Select Committee on Social Security Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the National Council for One Parent Families

Executive Summary

The Idea of a Gateway

The idea of a single gateway to benefits is a good one, aiming as it does to simplify access to the benefits system for the often bemused claimant. However, introducing a compulsory, work-focused interview as a precursor to any major benefit claim is an unwise move which may prove counterproductive. Research shows that most lone parents wish to work when their circumstances make it possible to combine this with the demands of being the sole full-time parent. The National Council for One Parent Families spent years devising initiatives to help lone parents into work, long before government started to do so. That experience, supported by a significant body of research, demonstrates that there are a number of serious barriers to lone parents working. Since the problem is rarely simply one of disinclination, the best way to increase lone participation in the labour force is to assist them in overcoming those barriers, the New Deal for Lone Parents (NDLP) has made a good start in this respect but we are concerned that the Single Gateway could serve to undermine the NDLP by creating mistrust in those it seeks to serve. When the Gateway was announced, many lone parents called our helpline, fearful that the New Deal was being changed to force them into work. We could only reassure the ones who called us.

Rights and Responsibilities

The Single Gateway is underpinned by the ethos of "rights and responsibilities". The unemployed citizen wishing to claim benefits has the right to the help the Gateway can offer but has in return a responsibility to do all he or she can to become economically independent. In other words, there is a moral imperative to seek paid work. However, one must question how this applies to lone parents. Is it the government's view that any lone parent on benefit has a moral obligation to get out to work, even if no legal obligation exists? Does this apply irrespective of circumstances or the age of their children? Although we believe strongly in helping lone parents into work when they are ready for it, their first priority is to be good parents and there are times when it is impossible to combine this with paid work. Very few people set out to be lone parents. Two thirds of lone parents were married and most of the rest were cohabiting at the birth of their child. Typically lone parents do not remain on benefit for a lifetime but they should be entitled to make a claim when a major life event has befallen them, without being made to feel guilty for being temporarily out of the workforce. If the government pushes (even by exhortation) all lone parents towards paid work they will be sending the message that paid work is more important than their role as parents. At a time when the government is promoting the importance of parenting, this would be regrettable.

Timing is Everything

In the Single Gateway, new claimants must have a work-focused interview within three days of making a benefit claim. While this urgency may have merit if a claimant (including a lone parent) has just lost his or her job, it is rather less useful if the claim has arisen because the person has just become a lone parent All routes into lone parenthood—childbirth, divorce, separation and bereavement—are intrinsically traumatic. If a woman gets home one day to find that her husband or partner has left her, her life has changed forever. Her priority will be to get some money to feed her children that week and she is unlikely to be in the most productive mindset for a chat with a well-meaning official about how quickly she can become economically active again. Although the advisors will be able to delay a work-focused interview, this is entirely at their discretion and the lone parent has no right to a deferral, except possibly in cases of bereavement. Even if only a tiny number of inappropriate decisions are made, that will still leave a number of new lone parents without enough money to look after their children. We strongly recommend that nobody be forced into such an interview within three months of becoming a lone parent.

 1. #Introduction—Campaigning for 80 years

Since 1918, the National Council for One Parent Families (NCOPF) has been a unique national centre of expertise on lone parenthood. Throughout out history, the organisation has been dedicated to campaigning for equality of opportunity for one parent families and tackling the exclusion, poverty and prejudice they so often face. There are currently about 1.7 million lone parents in the UK today who care for approaching three million children.1 It is estimated that by the turn of the century, at any one point in time, nearly a quarter of children will live with just one of their parents and between a third and a half will experience life in a one parent family before they reach adulthood. Nine out of ten lone parents are women.

We welcome the opportunity to comment on the issues under consideration by the Committee. We have sought to set out some background information about lone parents in the Annex to this memorandum, their relationship to work and government schemes, their qualifications and the barriers they face in being active outside the home. Here, we consider the Single Gateway proposals and make some policy recommendations.

