It isn't difficult to see why the Government should be keen to cajole lone parents back to work. There are over 1.7 million of them and the vast majority (90%) are women, of whom only 40% are earning (compared with 63% for other mothers). Even a marginal shift away from benefit could slash billions off the social security budget, so it is no wonder the Treasury favours the idea: but what is in it for employers? Surely lone parents are liabilities, prone to take time off work to cope with childhood illnesses, school problems or holidays?
Not a bit of it, asserts the National Council for One Parent Families.
'They are tremendously committed to a sympathetic boss - not least because they have children dependent on their sole income,' says a spokeswoman. 'They are going to think very carefully before switching jobs.'
'Discriminating against lone parents doesn't make them go away - it just makes them shut up,' claims Richard Exell, a welfare-to-work policy officer at the TUC. 'If their child has a doctor's appointment or is ill, they're more likely to phone in sick for the whole day, rather than warning you before arriving a few minutes late.' As a result, he believes no employer can ignore them.
But, ironically, this very fluidity accounts for a general dearth of company policies. 'We don't have any policies specifically directed at lone parents, but do for parents generally,' says Fiona Cannon, head of equal opportunities at Lloyds TSB Group and a member of the Employers Forum for Childcare. 'The reason is they're a very disparate group whose membership is constantly changing.' And, although the Co-operative Bank has pioneered a home-working trial with productivity increases of up to 40%, it says the deal was not specifically aimed at lone parents: 'If people with family commitments can carry on working for us while reducing our occupancy costs, that's great,' says a spokesman.
Pat Corcoran, operations director at Opportunity 2000, points out that even traditionally male trades have potential problems: 'What if a big building company suddenly loses the person who is in charge of paying the wages bills across a couple of dozen sites because it fails to think about childcare?' As a result, while few companies have official policies on the subject, most are sympathetic. For example, Nuclear Electric was recently reported to have introduced a childminder's loan scheme when a new recruit turned down a job because she could not pay her childminder while waiting for her first pay-cheque.
This reluctance to take a firm stance is even echoed by avowed free-marketeers such as the Institute of Directors. 'We'd like to steer clear of this debate generally,' says employment researcher Tracy-Jane Malthouse. 'The only thing we would say is that the choice of whether or not to work must be up to the parent - the last thing employers want is a reluctant employee.' 'Perhaps the biggest potential benefit for employers of the current drive is in focusing minds,' says Corcoran. 'Rather than 'cold' recruitment, firms could re-recruit workers they've lost over the past five years, who should be quicker to train.'.