Lone parents and benefit reform

Issue 197 (April 2007)

Edward Graham looks at recent announcements and rumours regarding lone parents and benefit.

Introduction

Lone parents have already been a major focus of the welfare to work programme, but so far conditionality (i.e., making benefit entitlement dependent on attending interviews, attending training programmes, etc.) has been weak. If the proposals from the recent Freud review 1 are accepted, the idea that lone parents are entitled to benefits on the basis of their role as a parent will be eroded, and may ultimately disappear from the social security system.

Work-focused interviews

Lone parents are still, as they were when New Labour came to power, entitled to claim income support (IS) until their youngest child is 16 year old, but there has been a gradual extension of work focused interviews (WFIs). Lone parents generally have to attend a WFI every six months in the first year of claiming and once a year after that. Lone parents who have been claiming IS for 12 months and whose youngest child is 14 or 15, have to attend a WFI every three months. The New Deal for Lone Parents, is still largely a voluntary programme. There are sanctions for not attending and 'taking part' attached to any of the above mentioned WFIs. Lone parents claiming via Jobcentre Plus have to attend WFIs as a condition of receiving benefit.

The Green Paper 2 proposed that lone parents whose youngest child was aged 11 would have to attend a WFI every three months once they had been on IS for more than a year. Those whose youngest child was under 11 would have to attend every six months. Financial incentives also proposed a Work Related Activity Premium would be paid for six months to lone parents agreeing to undertake work related activity, provided they had been on IS for six months and their youngest child was aged 11.

The Green Paper's logic was that, when the youngest child reaches 11, the position of the parent changes: 'This group faces fewer childcare constraints than those with younger children, and it is reasonable to ask them to consider undertaking activities appropriate to their individual circumstances which will prepare them to re-enter the labour market'.3

It was claimed that, by 2008, half of all families will have access to school-based childcare, and by 2010, all children will have such access from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. all year round. With this level of childcare in place, the Government believes it is reasonable to expect the lone parent to look for work.

The Freud review

The DWP's recently published 'Freud review' 4 followed much the same logic but its recommendations are more far reaching. Freud recommends a substantial increase in conditionality for lone parents. WFIs should be held twice yearly for all on IS, and when children reach school age he suggests they could increase to quarterly. Once the lone parent's youngest child is 12 or over, they should no longer be able to claim IS and will be forced to claim jobseeker's allowance (JSA) and helped to find work which 'suited their child's schooling and childcare arrangements'. Claimants who become a lone parent when their youngest child is already 12 or over would go straight on to JSA. If the lone parent remained on JSA for 12 months they would be referred to a private sector contractor who would assist them in finding work and 'asses their support requirements'.

He proposes that these changes should come into effect in 2008, to coincide with the introduction of the employment and support allowance, and that when 'wrap around childcare' becomes available from 2010 onwards, consideration should be given making lone parents claim JSA when their youngest child is younger than the proposed cut-off of 12.

The Government has already begun to increase the frequency of WFIs for lone parents post Freud. SI 2007 1034 provides that from 30 April, lone parents claiming IS will be obliged to attend a WFI every six months. These rules to not come into force for lone parents whose youngest child is under 5 years until 28 April 2008. The regulations also provide for, in designated pilot areas, lone parents to attend compulsory WFI every three months if they have been claiming IS continuously for 12 months and their youngest child is 11, 12, or 13.

Next steps?

The Government welcomed the Freud report and is now considering its recommendations. Given that they build on suggestions made in the earlier Green Paper on welfare reform, it seems safe to assume they will be implemented by the Government at some point in the near future. Freud believes that his proposals can help the Government meet its target of a 70 per cent employment rate for lone parents, and assist in reaching the child poverty targets.

However, there are several problems with the report and its justification for its recommendations. Freud finds that the UK does poorly in international comparisons on lone parent employment rates. This is true, but he concludes that the main reason for this is the benefit regime, and the lack of obligations placed on IS recipients. He ignores the other issues, and he relies on simplistic and selective comparisons with other countries to justify his proposals. For example, he celebrates the achievements in the USA on reductions in 'welfare dependency' among lone parents. The USA has the worst record in the OECD on relative child poverty, its polices are extremely punitive (e.g., assistance for five years maximum and work activity can be required when the youngest child is 3 months old), and have in fact only delivered similar results on increasing employment to the UK.5

His comparison with European countries similarly focuses solely on the benefit rules and ignores the other factors which give them much higher employment rates for lone parents than the UK. Lone parents in the UK are typically younger and have less qualifications than their EU counterparts 6 and many EU countries have a long history of activation polices for lone parents and mothers, a commitment to full employment, stronger employment and maternity rights, more extensive social insurance benefits, and lower cost, higher quality and more easily available childcare. Addressing these issues might improve employment rates of lone parents, and may even improve the well being of children in the UK (officially the worst amongst rich countries 7), more than increasing conditionality.


 

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. Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work. CDS 2007. www.dwp.gov.uk/publications/dwp/2007/welfarereview.pdf
  • 2. A new deal for welfare: Empowering people to work, Cm6730, January
  • 3. A new deal for welfare, p. 57
  • 4. See note 1.
  • 5. Hills and Wadfogel, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 4, 2004
  • 6. Hills, Le Grand and Piachaud, Understanding Social Exclusion, 2002
  • 7. An overview of child well-being in rich countries, UNICEF Report Card 7, 2007