 2. #The Gateway to Work—Scope and Objectives

The single gateway was described in the government consultation paper as a way of making the welfare system "more focused on helping people to become independent, rather than locking them into dependency"2 and as a "far-reaching modernisation of the welfare system". Essentially, the Government proposes a single point of contact with the Employment Service, the Benefits Agency and other benefit providers brought together by a personal adviser to guide people through the options. The personal adviser will "help them plan a route back to independence, while also ensuring that they receive the benefits to which they are entitled". Modern technology will be used, including the use of call-centres, to speed up the process and increase efficiency. Two five month pilot periods are to take place beginning in June and November 1999 respectively and sometime after April 2000 new legislation will be implemented to make it a condition of receiving benefit to attend a "work-focused interview".

According to the government, new culture is envisaged "which puts work first" and "means a fundamental shift away from merely asking 'what money can we pay you?' to 'How can we help you become more independent"'.3 "rather than categorising a person as 'unemployed', 'lone parent' or 'disabled', we will treat each claimant as an individual, taking account of their own particular circumstances and needs." The idea is to move to "a more streamlined and efficient system in which there is a single point of access to welfare, and in which everyone who has the potential to work is provided with help to find it" and to prevent people from becoming "resigned to a lifetime on benefit".

For the National Council for One Parent Families, concern arises principally from the introduction of the compulsory work-focused interview, from the negative effect this may have on the New Deal for Lone Parents (NDLP), despite its promising start, and from the signals given that the gateway may result in the loss of a specialist scheme for lone parents to be replaced by a "one size fits all" approach. We examine first what the single gateway has to offer and the effect on the NDLP. Second, the work-focused interview itself and third we look at general issues about implementation and development of the scheme.

2.1. What does the Single Work-focused Gateway offer?

The general idea of a single gateway to benefits is a good one as it aims to bring together different government departments at the beginning of a benefit claim. The controversial area for us is the introduction of a compulsory interview. In our view the compulsory nature of the work focused interview risks jeopardising the New Deal for Lone Parents (NDLP).

We have been pleased, in general, with the progress of the NDLP although we have some concerns about the lack of focus on the longer-term objectives of improving income beyond low-paid work. In our view this is best achieved by placing more emphasis and investment in education and training and on job training, placements, on voluntary work and mentoring schemes. We are also aware of the significant barriers lone parents face when returning to work. These concerns were explored in some detail before the Education and Employment Committee last year as part of their Inquiry into "Pathways Into Work for Lone Parents". A copy of our submission is enclosed. We support many of the recommendations of the Report from that Inquiry. We believe that the NDLP, with all its faults has the makings of a very useful scheme.

By contrast, the Single Work-Focused Gateway (SWFG) proposal places the emphasis on the point of entry into the benefits system, on a compulsory first interview and introduces the possibility of repeat compulsory interviews triggered by key stages in the youngest child's school career (at age five and 11). Although no lone parent will be expected to take a job as a result of a work-focused interview, many are concerned that it does mean this, or believe that it makes the NDLP compulsory. We are concerned about this because we believe that there has not yet been any evaluation of the NDLP scheme. In the meantime promising results are being seen as a failure.

The most recent New Deal figures show that although under a third of lone parents who received an invitation letter responded, three-quarters attended the interview.4 More significantly, 83 per cent of those who attended an interview agreed to participate in the scheme. In other words those lone parents who went along to find out what it was like were impressed by the quality of personal advisers and were happy to participate in the scheme. This backs up the impression we have gained from talking to lone parents. Only 17.5 per cent of participants got a job. But this may reflect the availability of jobs, training and childcare places. We also think that it is right that the emphasis of the NDLP should not solely be on obtaining work. Training, education and planning the future are all equally valuable services to provide.

We anticipate that in time the word will spread around that NDLP is a useful service although further publicity will be necessary. The Government will argue that part of the purpose of the SWFG is precisely this—to require everyone to attend an interview, so that the same effect or "wow factor" will spread to more lone parents. However, we doubt that this will be the result. Instead, participation will be seen as part of a compulsory benefits regime and many will continue to avoid the NDLP or equivalent scheme. Also, the interview will be with a generalist adviser who may or may not have expertise in the needs and concerns of lone parents.

