THE number of unmarried parents in Britain is increasing so rapidly that the government is being forced to consider radical new social and economic measures to tackle the problem.
The rate of increase is ``so fast,'' says Peter Lilley, the social security secretary, ``that the state soon will be unable to carry the financial burden unless new policies are found.''
Initial attempts to grapple with the problem, including what Prime Minister John Major calls a ``back to basics'' approach that stresses family values, have provoked sharp criticism from its Labour Party opponents and single-parent advocacy groups.
Under the current system, single parents can claim unemployment benefits and housing assistance, and the really needy also can claim ``income support.'' Conservatives say that Britain's welfare system has been skewed by the practice of giving single parents preferential treatment over married parents in the allocation of public housing, although such policies have now changed.
A leaked Cabinet document says the current number of lone parents is 1.3 million, more than 90 percent of whom are single mothers. The overall cost of supporting single parents is rising, Social Security officials say. In the 1992-93 fiscal year, the cost was 6.6 billion ($9.8 billion), equal to 8 percent of the total social security budget. The number of single parents claiming income support has risen by more than 38 percent in the last five years.
Compared with trends elsewhere in Europe, Britain's statistics are among the highest, adding to government alarm. Single-parent families account for one in five British families - the highest proportion for any European country except Sweden. British single mothers are also a heavier burden on the state than elsewhere. Only half of them work, compared with 90 percent in Scandinavia and 70 percent in the United States.
The chances of cool and rational debate laying the groundwork for the development of new policies have not been improved by emotional statements by government ministers and their Labour Party opponents.
At last month's Conservative Party conference, Mr. Lilley said in a widely reported speech that many young unmarried mothers had deliberately gotten themselves pregnant in order to be able to claim social security benefits. Single parents aged 16 or 17 can qualify for income support and housing benefits, whereas teenagers without children can claim neither.
Lilley's remarks were warmly applauded by party delegates but earned him a sharp rebuke by John Smith, the Labour Party leader, who said the government was deliberately targeting ``some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society.''