Previous generations treated unmarried mothers and their children in a needlessly harsh manner. Many such women were forced into workhouses, and some even placed in mental institutions on the grounds that they were 'mentally deficient'. Their babies were stigmatised as 'illegitimate' thus visiting the 'sins' of their parents onto their blameless children. In the immediate post war period some humane measures to reform this situation were introduced. For example, from 1947 illegitimate children could conceal their parents’ unmarried status by means of a 'short' birth certificate, and the 1959 Legitimacy Act granted legitimacy to children in some situations where the parents married after their birth.
It is interesting to see how the leading charity in this area has changed its values over the years. The National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child was formed in 1918 as a result of the rise in babies born out of wedlock during the First World War. The death rate for such babies was double that for those born to married couples. The early work of the National Council concentrated on managing and funding homes where unmarried mothers and children could live together. They also campaigned to fight the stigma of illegitimacy. After the Second World War the main priority was to place children into adoption, then rightly seen as much the best solution for raising children born to single mothers.
Until the 1960s the National Council never condoned unmarried motherhood. But the emphasis was soon to change since, by 1968, the Society started advocating that unmarried mothers and their children should be accepted as integrated members of the community. At this time, because of the growth in marital breakdown, there was a large rise in divorced or separated women bringing up children on their own. As a result, the National Council expanded its role to enable it to bring single parent divorcees within its remit. This decision led to a change of name in 1973 to the National Council for One Parent Families. Thus the National Council transformed itself from a campaigning body that implicitly condemned unmarried motherhood to one that championed such a state as the equal of marriage.
The most striking feature of the National Council’s current policy position is that it appears happy to accept that single parenting will continue at the current high level (over 1.8 million) indefinitely and that nothing can, or even should, be done to prevent parents from getting themselves into this situation in the first place. This defeatism is summed up in the injunction to 'recognise that lone parenthood is now a stage in the life-cycle that many children will go through'. One of the National Council’s main goals is to 'recognise the diversity of family structure in public policy making and acknowledge the successes of one-parent families'. In other words it believes, as an article of faith against all the evidence, that single parenting is just as good as parenting by married couples. Moreover, by also campaigning for more generous state funding for single parents, it seeks to ensure that they remain locked into the dependency culture, and that others are not deterred from taking this route in the future. It is disturbing to note that the National Council has changed from a position of trying to prevent births outside marriage, to one in which it 'recognises that families come in all shapes and sizes and we believe that the diversity of family life should be celebrated'. In promoting this kind of dangerous cant the National Council neatly encapsulates the malignity that is the inevitable consequence of the politically correct takeover of our institutions.
The difficulties of single parenting are not confined to the raising of children, since in the majority of cases there are likely also to be financial problems. Families that stay together are largely self supporting but single mothers, particularly those with young children, are disproportionately dependent on state funded income support, since they are less likely to be in work. Thus the breakdown of marriage also places burdens on those who stay together, since they have to pay for the benefits through increased taxation. This was the motivation for the establishment of the Child Support Agency (CSA) by the Conservative government in 1993, with a remit to pursue absent parents (overwhelmingly fathers) to ensure that they provided more financial support for their children, and to save public money by reducing dependence on state benefits.
Before the CSA was established less than a third of all lone parents were in receipt of maintenance and, of those who did receive it, only a relatively small proportion of payments covered the real costs incurred by the caring parent, usually the mother. Since its inception the CSA encountered numerous problems, which became so intractable that the Blair Government decided to replace it. The CSA also alienated many of those whom it was supposed to help without achieving any obvious cost savings or support for the institution of marriage. The hope that parental responsibility would be restored was not achieved. In reality it was only considered necessary to create a body such as the CSA because of the huge rise in marital breakdown, providing further evidence of the cost of this malaise to society. A much simplified procedure is now in place under the Government's Child Maintenance Service.