Lone parents do not typically remain on benefit for a lifetime, but they do tend to remain poor and this continues into old age due to the difficulty of saving for old age and inadequate pension provision. In Appendix One we explore briefly the difficulties surrounding paid work for lone parents and the reasons why many lone parents who wish to work find themselves staying on benefits for longer than they might wish. Other lone parents are convinced of the importance of staying at home with their children for a variety of reasons, including the effects of separation from the child(ren)'s other parent. Lone parents are not a homogenous group and each has his or her own view of the ideal balance between home and work.

We think the decision to prioritise unpaid caring work should remain the decision of the lone parent and it is not the place of Government to substitute its own judgement for that of the caring parent. Many lone parents report to us that they feel pressurised by the repeated public statements about the importance of paid work and feel undervalued as a result. For them compulsion to work seems around the corner even though this is not the policy proposed.

One lone parent writes to NCOPF: "Frankly I am appalled at the government's strategy for lone parents. I have a strong feeling of being victimised... I agree that women who wish to work should be helped to do so, and childcare/benefits will help many lone parents—but there is a distinct feeling of impending compulsion however carefully the government may word their literature. I strongly object to any kind of compulsion."

Another says: "Parenting work and the long hours that lone parents do are never credited or taken into account... paid work outside home [is] always valued higher than parenting. Emphasis or pressure is always directed at parents with care (e.g. New Deal etc.); absent parent frowned upon but doesn't get targeted as much."

One remarked that she had already been to the New Deal "before compulsion" signalling what many lone parents already believe which is that the single gateway makes the NDLP compulsory. In other words, we have good reason to believe therefore that the SWFG risks jeopardising lone parents' confidence in the NDLP.

4.0 The Work-focused Interview

"We will treat people as individuals, rather than categorise them as "unemployed", "lone parent" or "disabled"—labels that tend to stick permanently and do nothing to help individuals focus on how they can become independent through work." (DfEE/DSS, A New Contract for Welfare: The Gateway to Work, Cm 4102.p3)

The first stage of the SWFG will be the Registration and Orientation stage where claim forms will be issued and basic information provided. This is followed by the "work-focused interview with a personal adviser. There is then the option of further or follow-up interviews with this adviser. It is the Registration and Orientation Officer (RO) who will make a judgement about whether or not a discussion about work at this stage would be inappropriate or insensitive. Lone parents with very young children are given as an example. Depending on this judgement, an interview will be arranged, usually within three days.

If work is not considered a practical option in the shorter term, "the priority will be to resolve their immediate financial needs by establishing and paying the benefit to which they are entitled and identifying welfare needs"5. However, it is suggested that they will also "explore the alternatives to benefit", though it is not clear what they have in mind. The personal adviser assigned at this stage will follow up the question of future labour market participation "once circumstances have settled down". Thus a lone parent with a new baby or an older woman out of touch with the labour market will be asked to plan for a resumption of work in the future if not immediately. The personal adviser will provide personalised calculations presumably of projected in-work income and draw up a tailor-make plan of steps. Contact will continue if someone moves into work.

A question arises immediately about the future role of NDLP. Will it continue in its current form as a referral point for lone parents or will all its functions be subsumed into the SWFG? Presumably we will learn more after the pilots have taken place the results of which we await with interest and concern. We are also worried about the excessive administrative burden being placed at the beginning of a claim. Lone parents are currently required to have new claims visits from the Benefits Agency to check their benefit claim and also to deal with child maintenance applications to the CSA. This may involve an intensely personal "good cause" interview to establish whether or not s/he is exempt from applying for maintenance in those cases where the lone parent feels she or her children are at risk of harm or undue distress. It is going to be possible to carry out this degree of intervention and conduct SWFG interviews? If the two processes are to be rolled into one, where is one to find generalist ROs or personal advisers who will be equipped to deal with benefits, return to work, sensitive personal interviewing about child maintenance and have knowledge of return to work and labour market issues at the kind of salaries and Employment Service will be able to pay?

