From the TUC

Single parents’ experience of welfare reform

26 Oct 2009, by Guest in Society & Welfare

From today 68,000 lone parents are losing their entitlement to Income Support (IS). Parents whose youngest child is aged 10 or 11 will be moved onto Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or ESA over the next few months. In 2010, the age limit will reduce down again so that by the end of the reforms, all parents whose children are seven or over will have to look for work as a condition of benefit receipt. The changes are part of Government’s wider welfare reforms and also part of the attempt to reduce child poverty by getting more lone parents into employment.

The parents affected from today are the second wave to be moved off Income Support. Over the last year, about 100,000 single parents whose youngest child was between 12 and 15 were moved onto JSA. Gingerbread has just published qualitative research with some of these parents which has produced some useful insights into parents’ experiences of the JSA regime.

We found that many parents felt pressured and stigmatised by the JSA regime, and that fortnightly payments of benefits were causing difficulties for many families (JSA is paid every two weeks whereas IS payments are weekly). It was clear that many parents were not getting clear and timely information – for example, before the change many were unsure when exactly their benefits would switch, and some did not realised that once on JSA their benefits could be cut if they did not meet the job-search requirements, while others thought that JSA might be time-limited and run out if they did not find work quickly. Many of the families in the research had circumstances which meant that paid work especially difficult to find or retain – some parents had physical or mental health problems, some had children with health or behavioural issues, and some had children who were having problems at school.

When the welfare reforms were introduced, the Government said[Single parents] will be expected to look for suitable work and, if necessary, acquire the skills they need to do so, in return for personalised help and support.” The experience of ‘personalised help and support’ varied greatly for the parents in our study. While some were pleased with the support they’d had once on JSA (often through the New Deal for Lone Parents programme), others said that they had not seen a Lone Parent Adviser, had not discussed training or their particular circumstances, and had had little support other than hurried fortnightly sign-ons. It may be that these parents are offered more support once they have been on JSA longer than a few months, and of course Jobcentres are stretched at present because of high unemployment. But many parents told us that they need more time and input from advisors who understand the difficulties around lone parents’ lives. Without support, trying to find work in a very competitive market can quickly become demoralising and depressing, especially in a recession. Pressure alone will not help resolve the diverse issues that make it difficult for many lone parents to work.

At Gingerbread, the largest charity for single parents in England and Wales, we are calling for:

  • Earlier support for single parents, so that intensive personalised support, rather than pressure, is available from the first day of the claim.
  • Clear information at all stages of the process so that parents know well ahead of time when they will move to JSA, what this will entail, their rights to support and how their treatment will change over time.
  • Recognition that single parents form a distinct ‘client group’ by virtue of their sole responsibility for children. Access to ‘lone parent expertise’ is essential and claims should have a clear lone parent marker on the Jobcentre computer records.
  • A clear commitment from Jobcentre Plus to allow parents to undertake training or studying so that they can move into sustainable employment
  • The individual circumstances and needs of parents and children must be considered by advisers. There should be more ‘childcare’ for teenagers which is tailored to their interests, to resolve some of parents’ concerns about leaving young people unsupervised.

We were very pleased to hear recent Government announcements that mean that lone parents with a child aged under 12 will be able to limit their availability to term-time and school hours, and related to this, the establishment of a new task-force to look at ways to boost the number of jobs offered part-time.

We were also pleased to hear that lone parents moving onto JSA will now be guaranteed a meeting with an NDLP adviser within the first two weeks of their claim, and we hope that this will mean early personalised support for the next parents to move onto JSA.

GUEST POST: Vicki Peacey is Research and Policy Officer at Gingerbread, and the author of today’s report ‘Signing on and stepping up? Single parents’ experience of welfare reform’. Gingerbread works for and with single parents in England and Wales.