Lone parents and access to means-tested benefits

Issue 220 (February 2011)

Beth Lakhani examines the current state of play for lone parents claiming means-tested benefits and suggests some solutions.

Introduction

Since its introduction in 1988, Income Support (IS) has been the main benefit for lone parents. But the right of lone parents to claim IS has been eroded significantly in recent years. Whether a lone parent can claim IS depends on the age of their youngest child, and the Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008 amended the IS Regulations to successively lower the age of the youngest child for which the lone parent was responsible in order for them to qualify as a lone parent. The age has been lowered as follows:

  • before 24 November 2008 - age 16;
  • from 24 November 2008 - age 12;
  • from 26 October 2009 - age 10;
  • from 25 October 2010 - age 7.

But even before the final reduction took place in October 2010, the Government had announced further proposed changes in its June Budget.

Lone parents – which benefit?

The position depends in part whether the lone parent is already in receipt of IS or whether they need to make a fresh claim for a means tested benefit.

If making a fresh claim:

  • where the youngest child is under 7 they can claim IS, but are required to attend work-focused interviews (WFIs);
  • where the youngest child is 7 or over but the child is on DLA middle or higher rate care then the lone parent can claim IS as a carer;
  • where the lone parent is sick or disabled, they can claim employment and support allowance;
  • if none of the above or any of the other remaining categories of entitlement to IS apply, they must sign on as available for work and claim Jobseekers Allowance (JSA).

For lone parents already on IS, the same-age rules broadly apply, with provisions that specify the exact date IS entitlement ceases. Where the child has reached the age of 7 this January the date of IS ceasing depends on the date at which the child reaches 7 and the date of the parents work focused interview. Specifically:

  • where the child reaches the age of 7 on or before 2 January 2011 or is already 7 by 25 October 2010 entitlement to IS is linked to the date of the work-focused interview and will cease from the first day of the benefit week in which the next WFI is due on or after 3 January 2011;
  • where the youngest child reaches the age of 7 on or after 3 January 2011 IS entitlement will cease on the IS pay day following the date on which the child becomes 7.

A lone parent who could also qualify for IS as a carer, but whose entitlement as a lone parent is due to end can continue to receive IS as a carer provided they report their circumstances to the DWP before their IS ends.

Reduction from age of youngest child from 7 to 5 years.

It was announced in the June 2010 budget that from October 2011, lone parents with a youngest child aged five or above will no longer be eligible for (IS) (they may get JSA instead) and existing claimants will be transferred from IS to JSA from April 2012. We understand the intention is that the exact timing of IS ending will coincide with the time the child starts school.

Hierarchy of claimants for JSA

The conditions of entitlement vary according to the type of claimant so that there is variable flexibility allowed in relation to the labour market conditions and some variation in what constitutes just or good cause and when a person may be subject to sanctions.

The following groups are not subject to the full labour market conditions:

  • lone parents;
  • carers - modification to availability rules and good cause;
  • people who are disabled but who are nevertheless required to be available for work - modification to availability and good cause provisions.

Modifications affecting lone parents

The JSA regulations affecting lone parents have been modified on a range of provisions relating to lone parents including the general labour market conditions and rules covering sanctions and good cause.

The JSA regulations referred to below make no specific references to lone parents. The regulations refer instead to ‘a person who has caring responsibilities in relation to a child’. At present this will impact mainly on lone parents, but the Welfare Reform Act 2009 contains powers to require the partners of claimants with children to be available for work. This power has not yet been implemented and we do not yet know whether a change will be made to the regulations governing JSA or whether the principle will await the introduction of the universal credit.

Notice allowed

Usually a JSA claimant has to be willing and able to take up a job or attend a job interview more or less immediately. If you have caring responsibilities you must be able to take up employment within one week, and attend a job interview with 48 hours notice. For claimants responsible for a child aged under 16 these timescales can be extended, if you can show they are unreasonable, in which case they are extended to:

  • taking up employment - four weeks;
  • attending job interview - seven days notice. 1
Number of hours

The general rule is that you have to be prepared to take a job that would involve working at least 40 hours a week. If you are responsible for a child aged under 16 you can restrict the number of hours you are able to work if:

  • you are available for employment for at least 16 hours per week, and for as many hours as your caring responsibilities permit; and
  • you have a reasonable chance of securing employment.

