Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by One Plus: One Parent Families (SG24)

INTRODUCTION

  One Plus is the UK's largest lone parent organisation, although working exclusively in West and Central Scotland. The organisation has over 350 employees, deals with over 7,000 enquiries a year and provides vocational training for over 300 trainees. One Plus therefore has contact with many lone parents, the majority of whom are on Income Support.

  Consultations with lone parents, as well as individual casework experience highlights serious concerns about the proposals to introduce compulsory "work focused interviews" as a condition of receiving full entitlement to certain benefits.

  A "one-stop shop" approach to dealing with all benefits and reducing administrative complexity is a positive step. However, to combine this with a compulsory back to work interview and benefit penalties threatens to introduce an element of fear into the Government's Welfare to Work Strategy for lone parents and undermines the voluntary, positive nature of the New Deal for Lone Parents.

  One Plus would argue strongly that the Government's Welfare to Work Strategy should concentrate on:

    (i)  Supporting the three in 10 lone parents who already work full-time, to stay in work.

    (ii)  Offering the three in 10 lone parents who say they wish to take up paid work to gain accesss to training, education and employment.

    (iii)  Tackling the poverty and social exclusion facing the three in 10 lone parents who are not yet ready to take paid work and the one in 10 who will never move into employment due to ill health or disability.

    (Stats from Private Lives and Public Responses, Millar & Ford JRF 97)

  The introduction of compulsory work-focused interviews will not tackle the main issues facing lone parents on Income Support. Access to information regarding employment opportunities is only a small part of the barriers facing those mothers who wish paid work. Therefore to introduce compulsion and benefit penalties—particularly within the context of newspaper headlines such as "Welfare—the Crackdown" (Daily Mail 10.2.99) or "Ministers To Have Hard Line On Single Mothers" (Independent 10.2.99)—places Government policy on lone parents in an extremely negative context which indicates that the main obstacle to lone parents taking up paid work is their unwillingness to do so. This is not the case.

  There is a fear that lone parents who are pressured into looking at employment options may be persuaded against their child's best interests to take a job. They may be no better off financially, and the quality of family life deteriorates. Perceptions of what is acceptable employment can differ dependent on a particular standpoint. Employment staff faced with targets come under pressure themselves to achieve success.

  The Single Gateway caseworkers will have enormous power. They can decide whether a lone parent has "taken part" or "not taken part" in a work-focused interview which then has influence over any impact on benefits claimed.

  Compulsion may have the opposite effects to those the Government wishes to achieve. Children will be the main losers in any policies which add extra pressure to family life. The New Deal for Lone Parents will succeed if it is really designed and resourced to tackle the barriers facing lone parents, it is sensitive to the needs of children as well as parents and is based on choice not compulsion.

  The Government have in place a range of policies which aim to improve lone parents' access to employment—The Scottish Childcare Strategy; The Working Families Tax Credit; The NMW; Family Friendly Employment proposals and the New Deal for Lone Parents. The majority of lone parents who One Plus have consulted, argue these proposals needed strengthening. The compulsory work focused element of the Single Gateway will not achieve that aim. To support the case of a voluntary approach to the "work focused" element of the Single Gateway this submission will cover the following:

    —  Operational difficulties with the Gateway.

    —  Issues around lone parents not yet able to take up paid work and why compulsion would be a retrograde step.

    —  Lone parents wishing to take up training, education and employment and the barriers they face.

    —  Lone parents in work—the support they need to stay in work.

    —  Conclusion.

    —  Case Studies.

OPERATIONAL ISSUES

  Two major issues of concern arise out of the operation of the Single Gateway:

    —  Staff who operate the Single Gateway will require to be extremely well trained in the whole range of issues which affect a lone parent's benefit claim. It is, as yet, not clear how the New Deal for Lone Parents will fit into the new scheme. It is hoped that there will be no dilution of the service offered by New Deal for Lone Parents Advisers in that they are presently specifically trained in the issues affecting lone parents and on their needs in taking up work. In particular, reassurance is needed that a lone parent's specific needs are fully discussed and not curtailed because of pressure to process claims and place people in employment and training within the given targets.

