Their Benefits Cut if they Don’t Attend Government Courses?”

  1. It does seem fairly foolish, at a time of high unemployment, to be trying to force another swathe of people (largely young women) back onto the job market. It is possible, of course, for them to find “jobs”, as we see from all those young European mothers in the UK, many of whom have to work as a condition of keeping any benefit entitlement at all. Of course, the child-care arrangements that are made in such cases can be bizarre (eg couples working hours that don’t overlap, grandparents being brought over to the UK to act purely as unpaid child-minders, children left with friends on an exchange basis) and in some cases non-existent (babies taken along on early morning cleaning, toddlers left alone at home for a couple of hours). Surely there is a basic question as to whether this form of “economic activity” is actually of any intrinsic value to child, parent or society at large. The jobs we are talking about here are almost entirely low-paid and part-time. These parents are not going to be removed from a dependence on benefits, merely transferred into a dependence on more complex and unintelligible benefits (tax credits, housing benefits etc) with all the propensity for confusion, overpayment and “fraud”. In essence, it is another arm of the assault on “teenage mums”, which is so beloved of the tabloid (and other) press and their entourage. In the wider sense, what is really being said is that the poor should be made subject to enquiry into every part of their life, whilst the rich should be left alone to do what they want with their money. If anyone can explain what the Labour Party is doing on this side of the debate, I would be fascinated to know.

  2. I am a bit surprised that you appear to be accusing Mumsnet of acting in bad faith; perhaps their members really did think you were conducting market research. You seem to be saying that they removed your post for political reasons and then lied about why they had done so. Do you have any evidence to back this up?

  3. Phil,

    I’ve made all the facts I have public in the post.

    It may be there is a problem with the Mumsnet’s in that users are aware that any suggestion a post is market research results in a post being removed, so users are able to manipulate the site’s censorship / moderation policies to quash points of view they disagree with. As moderation is carried out silently on the Mumsnet site I thought, as I have my own site, I would republish my posting here in the interests of transparency.

    What their members did or didn’t think about the post isn’t relevant; what’s important is the action taken by those running the site.

    I have not accused Mumsnet of acting in bad-faith. I am raising the possibility that the post might have been removed because of the viewpoint expressed within it; and the fact a number of Mumsnet users took an opposing view. How Mumsnet run their site is entirely up to them; I’m just commenting on their policy and practice in relation to my own experience.

  4. I absolutely share your concerns about the Government bullying single parents in this manner.

    I would expect many of the mumsnet sorority would agree with you. However, their attitude to your post may be because they have had experience of being exploited by commercial orgs before. I imagine a group of mothers are a good target for all sorts of children’s products.

    With a name like Richard you are obviously not a mum — though if I was a mumsnet reader, I would welcome your support on this issue.

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