You do not have to show that you have a reasonable chance of securing employment if the DWP decides that you would not satisfy this condition because of the type and number of job vacancies within travelling distance of your home. 2

When you are available for work

Lone parents with a child aged under 13 can limit their availability for work to the child’s ‘normal school hours’. 3 The special rules about children under 13 apply only to lone parents.

Treated as available

A person who is responsible for a child aged under 16 can be treated as available for work during school holidays or when the child is excluded from school, but only where it would be unreasonable for them to make other arrangements for the care of the child. 4

Parenting orders

If you are responsible for a child aged under 16 who is subject to a parenting order, you can restrict your availability in any way (hours, pattern of work, location) providing it is reasonable in light of the terms of the order. 5 You do not have to show that you have reasonable prospects of securing employment.

Sanctions

JSA claimants can be sanctioned in various situations, for example, giving up a job voluntarily without just cause, failing to take up a job opportunity or carry out a jobseeker’s direction without good cause. Some allowance is made for childcare difficulties when considering whether a lone parent has ‘good cause’ or ‘just cause’.

Failure to carry out a jobseeker’s direction/take up a job

When considering whether a claimant has good cause for failing to take up a job opportunity or to carry out a jobseeker’s direction, the decision-maker must consider whether a claimant who has a child aged under 16 has child-care reasonably available and, if so, whether it is suitable for the child. 6 Also to be considered is whether the cost of child care is prohibitive (an unreasonably high proportion of the income you would have received). 7 

Giving up a job voluntarily

When considering whether a claimant had just cause for giving up a job, the decision maker must consider whether any caring responsibilities you have for a child aged under 16 made it unreasonable to stay in employment, including what child care was, or could have been, available and whether it was suitable for the child. Also to be considered is whether the cost of the child care was prohibitively high. [footnote 8]

General comments on modifications

The changes focus on providing a greater flexibility within the JSA rules so that account is taken of access to suitable child care and the need for a parent to balance job search, working and child rearing without there being any harm to the child. However they do not meet the complex needs of running a family as a lone parent and as one case history demonstrates (below) it only requires a mistake and /or delay in the process of decision making on the part of the JCP to create distress and worry for the lone parent plus a threat to their financial situation. In particular:

  • hardship payments - lone parents are treated as being in the vulnerable group category so it is likely that they will be awarded a payment. However, they are not automatic, a claim is needed which then requires staff to make decisions quickly and correctly so that the parent is not left without benefit;
  • good cause for turning down a job - this includes no access to suitable child care and excessive travelling time to get to a job (including time taking children to the childcare provider). However it the onus will be on the lone to parent to show good cause and, if not initially accepted, they will have to appeal and rely on a hardship payment;
  • lone parents with a child aged under 13 can limit their availability for work to the child’s ‘normal school hours’ but this availability must continue during the school holidays, something which will cause real difficulty, and which is not fully dealt with by the ‘treated as’ provision referred to below;
  • a lone parent looking after a child during the school holidays or a similar vacation period is treated as available for work, but this is dependent on it being unreasonable for them to make other childcare arrangements. Again the onus is on the claimant to make the case but it at least recognises that insufficient suitable child care may be available;
  • the existing rule that a claimant may be allowed a week to deal with an emergency and this can occur up to four times in a year has not been amended to include the child’s capacity to deal with a particular situation;
  • the changes on ‘just cause’ for leaving a job are welcome as previously the case law had not had to address the question of the parent’s responsibility for a child, but again the onus is on the claimant argue the case.

More changes needed

CPAG and others argued at the outset that moving lone parents from IS to JSA was inappropriate. Quite apart from the substantial objections on policy grounds, it was obvious from feedback from local agencies about Jobcentre Plus that exposing lone parents to labour market rules and sanctions would leave some families without their benefit due to poor administration and decision-making.

In our submission to Social Security Advisory Committee consultation on the changes, we argued that the decision to award a hardship payment must be automatic and ideally immediate following the decision to refuse or suspend payment of IBJSA. We argued that the process should be made as simple as possible, that a claim should not be needed (it could be deemed) and that a hardship test condition meant the rules were inconsistent with the overall objective of reducing and finally ending child poverty.