    —  At present a lone parent's claim for Income Support, Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit and Child Support involves a huge amount of administration as well as a home visit from the Benefits Agency. If this is being compressed into a Single Gateway process, there is concern that there may be unacceptable delays in payment of benefit to lone parents who need support to feed their children.

  The Gateway pilot will need to monitor both of these issues carefully.

 LONE PARENTS WHO ARE NOT AVAILABLE TO TAKE PAID WORK AND THE SINGLE GATEWAY

  Compelling all lone parents claiming benefit to attend a series of interviews to discuss work prospects will be extremely detrimental to the well-being of lone mothers and their children. Moreover an element of fear is now being introduced into the Government's Welfare to Work strategy for lone parents, particularly for those women in the following situations:

Lone parents claiming benefit after relationship breakdown:

  Lone Parents in this situation can face a multitude of problems.

    —  Women may have been left with no money to feed their children. Speedy financial support is crucial. There is a fear that an extra layer of bureaucracy before receiving Income Support will cause delay in payments adding to family stress.

    —  Some women and children suffering domestic violence will be in temporary accommodation or in a refuge. To expect these women to submit to an interview to give information on work prospects in inappropriate.

    —  Lone parents, immediately after relationship breakdown, often face a crisis of confidence and depression comparable to the bereavement of a widow. An interview in such circumstances will achieve very little and cause extra stress.

Women claiming Income Support after becoming a lone mother through the birth of a child:

  Women who find themselves in this situation are often extremely vulnerable, whether young or older. In particular young lone mothers often need the support of agencies to enable their family to survive as a unit. To add the expectation that a new mother should submit to a Back to Work Interview seems at odds with the principle of the primacy of the welfare of the child.

Lone Mothers with Older Children:

  Lone parents who have older children can still face many problems and barriers. Children may be at school but many mothers feel because their children have had traumatic experiences they want to see them off in the morning and to be there when they arrive home. The logistics of organising employment which fits with children's needs in these cases is extremely problematic, if not impossible. Lone Parents who take up part-time work in such circumstances often find that it does not pay enough to support their family. To require a Back to Work Interview merely adds to family pressures and devalues the work mothers do in the home.

Lone Parents and the Hardship Trap:

  Very often lone parents who are on Income Support for lengthy periods are ground down by the "Hardship Trap"—years of poverty on Income Support, levels of which are unacceptably low. An accumulation of problems can cause extreme pressures on families—almost to breaking point. To add to this by saying only paid work can offer status that receipt of benefits equals dependency equals "something for nothing"—increases the stigma and exclusion felt by lone parents and their children.

  Lone Parents and children who live on Income Support do not at present have the security they need. A lone parent with one child under 11 years of age lives on £67.25 a week plus Child Benefit. This has to cover water charge, electricity/gas, food, clothes, and the costs of a child. The Family Budget Unit (University of York) estimate that Income Support is £24 a week short of a "low cost but acceptable" living standard for a lone parent and two children. Therefore the current rate of Income Support is not sufficient to prevent poverty and offer security to lone mothers and their children.

  Research by the Rowntree Foundation showed that one in two lone parents lacked two or more essential items of clothing, two thirds lacked personal transport and one in three had no telephone. The poverty of life on benefit therefore constitutes a Hardship Trap and creates a major barrier to training, education, or employment (Bryson et al Making Work Pay JRF 1997).

  Moreover, poor health is a major barrier to employment for some lone parents—three in 10 non-working lone parents state that their own ill health/disability is a barrier to work. A quarter of lone parents say that a child has a long term illness/disability (Marsh et al Lone Parents Work & Benefits DSS 1997).

  Policies which aim to tackle the poverty facing so many lone parents must acknowledge that while some may be able to achieve self support through training, education and employment, others need policies which improve their financial situation through high benefit levels and better resourced support.

