Ann Widdecombe: We are failing the women who stay at home to bring up their children

IF in our time there has been an assault on any great institution, it has been not on the House of Commons, but on the family.

I am talking about the record levels of family break-up and the record numbers of young children who are growing up in houses where the

parents have split, who are expected to split their time, emotions and whereabouts between those parents.

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But for all the many families like that, there are plenty of other

parents who stay together in a committed marriage, and who wish to bring their children up in a stable environment. I wish to draw particular attention to the plight – and it is a plight – of the non-working mother.

When a family decides that upon the birth of the first child, the mother – it may sometimes be the father, but statistically it is usually the mother – will stay at home to herself take on the full-time duty of bringing up that child, they are faced with a situation in

which they move, almost overnight, from being two people living on two incomes, to being three people living on one income.

Where that family is well off, that is not such a big issue, but for the majority of families that model, which many would like to follow, is now but a distant aspiration. There are many reasons for that, and it has not been helped by the prevailing social view that somehow there is something intrinsically second class about the woman who opts

voluntarily to stay at home and bring up her children.

While I have been in the Commons, I am pleased to say that I have lost three secretaries to full-time motherhood. The most recent said to me that she spends all her time trying to justify to her friends and contemporaries why she had chosen not to come back to work when the child was born.

The social attitudes do not help, but there are also massive financial considerations. As a result of property prices and the huge mortgages that are necessary, it is simply impossible in many families for one of the parents to say that they will stop earning.

Therefore, every shred of help that we can give to such families should be given by the government of the day. It is especially iniquitous that there should be such a difference between the support given to a family where the mother has decided on full-time motherhood – which is the highest calling, because those mothers are bringing up the citizens of tomorrow – and to families where the parents have decided to carry on working.

This example is given by Peter Saunders, a professor of sociology, who points out that "if both parents go out to work and put their children into childcare, the Government gives them each a 6,035 tax-free allowance, as well as heavily subsidising their child care costs. But if they prefer to look after their children themselves, sacrificing one income and forgoing all the child care subsidies, the Government penalises them by making the stay-at-home parent forfeit her (or his) right to a tax-free income".

That is one of the most scandalous inequalities that we have.

We not only fail to support the non-working wife, but we positively

pour support on those people who are existing on two rather than one

incomes.

The Government is wrong to have ignored this problem. Another

overlooked group are those I have always called the "forgotten decents". These are the law-abiding decent citizens, often but not always families – perhaps pensioners, a couple whose family has grown up and gone or single persons – who, because of a lack of resources, cannot escape from the environment in which they are trapped. I refer particularly, but not exclusively, to those big inner-city council estates where people have no aspiration but living a normal, unmolested life. That does not seem to be a ridiculous aspiration for a British citizen.

But those people often do not dare even to leave their houses or flats after dark because they would be subjected to intimidation, robbery and thuggery. They live with that prevailing fear.

Mothers who live on such estates have told me, and continue to tell me that before they let their children out to play – which should be a normal activity – they have to check the surrounding area for needles. It is in those areas where the law-abiding live behind bars, because they fortify their homes like Fort Knox.

Are those areas policed? The answer is no. The regular complaint goes up. "We rarely" – they do not say never, because that would be an exaggeration – "see a policeman".

There is no visible deterrent walking around these streets in the form of someone who could be called on by those who feel afraid. Money spent on policing those areas or bringing any other sort of hope to those areas would be money well spent. I do not see much encouragement for those people-the forgotten decents in the Budget.

I hope that I am wrong, but I have deliberately chosen in this, my last speech, just two groups of ordinary, decent people –full-time mothers who just want to be able to afford to bring their kids up and not feel compelled to go out to work, and those who live in terrible areas and cannot get out of them, where every agency shrugs and they are

abandoned by those whose job it is to look after them.

Ultimately, that job is the Government's.

Ann Widdecombe is a former prisons minister. This is an edited extract of her final speech to the House of Commons.