The Lone Parent Prototype scheme which has been piloting and integrated benefit service has already taken place in Camden and Lewisham and has shed some more light on this potential problem. The Lone Parent Prototype found that customers had reservations about an integrated service involving CSA issues. This was because of the negative associations most people had about the CSA, the intrusive nature of the questioning, the wish to avoid discussing painful and sensitive issues when putting in a claim for IS and the need for more time to reflect on these questions and how to answer them.6 Some lone parents felt they had been forced into making a CSA application, others felt very strongly that such personal information should on no account be made available to anyone who did not need it. Still others were concerned that it would delay the payment of benefit. This gives us a sound basis on which to urge caution about the burden placed on the SWFG and on the time scale proposed for the whole process.

Ultimately, we are concerned at the Government proposal to include lone parents in compulsory work interviews. We think that the Government should withdraw plans to target lone parents when they first claim benefit since this is usually a crisis point. Few lone parents claim benefits after losing a job, more often it follows the trauma of divorce, separation or desertion, leaving a violent partner, the birth of a child or bereavement. In any event, lone parents need time to recover and to prioritise the needs of their (equally traumatised) children. They need to claim benefit speedily in order to feed and protect them.

Most lone parents want to work at some point and the voluntary New Deal for Lone Parents has had a promising start. Introducing compulsory work interviews now risks jeopardising lone parents' confidence in the scheme Government must tread very carefully if it is to ensure that the best of the New Deal is not lost.

4.1 The Welfare Reform Bill—Clause 47

Clause 47 gives the Secretary of State regulation-making powers to impose a requirement to take part in a "work-focused interview" as a condition of receiving benefit and in certain circumstances as a condition of continuing to receive the full amount. This interview applies to anyone claiming income support, housing benefit, council tax benefit, widows benefits, incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance and invalid care allowance (sub-section 2). Failure to attend means that a lone parent will be treated as if they have not made a benefit claim while failure to attend any subsequent interview will result in a benefit reduction (Clause 47. New Section 2A(1) & (4)).

Recent Government amendments to the Bill have made the regime harsher by clarifying that the claim of someone who fails to take part in a deferred interview will be terminated and will be reinstated only on the receipt of a new claim7. Where benefits are already in payment any reduction in benefit will apply until a lone parent participates in an interview, at which point the normal rate of benefit will be restored. However, any benefit lost in the interim will not be refunded. Also, any claimant who fails to attend an interview at the point of claim will be prevented from making more than one new claim for benefit in the same calendar year. Assurance was given that termination of benefit would only follow three refusals to attend and until after a home visit has been made. The requirement, of course, is to turn up to an interview and not to take paid work.

Regulations made under sub-section (3) will prescribe who will carry out the interviews and the powers they will have to decide when and where they should take place, including home visits, and to decide when someone has satisfied these requirements. There will also be rules to decide whether or not a claimant has good cause for failing to attend an interview and what matters or circumstances can be taken into account in deciding this. Regulations will also ensure that one interview will suffice if claiming more than one benefit.

Under sub-section (6) of the clause, the requirement to attend can be waived or deferred or where it would not be appropriate or helpful to attend. In these circumstances the claimant will be treated as still entitled to benefit. There will also be a right of appeal against any decision that s/he has not complied or did not have good cause for failing to attend.

The National Council for One Parent Families will be looking for clarification of the circumstances in which attendance can be waived or deferred. Clear exemptions from the work focused interview should at least be set out in regulations and guidance. In addition and as a minimum, lone parents should have the right to be exempted from compulsory work interviews for a period of three months after they make a benefit claim. The Government should also reassure lone parents that it will never force them to work either directly or through repeated interviews at regular intervals.