 LONE PARENTS AND EMPLOYMENT, TRAINING AND EDUCATION

  Unwillingness to take paid work is not an issue among lone parents as long as they feel it is in their child's best interests (Noble et al 1998 "Lone Mothers Moving In & Out of Benefit, JRF). Younger lone mothers have an even stronger work orientation (Noble et al 1998 and Bryson et al 98" Making Work Pay, JRF).

  For those lone parents who want a paid job, the difficulties of combining work and sole care of children is a major barrier. The move into employment means trying to earn enough to cover the costs of children, childcare and other work related expenses from one wage. It means compensating for the reduction or loss of certain benefits (Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit, free school meals and NHS prescriptions etc). It also means sole responsibility for parenting, along with holding down a paid job. Lone mothers need both to work more for the same income as two parents and to spend more time with their children where the other parent is absent. That is why the recent cuts to Housing Benefit and Lone Parent Child Benefit for lone parents in work contradicts the aim of helping lone parents back to work.

  Many Lone Parents who want to work can't because there is both a shortage of jobs in the area where they live and high levels of unemployment. For example in Glasgow North nearly 50 per cent of all families are headed by a Lone parent and it has an unemployment rate of 22 per cent (Glasgow City Council Briefing 1998). Job creation initiatives linked to training in areas where Lone Parents actually live are neccessary.

Childcare

  Lack of appropriate and affordable childcare is a major barrier to employment. In May 1998 the Government published "Meeting the Challenge—Developing A Childcare Strategy for Scotland". The Green Paper outlined the Government's intention to develop a strategic approach to childcare development with the aim of providing affordable, flexible, quality childcare for all parents who required it.

  Childcare Partnerships for each local authority area would identify and plan new childcare provision. This would be linked into the New Opportunities Fund to develop new after school services and homework clubs. Coupled with this, the introduction of the Working Families Childcare Tax Credit would provide parents with additional income meeting up to 70 per cent of the costs of childcare.

  Welcome as these initiatives are, they are still very much at the early stages of development. The New Opportunities Fund will only be operational from April 1999 and will part-fund new provision which has to be self-financing in one year. The Childcare Tax Credit will not be introduced until October 1999 and not fully operational until April 2000. The Childcare Partnerships are only now becoming established and will take some time to become fully operational.

  It is therefore difficult to know what impact these various initiatives will have on the level of childcare provision, the cost and its take up. At the moment for lone parents in work or wishing to return to work, the lack of suitable childcare is still the most pressing issue.

  The present reality is that only one in 40 primary schools in Scotland have access to out of school clubs. This represents two places per 100 primary school children (Scottish Office Press Release 19.5.98).

Parental Leave

  Parental Leave legislation which allows parents to have three months leave for each child will only offer help to a minority of Lone Parents. This is because it is unpaid and will therefore only be of use to well paid mothers; unlike maternity leave parental leave won't guarantee workers the same job back; only those with a full year's service will qualify for parental leave. The lack of paid parental leave entitlement has been a key factor in the growth of poverty amongst one parent families—women have had to opt for low paid part-time jobs with little security or rely on benefits.

The New Deal for Lone Parents

  The latest report on the New Deal for Lone Parents Initiative shows the following results for the period between July 97 and January 99:

    —  Number of letters issued—163,383

    —  Interviews booked—52,618

    —  Initial interviews carried out—38,089

    —  Lone parents participating—32,013

    —  Total number of jobs obtained—6,262

        (Press Release DSS: March 1999)

  This means that almost one in four (23.9 per cent) of those Lone Parents contacted by the Employment Service agreed to attend an interview and one in five (19.6 per cent) agreed to participate. Of those participating one in five got a job. These figures may seem low in comparison to take up in compulsory schemes. However when one considers firstly the wide ranging barriers facing lone parents who want to take up paid work and secondly the fact that three in 10 lone parents do not feel it is in their child's best interests for them to take up employment, the New Deal for Lone Parents results seem to reflect the reality of lone parents lives.

