‘NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO PUNISH PARENTS’ – One Parent Families/Gingerbread warns

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A school worker with her child during national strike action in July against a below-inflation pay deal
A school worker with her child during national strike action in July against a below-inflation pay deal

Now is not the time to introduce legislation that will punish those parents who fail to make their way in a tough jobs market, warned One Parent Families/Gingerbread in a briefing titled ‘New work requirements for single parents’.

In Summary it says:

• From November 24th, for the first time single parents whose youngest child is aged 12 and over will be forced to look for work of at least 16 hours per week and take up jobs, or risk a 40 per cent benefit cut.

At present, lone parents on Income Support are not required to be available for work until their youngest child is 16.

The change means that this year 100,000 more lone parents will be added to the Jobseekers’ Allowance rolls.

• One Parent Families/Gingerbread believes this is the wrong policy at the wrong time: with the labour market and Jobcentre Plus under pressure from increased unemployment, we fear that single parents and their children will lose out.

Many will find local childcare provision is inadequate, and may be pressed to accept low-paid jobs that do not lift their children out of poverty.

The numbers of single parents ‘cycling’ from work to benefits and back again is expected to rise with the greater risk that families will fall into debt.

• Most single parents want to work when it is right for their children that they do so – 56 per cent already work (71 per cent of those with a youngest child aged between 12-15 years).

They value work not just as a route out of poverty, but because it builds their confidence and self-esteem and enables them to be a role model for their children.

The lone parent employment rate has been rising steadily in recent years in response to incentives and support to parents returning to work.

• But single parents also want to parent well and their family circumstances, and the needs of children, vary greatly.

Some families have just separated. Some single parents have experienced domestic violence. Some have children who need more attention and supervision.

One Parent Families/Gingerbread believes parents, rather than Jobcentre officials, are best-placed to judge when their particular child no longer needs them at home.

The briefing explains that from November 24th, lone parents whose youngest child is 12 will not be able to claim Income Support and instead have to claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) if they have a health problem or disability, or, in the majority of cases, will be asked to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA).

From 2009 single parents whose youngest child is aged 10 will be switched to JSA or ESA and subject to the new work requirement and from 2010 the change will apply to those whose youngest is aged seven.

Parents claiming JSA must attend the Jobcentre fortnightly, actively seek work, and can lose up to 40 per cent of their benefit if they fail to do so, or if they fail to take up a job which they have been offered.

On 24.11.2008, 100,000 parents are expected to be affected. On 26.10.2009, approximately 68,000 parents will lose Income Support entitlement. 121,000 will lose out on 25.10.2010.

The briefing outlines ‘the main problems with this approach’.

It notes that government adviser, the Independent Social Security Advisory Committee, recently reported: ‘Overall we have considerable reservations about the proposals, both in terms of their potentially negative impacts, and their potential to improve the situation of lone parents and their families, and to reduce child poverty.’

Also ‘For parents of younger children, this regime is untried and its chances of success rest heavily on support services that have yet to be delivered in the quantity and variety that will be needed . . .

‘we have noted the underlying tensions between government policies to promote greater personal responsibility for their children, and greater engagement in securing their health and well being, and policies that may have the effect of forcing lone parents to give priority to paid employment and the demands of employers.’

The Committee recommended that government ‘do not proceed’ with these recommendations.

The briefing stresses that lone parents will be entering a tough labour market, and Jobcentre Plus is under considerable pressure.

The briefing states: ‘Unemployment is rising rapidly: October’s unemployment figures show that unemployment increased by 164,000 over the quarter to reach 1.79 million.

‘Not only will lone parents be therefore entering a tough labour market, but Jobcentre Plus will be placed under considerable additional pressure.

‘Lone parents will be competing for jobs with applicants who may be more desirable to employers in terms of experience, skills and availability, and there are fears that Jobcentre Plus will prioritise those closest to the labour market at a time of rising unemployment.

‘Jobcentre Plus is already dealing with an increased workload, including the introduction of the new Employment and Support Allowance.

‘Last year Jobcentre Plus managed to meet only three out of its six key performance targets.

‘There are therefore serious doubts about whether it will be able to deliver the personalised support that has been promised as part of these reforms.

‘Suggestions have been made that legislation to allow flexible working for parents of older children should be delayed in the light of the current stress on business.

‘The stress on parents at a time of rising costs should also be recognised.

‘A lack of work at suitable hours was the most commonly cited barrier to work in a One Parent Families/Gingerbread member survey.’

The briefing warns that the regulations place too much faith in the discretion of Jobcentre Plus advisers.

The new regulations allow lone parents who cannot find ‘suitable, affordable or appropriate’ childcare to turn down a job on these grounds.

However, the briefing points out that a recent report for four children found that there was only one place for every 200 children aged 11 – 14.

Although government argues parents will decide on the appropriateness of childcare (including for parents with disabled children, or those experiencing problems at school), the onus remains on the parent to persuade Jobcentre Plus if the parent believes a childcare option is not appropriate – leaving the ultimate decision at the discretion of Jobcentre Plus advisers.

The briefing states that ‘government is basing its decision on when parents should be in paid work purely on the basis of the age of the child’.

But some parents feel that their child’s teenage years may be a time when they are particularly likely to need a parent at home, and that a parent is better placed to judge this than an adviser in Jobcentre Plus.

The regulations also limit the ability of lone parents to participate in education and training.

Thirty per cent of lone parents on benefits lack any formal qualifications.

But the transfer from Income Support to Jobseeker’s Allowance means that many will lose the opportunity to participate in full time education and training since JSA is not available to those studying full time.

The government plans to compel lone parents with children aged seven and under to undertake a skills health check.

The briefing stresses: ‘But this will be of little use to parents who separate when their children are aged seven or over and find themselves out of work, unskilled, and with no opportunities to retrain.

‘We are already hearing from lone parents worried about this situation.’