Cutting benefits for teenage mothers is a policy based on prejudice alone

The measure proposed by the 40 Group of Tory MPs will do little to reduce the welfare bill, while further stigmatising an already marginalised group.

While Iain Duncan Smith tours the studios defending the government's punitive benefit cap, other Conservative MPs have been busy dreaming up new welfare cuts. In a measure seemingly inspired by former social security secretary Peter Lilley, who denounced "young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue", the 40 Group of Tory MPs (so called because they represent the 40 most marginal seats won by the party in 2010) has proposed removing benefits from teenage mothers unless they live "with their parents or in supervised hostel accommodation". This measure, it says, will leave teenagers "in no doubt that teenage motherhood will not lead to an automatic right to subsidised housing and other benefits". 

As in the case of Duncan Smith and his "belief" that people are moving into work as a result of the benefit cap, they've no evidence for their claim that teenagers have children in order to claim benefits (as they concede), but they're prepared to allow their prejudices to shape policy all the same.

Before addressing the proposal itself, it's worth noting that the teenage pregnancy rate is currently at its lowest level since records began in 1969 (not a statistic you'll find in the group's literature) and that many young mothers already live with their families or in sheltered housing. But while the number affected would be too small to make any significant dent in the £201bn social security bill, the measure would cause much unnecessary harm. It would further stigmatise an already marginalised group that deserves to be supported, not punished. In addition, as Sue Cohen of the Single Parent Action Network, points out, the coalition has already made large cuts to sheltered housing. Is there to be new investment? If not, she says, the government "is consigning their children to even deeper poverty". 

Finally, forcing young mothers to remain with their parents contradicts measures such as the benefit cap , the "bedroom tax" and non-dependent deductions (which reduces housing benefit for those families with a child aged over 18), which are ostensibly designed to encourage families to downsize.  

At a time when Britain has no shortage of social and economic problems, it's genuinely dismaying to see the new generation of Tory MPs resort to attacking the same old targets.

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The 40 Group of Tory MPs said teenage mothers would have to live "with their parents or in supervised hostel accommodation" to claim benefits. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.