  The New Deal for Lone Parents would reach even more lone parents and improve lone parents' employment opportunities by the following:

    —  Emphasising the voluntary nature of the New Deal for Lone Parents and avoiding any talk of compulsion and penalties. This introduces an element of fear.

    —  The New Deal for Lone Parents is a fairly modest proposal compared to the New Deal for Young People (£180 million compared to £3.15 billion invested). As with the New Deal for Young People, it should have:

<jf38>—A voluntary pre-employment Gateway

<jf38>—A job subsidy element (£60-£75)

<jf38>—A full-time education and training option.

    —  Evaluation of the New Deal for Lone Parents Initiative should include take up of training and education as successful outcomes.

    —  Avoid issues around the CSA, unless requested by the lone parent herself, as this will raise a barrier to lone parents' involvement in the New Deal for Lone Parents.

    —  Involving lone parent organisations in the delivery of pre-employment services for lone parents to overcome the barriers many feel about dealing with "official" agencies.

    —  Many lone parents are no better off in work. It will be necessary to tackle the benefits trap facing those who want to work by improving in-work benefits—reintroducing a lone parent top up Child Benefit and re-assessing the help given to lone parents in Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit to ensure they receive the same support with rent that is received by two parent families (presently lone parents receive less).

    —  Childcare must be affordable as well as available. Even with the Working Families Tax Credit, childcare costs will be beyond many working lone parents. Subsidised childcare facilities—especially Out of School Care—will be necessary to enable Lone Parents who wish to, to work full time.

    —  Family friendly employment conditions are crucial—particularly a right to paid leave to care for sick children, flexible working hours and supportive childcare policies. These should have Statutory backing.

ACCESS TO MAINSTREAM GOVERNMENT TRAINING SCHEMES

  Three areas of concern are detailed below, none of which would be resolved by the Gateway proposals:

The New Deal for Lone Parents

  The New Deal for Lone Parents doesn't have a full-time education and training option. This means that although lone parents on Income Support are allowed within the DSS rules, to take up college provision, the lack of a training option under the New Deal for Lone Parents affects the ability of training organisations to offer customised training for lone parents under the New Deal initiatives. Therefore, for example One Plus has provided childcare training courses funded by the New Deal for Young People but most lone parents are denied access to these because they must firstly be under 24 years of age and be on Jobseekers Allowance which most lone parents aren't! Many lone parents who wish to train as childcare workers as part of the Government's target to have 5,000 unemployed people trained in childcare/playwork in Scotland are denied access.

Training for Work and Employment Zone

  In both of these initiatives access is conditional on receipt of Jobseekers Allowance. This causes major problems for organisations like One Plus who use both these schemes to deliver vocational training (See Case Studies at the end).

Further Education and Higher Education

  Lone parents are often denied access to both further and higher education because of the lack of childcare provided for Adult Returners with children. The Working Families Tax Credit will not tackle this problem. It may in fact make matters worse as providers may feel forced to remove subsidised places for students and replace them with places for working parents funded by the Working Families Tax Credit.

  Moreover, lone parents entering higher education face major financial problems with taking on Student Loans, paying for travel and childcare and losing help with housing costs. Higher education is now being increasingly seen as a "no go area" for many lone parents.

LONE PARENTS IN WORK: ACHIEVING SUSTAINABLE EMPLOYMENT

  The transition from benefits to employment involves a major risk and a period of greater insecurity for a parent who must at the end of the day be able to feed her children:

    —  The financial gain from taking up paid employment is often minimal because "in-work" costs (eg housing costs) and loss of benefits are impossible to reconcile at wage levels available to the majority of lone parents. Those who have returned to work after July 1998 stand to receive up to £10.25 less a week in "in-work" benefits due to the abolition of the lone parent rates of Child Benefit and Family Premium in Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. The increase in the rate of under 11 year olds in Means Tested Benefit by £2.50 (November 1998) and the additional £2.50 Child Benefit (April 1999) for the first child doesn't therefore fully compensate for this major cut in Benefit.

    Moreover, those lone parents who already receive the protected Lone Parent rate of child Benefit will not receive the £2.50 Child Benefit increase to be implemented in April 1999.