A memorandum produced by the JCP in connection with the new regulations relating to lone parents suggests that there should be no break in payment of benefit to the lone parent but this ignores the fact that at present the hardship payment depends on the claimant making the claim and as the above case study shows, obtaining an interview.

CPAG would suggest that the decision to suspend or refuse JSA should be followed by an automatic decision to award a hardship payment of JSA. This would ensure that families were not left without their JSA and would make the system simpler for all concerned. We would hope that the DWP will reconsider the way in which this process is operated as more lone parents are taken off IS. Further that if sanctions for lone parents are part of the new Universal Credit, and we would hope they are not, that automatic hardship payments would be a part of that new benefit.

The rules also need to reflect circumstances in which parents cannot be available because a school is closed due to severe weather, flu outbreaks, industrial action and other problems. If schools are closed this should be treated as a situation in which the parent is not required to be available; it may arise at short notice and also make travel to a child minder difficult or impossible. Failure to attend an interview at JCP because of severe weather should be automatic good cause for failure to attend particularly where staff are also not able to get to work.

Cumulative care burdens may make it more difficult for the lone parent to meet the availability conditions. A parent may also have caring responsibilities to others (not constituting care to the extent that a carers allowance would be paid and thus access to IS would be available) and this combined with caring for a child, accessing childcare as well as seeking work may involve undue pressures on the parent concerned.

Changes to time limit assistance with housing costs for those on JSA and proposed reductions to housing benefit after a year on will in the future cause severe problems for lone parent. This changes ignore the fact that the rules about increased obligations for lone parents in do to some extent recognise that the likelihood of obtaining work could take longer due to the lone parent’s lack of past training or recent experience in the work place. At a time of rising unemployment it is unreasonable to use housing support measures as effectively an additional penalty because the lone parent has not found work, and a reassessment of lone parents’ obligations to seek work is required in the light of the current employment situation.

Case study

The claimant, Ms X, was unable to attend for interview and to sign on because of heavy snow. Staff were also unable to get into the JCP office. Buses had been cancelled and schools closed. Ms X phoned the office to explain and was told not to worry and sign on as usual on 15/12/2010. Despite doing this she received a letter dated 16/12/2010 stating ‘that a doubt has arisen about on your claim for JSA’ and ‘she may not have taken sufficient steps to find work for the period 2/12/2010 to 15/12/2010’. A leaflet ESL 48 about claiming a hardship payment was enclosed with the letter. An interview for the hardship payment was made on 20/12/2010 but only after the independent adviser had intervened. A decision was made the afternoon of the interview that there would be no hardship payment.

Again the independent adviser intervened contacting the Policy Office who suggested the problem was delay in the decision making process and they arranged a second hardship interview which the claimant attended. There was no record of the previous application. She was told that no payment would be necessary as the JSA had been reinstated and would be transferred to her bank account on Christmas Eve or the week after. No guarantee that there would be money by Christmas.

The adviser called the District Manager ‘s Office and this produced a promise of a counter payment on 22/12/2010.

This case, reported to CPAG recently, highlights the need for amendments to the regulations to take account of severe weather and the inability of claimants to attend for interviews. The crisis was averted but a great deal of distress caused to the claimant who thought she would have no money for Christmas and a great deal of extra work for the independent advice centre and the JCP staff. The case illustrates that correct and speedy decision making by JCP is particularly important now that lone parents can be sanctioned and left without any JSA at all. What would have happened without the independent adviser being there to press the case and ensure that the matter was looked at properly?

 


Please be aware that welfare rights law and guidance change frequently. Therefore older Bulletin articles may be out of date. Use keywords or the search function to find more recent material on this topic.

  • 1. Regulation 5(1A) Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996
  • 2. Regulation 13(4) and (6) Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996
  • 3. Regulation 13A Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996
  • 4. Regulation 14(1)(t) and (u) Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996
  • 5. Regulation 13(3A) Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996 
  • 6. Regulation 72(2A) Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996
  • 7. Regulation 72(2)(g)) Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996