Government moves forward with increased conditionality for parents with pre-school children
More details are emerging from the Welfare Reform Bill: althought the Government has publicly stated that it plans to require lone parents with children aged 5 and over to look for work, the Bill contains measures which will place conditionality (conditions which are attached to a claimant’s entitlement to benefit) on parents with children aged one or more.
This development was first announced by the Secretary of State at the end of last year, when he stated that:
People who are looking after children that are over one year old and under five will be expected to be keeping in touch with the jobs market; they will be expected therefore to stay in touch with jobcentres, to come in every now and then to discuss with them what will happen once their child goes to school and how they can make that happen. We expect co-operation on that.
What is being proposed by the Bill appears to be a little more extensive than this statement suggests: the Explanatory Notes state that the Government are proposing to take powers to require claimants with children aged one or over to attend work-focused interviews and to require claimants with children aged three or four to take part in ‘work preparation activities’, which include activities such as (but not limited to) work placements, training courses or CV drafting.
In a way there is no shock here, this is what the previous Labour Government had planned to do and follows on from the recommendations set out in Professor Paul Gregg’s review of personalised conditionality and support. But it remains a concerning development, particularly in light of the current Government’s moves away from providing childcare and travel support for people who are mandated to participate in work preparation type programmes (for example, the Government’s proposed ‘Mandatory Work Activity‘ will not cover participants’ childcare costs, and young people on ‘Work Experience‘ will not, so I hear, receive any money to help with their travel costs, despite facing sanctions if they do not attend) and the large scale cuts that are currently taking place in Jobcentre staffing and services. The reality is that with less money being spent the scale of support that out of work parents are likely to receive will almost inevitably be far less than Professor Gregg envisaged, while the sanctions they will face for non-participation are likely to be far greater.
It’s a longstanding TUC concern that recent welfare reform measures – from this Government and the last – consistently fail to balance new responsibilities for claimants with the provision of new rights and opportunities, and measure provides more evidence of this concerning trend. Just as childcare support and Job Guarantees are being cut, claimants are to be expected to do more.
With fewer jobs available then has been the case for most of the last decade it also seems a particularly unfair point at which to further ramp up requirements on claimants. In addition, even before the recent recession the availability of appropriate vacancies for parents with childcare responsibilities was low. For example, in one survey of lone parent advisers the availability of part-time and flexible work was seen as the most significant constraint on enabling clients to move into employment, scoring higher than childcare and financial concerns. And it is widely recognised that much part-time employment remains low-paid with poor opportunities for progression: last year the Family Friendly Task Force acknowledged that: “half of all women working part time have previously held jobs requiring higher levels of skills or qualifications or more managerial or supervisory responsibility. Part time jobs are largely found in a limited number of sectors and often involve positions which are lower paid….This is a huge loss to the economy and results in inequality in the workplace. ” There are still far too few meaningful flexible job opportunities for parents balancing work and care, not to mention a lack of affordable and accessible good quality childcare and forthcoming Government cuts in childcare support for working parents: introducing increased conditionality now is simply unjustifiable.
Importantly, it is not only lone parents who will be facing these requirements. As Declan Gaffney has noted, the intention appears to be to place conditions on the ‘lead carer’ whether she (or he) is a lone parent or in a couple. DWP estimate that “there are 282,000 couples with children claiming JSA, IS, IB and ESA and 117,000 couples claiming IS, IB and ESA who are likely to see changes in their conditionality regime” as a result of this change.
And it also appears – as this impact assessment states – that this conditionality is being extended to couple families where one member of the household is already working. This change would be particularly significant. It would essentially mean that no one could expect to be able to choose to stay at home to care for young children without state interference unless they are well enough off not to recieve any state support (which, even under the less generous UC rules for in-work support, will probably mean a household earning over median income).
There is a strong moral judgement about families’ choices being made here – and not one that would necessarily have been expected from a Conservative Government or one that British society is ready for. Is it really fair to say that the only adults who can choose to be stay at home parents are those with high earnings partners? While some parents would welcome opportunities to receive additional support to balance work and care, others believe strongly that their first responsibility as a parent is to care for their children. Recent research undertaken by the EHRC found that few parents feel ‘work comes first’, with the majority describing their working lives as organised around their children. The study also found that “some parents felt that that their choices were being eroded partly because of Government emphasis on getting parents to return to work, and especially if they were on benefits. Some felt that in encouraging parents back to work, most Government policies reflect a prioritisation of work over family life.”
The TUC does not have a position on whether or not parents of young children should return to work, but believes that as there is not yet a clear social consensus in favour of parents taking paid employment those caring for children should be afforded a choice. The current social reality is that for some parents the requirement to return to work will be a decision that strongly conflicts with their views about the best way to bring up their children.
Update: It may be that in-work conditionality only applies to parents working, for example, less than 24 hours. But this is not yet clear – we will not know more until regulations are published.