5.0 Quality Issues

We are concerned that the focus in the Single Gateway will be exclusively or predominantly on getting claimants back to work in the short term. Many lone parents do wish to work but, as explained above, immediate employment may not be the best solution for them. Often a period of education or training will be necessary to get lone parents to a point where they can secure jobs which will pay enough to give them a reasonable prospect of leaving the benefit system altogether. This is only appreciated, however, by advisors who understand the position of lone parents and there is a danger in an undifferentiated system that lone parents will not receive the help they need and deserve. In a system as target-driven as the Employment Service, there is also a real danger that lone parents will be ignored in favour of other candidates—such as those without dependants—who will be easier to get into work. We are concerned, too, that a target-driven culture will push lone parents into work too soon or help them into jobs which are not sustainable alongside the caring responsibilities which even the government would agree should always take precedence. Our extensive experience of helping lone parents into employment and training suggests that a lone parent who is pushed too soon into a job which does not suit her circumstances will simply fall out of work and be deterred from re-entering the labour market for a long time.

We are also concerned about the ability of the Employment Service to maintain the quality of advice and support to be offered under the Single Gateway. The size of the SWFG undertaking is so great that quality maintenance will be a major undertaking. This is already an issue with the New Deal for Lone Parents but it becomes much more serious where there is an element of compulsion in place. If a lone parent has a bad experience with an advisor and is thus deterred from returning for a subsequent interview, under the SWFG she could find here benefit cut or cancelled. This is therefore a much more serious issue which we remain to be reassured about.

6.0 Evaluation

The importance of accurate, comprehensive but speedy evaluation cannot be overstated. The experience of evaluation of the early phases of the New Deal for Lone Parents does not encourage us. It would be helpful if the evaluation of the pilots could be completed in time to have an impact on the design of the finished product. We would also recommend strongly that the views of lone parents specifically be solicited in the evaluation process. In doing so, we would point out that the pilots will only be focused on new claimants. This will, therefore, distort the findings in relation to lone parents since it will be focusing on a group who have either just lost a job (making them arguably more receptive to work-related advice than average) or who have just become lone parents (making them arguably less so). Either way, they are untypical.

7.0 Recommendations

A: Compulsion

1. Work-focused interviews should not be compulsory since this change in emphasis will discourage many lone parents from approaching the New Deal for Lone Patents (NDLP). Many already (mistakenly) believe the NDLP to be compulsory and the seeming confirmation of this in the Single Gateway proposals risks jeopardising the success of the New deal project. If work-focused interviews remain generally compulsory, new lone parents should be made exempt from the requirement or at least granted an automatic three-month deferral on request.

2. Regulations should prescribe groups and circumstances when a Registration and Orientation Officer should decide that an interview is not appropriate or where the claimant has "good case" not to. Automatic exemption should be granted in these circumstances. These arguably should include lone parents who have recently experienced divorce, separation, the birth of a child, bereavement, domestic violence, abuse to themselves or any of the children living with them, where there is a child under five or in need of particular care and attention, or where the lone parent feels for other reasons that an interview would be distressing and unhelpful. (Only one example is currently given in the explanatory notes of the Welfare Reform Bill: recent bereavement.)

3. The Government should clarify further the circumstances in which a requirement to attend a work-focused interview will be imposed as a condition of receiving further benefit. Sufficient warning should be given, at least three attempts should be made to contact the person concerned and no penalty should be imposed if there is good reason not to attend, a child in the household or any of the above circumstances apply.

4. Warning periods need to be introduced if any benefit sanction is to be applied. If such a sanction is imposed incorrectly, or a parent was unable to attend for good reason or subsequently complies, benefit should be re-instated or the claim processed immediately.

5. Powers should be available to reduce or eliminate any sanction in cases where it is likely to result in severe hardship.

6. The first contact to any single gateway office or call centre should always be established as the date of claim and benefit should be processed speedily regardless of how long it takes to arrange an interview or home visit. For this reason we would argue that in any event interviews for lone parents should be deferred for three months as the benefit claim to support the children is the top priority.

7. Repeat interviews should not take place at frequent intervals or be used to repeatedly stress the importance of paid work.

Design of the Single Gateway

8. The Single Gateway should avoid any emphasis on targets or on simply reducing the numbers of lone parents claiming benefits. Nor should targets concern merely getting lone parents into low paid work.

