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100 Days of the New Government: the Government Risks Failing Single Parent Families

10/08/2015 16:54 BST | Updated 10/08/2016 10:59 BST

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To mark 100 days of the first Conservative government in nearly 20 years, HuffPost UK is running 100 Days of Dave, a special series of blog posts from grassroots campaigners to government ministers, single parents to first-year students, reflecting on what's worked and what hasn't, whilst looking for solutions to the problems we still face.

The new government's first 100 days in government have shown a cabinet in a hurry to push through dramatic changes that will affect the finances and fortunes of millions of UK families for years to come.

The tone for single parent families was set by the government's decision to abandon the child poverty targets it had signed up to, and replace an internationally recognised measure of poverty with one its policy advisers have come up with.

Instead of focussing on how much money families have - which research shows has by far the biggest impact on life chances for children - the government is introducing its own 'life chances' measures. One of these measures is to track rates of 'family breakdown', in the same breath as other measures including drug addiction and debt. Not only is this deeply stigmatising for single parent families, it fails to tackle the underlying causes of financial poverty for single parents: low-pay, childcare costs, poor rates of child maintenance. It also fails to recognise that for some families, separating can be in the children's best interest. Growing up in a home where there's conflict between parents can be far more damaging than separation.

What matters to children's life chances is stability - which separated parents or single parents going it alone can still provide - and money, which is where the government's efforts should be focussed instead. The international picture shows that children from single parent families don't have to be at higher risk of poverty, as they are in the UK, and that with the right support, more single parent families can thrive financially too. Child poverty is a failure of government not families, especially when sadly for one in three single parent families work doesn't always provide a route out of poverty.

The announcement, that official measures will fail to track the link between how much money a family has to live on and child poverty, came just days before the Chancellor unveiled huge planned cuts to the support that millions of families rely on to stay afloat: tax credits.

While the announcement to cap tax credits at two children grabbed the headlines, by far the biggest source of worry for single parents was the changes to the way that tax credits will be calculated - seeing them withdrawn much sooner and faster as low-income families' earnings start to increase. Far from supporting low income working households, this policy will make it harder to escape poverty through work.

Our helpline has been inundated with calls from parents - already working incredibly hard to support their children - who have been thrown into financial uncertainty by the cuts announced and are desperately worried about how they will cope if policy announcements become reality. It is difficult to reassure them as so little is known about the impact of these cuts and the reality is that they will likely see their incomes fall significantly.

While changes to tax credits will hit many working families, single parents who are caring for very young children full-time were also in the firing line.

Single parents with three or four year old children will no longer be able to make their own decisions about how best to balance work and caring responsibilities. Current benefit rules mean that single parents can choose to stay at home caring for their children full-time until their child reaches the age of five, or to go out to work (which many do). But under universal credit, single parents will have to start applying for jobs as soon as their youngest child turns three, if the legislation is passed.

What's more, tens of thousands of single parents caring for their children (many of whom are aged under five) full-time will be hit by the new, lower benefit cap. The government's own impact assessment has shown that 59 per cent of the households who will be affected by the lower cap will be families headed by a single mum. We expect that around 40 per cent of all those affected will be single parents caring for a child aged under five.

With the cap lowered, more and more families in the south of England will find themselves caught out. Many will be unable to move in to work because there aren't any suitable jobs available, they can't afford the childcare needed or because their children are simply too young.

We're very concerned that, under the changes to universal credit and the benefit cap, single parents will have decisions about how best to balance work and family taken out of their hands. Many will be thrown into a system which is overly focussed on sanctions and getting people into any job, rather than helping parents find sustainable, decent jobs that meet their families' needs. In reality we know that what single parents need to move into work is tailored support, part-time jobs and affordable, local childcare, but we have yet to see a clear offer from the government that will address these issues. Instead, we are seeing increasingly punitive measures which force single parents to try and find solutions to huge structural problems that the government has barely begun to address.

The 30 free hours of childcare a week for three and four year olds will be a step in the right direction to help parents with the crippling cost of childcare - but much remains to be seen on the practicalities of how this will be delivered.

The government has used it first 100 days to set itself on a path that risks failing Britain's two million single parent families. Putting them at greater risk of being poor and stigmatised, and preventing them from getting the right balance between work and looking after their children in those precious early years. For one in four of the UK's families, this can't be good enough.

Over the next 100 days the government has the opportunity to change course, review the proposals it has put forward and set out plans that will genuinely support single parent families to a better future - they deserve nothing less.

How do you think Britain has changed since 7 May? Join the @HuffPostUK conversation on Twitter with #100DaysOfDave