9. The "agreed outputs" for voluntary sector or private providers should not be driven by requirements or targets to place a certain number or proportion of people in work. Outputs should arguably include quality targets on benefit maximisation, placement in voluntary work, training and education and should reflect the assessment of service users.

10. A decision should be made about how work-focused interviews are to fit in with the already heavy schedule for "new claims visits". Most lone parent new claims already involve a home visits to undergo benefit claim checking and in certain cases to carry out a "good cause" interview if s/he does not wish to apply for child maintenance.

11. Steps should be taken to ensure that lone parents receive equal priority to participants in the New Deal for Young People in access to vocational training provided by or funded by the Employment Service or TECs.

12. Detailed monitoring and evaluation of each aspect of the single gateway will be essential to form public confidence in the scheme. This should include detail of the types of decisions being taken by ROs and other staff.

13. Efforts should be made to encourage feedback assessments from service users.

14. Lone parents should be advised that they are not required to follow the advice of the Personal Adviser, the benefit entitlement does not depend on following their advice and that continued participation is voluntary.

15. The option of bringing a friend or adviser along should be offered and information on sources of independent advice and information should be provided.

16. Any travelling expenses incurred should be reimbursed.

17. Advice should be provided as part of an "entitlement and opportunity culture" with positive information and advice on offer, including benefits advice. Attempts to imply that receipt of benefit is "dependency", or that caring for your children at home is becoming "resigned to a lifetime on benefit" is counter-productive. Assessing immediate income needs should instead be the priority.

Relationship of the Gateway to the New Deal for Lone Parents

18. The NDLP scheme should be retained as a specialist service with strengthened education, employment options and voluntary work options.

19. Personal Advisers and ROs should be trained to offer detailed advice as to the financial implications of taking paid work to include not just the benefit situation, but to take account of the additional one-off costs of taking a job. These include, for example, lump sums for: clothes, travel costs (e.g. travel passes) lump sum retainer fees for childcare and up front childcare payments.

20. The National Council For One Parent Families has recommended to the Select Committee on Education and Employment that steps should be taken to introduce a range of measures to improve access to education and training and to provide improved finances to enable a return to study for lone parents.8 In addition, we recommended that the New Deal for Lone Parents could be expanded to include more education and employment options and provide greater direct assistance with the associated expenses.

The role of Advisers

21. Extensive training will be needed for Registration and Orientation Officers (ROs) and for Personal Advisers, both in the exercising of their powers and in recognising the needs and circumstances of lone parents, the emotional needs following on from relationship breakdown and in relation to the barriers to paid employment such as housing costs and childcare, education and training needs.

22. Help should be offered with travel to the office to attend an interview, if an interview is to be arranged at home then a time suitable to the needs of children and caring responsibilities should be established. The availability of child-friendly and accessible office environments should be investigated.

23. Advisers should be directed to encourage lone parents to consider education and training options alongside employment, particularly where their lack of qualifications and/or work experience is likely to make it difficult for them to obtain any but the most low-paid work.

24. In any advice given, proper account should be taken of additional in-work expenditure in any assessment of proposed income from work. Such costs need to be deducted from wages and benefits and include additional rent and council tax not covered by HB and CTB, increased childcare costs (including the 30 per cent not covered by the childcare tax credit), travel to work costs, school meals, clothing and meals at work.

25. Fast-tracking of the Working Families' Tax Credit and child maintenance payments should be offered as should advice on continuing Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit and Income Support for the first weeks in paid work.

26. The CTC should be extended to lone parents in education and training.

27. Strenuous efforts should be made to ensure that Personal Advisors operate within a long-term perspective which emphasises the importance of education and training; including education at vocational, Further and Higher Education levels. NVQ Level 2 should not be the ceiling.

28. Particular attention should be paid to the recommendations of the Education and Employment Committee Report, Pathways Into Work for Lone Parents, Seventh Report, Session 1997/98, July 1998 which made a number of very helpful recommendations.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 27 July 1999