    —  Research by the DSS on the income of lone parents in the New Deal for Lone Parents Pilot Areas who take up employment indicates an increase in income on average of £39 per week (DSS Press Release 98/265). However this figure is not a "better-off" figure. The calculation is based on DSS administrative records comparing Income Support with the new wage plus Family Credit. The researchers do not have data on in-work costs. The £39 figure doesn't take account of in-work costs such as childcare, travel, school meals, increased rent and Council Tax!

    Alternative research by The Policy Studies Institute showed that "on average, those working full-time and paying for childcare, clear £10 above their out-of-work incomes" (Estimating the Incentives to Work and Claim Family Credit. Marsh, et al, PSI, February 1997).

    —  Lone parents moving off Income Support to take up employment face extremely low rates of pay. Therefore being in employment doesn't necessarily tackle the issues of poverty and social exclusion. The average hourly rate of pay for working lone parents is approximately £3.60 (Leaving Family Credit; Bryson and Marsh. HMSO 1996). The introduction of the Working Families Tax Credit will be of help to some families. However for many lone parents who have rent and Council Tax paid for by benefit, the loss of housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit caused by increased income will negate the Working Families Tax Credit payments. For example, a lone parent in rented accommodation gaining £30 extra pay because of the Working Families Tax Credit will lose £25.60 of this in reduced Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit.

    Research by Barnardos in Bristol has shown that a lone parent with one child, working 18 hours and earning the National Minimum Wage of £3.60, taking account of rent and Housing Benefit, would be only £20 a week better off than on benefit. And this doesn't include the extra expense of travel and nursery costs (Hidden Extras: J Sims and O Gill. Guardian 9.9.98).

    —  Lone parents who are owner occupiers taking up employment lose help with mortgage interest payments. In November 1997, 84,000 lone parents in the UK received financial assistance with mortgage interest payments (IS Quarterly Statistical Enquiry, November 1997).

 LONE PARENTS WELFARE REFORM

  The welfare systems in Britain and the US are being changed in similar ways. In both countries Welfare Reforms are increasingly including elements of work-related compulsion and many initiatives favour using job-search programmes (work first) rather than education and skills training (human capital) as a way to help people from Welfare to Work.

  In the US stringent work requirements and time limits for benefit eligibility are now in place having signalled an "end to welfare as we know it". An individual family (one parent/two parent) cannot receive benefit for more than two years without working. In addition there is a life time limit, on to benefits of five years, "cumulative across welfare spells".

  In Wisconsin a mixture of tough work requirements and help with training and childcare, Wisconsin Works (W-2), has reduced the numbers on benefit by 75 per cent in just over one year. (Only women with a baby under 12 weeks are exempt). Behind the slogans a more disturbing picture is emerging, of vulnerable mothers denied benefits becoming so desperate that they are abandoning their children, either to grandparents or social services, of women turning to prostitution, of church hall basements overflowing with hundreds of mothers and children sleeping on aerobic mats, of those finding work losing it soon afterwards, of Employment Service Staff playing GOD with the lives of some of the poorest women and children in the US.

  The first survey of people leaving benefit in Wisconsin, shows that four out of five are not in work, and that they are 50 per cent less likely to be able to feed their children than when on beneift. Another study shows that of those who do get jobs three quarters are out of work again within nine months.

  Money may be saved in the short-term by forcing Lone Mothers off benefit. But if the effect on children results in damaged young people and adults in later life, the long-term costs could be huge—for social services, the penal system and the quality of society. "We are saving today but we'll pay tomorrow" (Pamela Fendt, University of Wisconsin).

  In the UK Lone Parents aren't being required to work. Compulsion is in a milder form. However the context of the Single Gateway is punitive as it involves a potential threat to Benefit.

CONCLUSION

  There are over 160,000 lone parents in Scotland with 270,000 children. Most are financially dependent on Income Support (over 90,000 Benefits Agency, November 1998) and are living on incomes most people would regard as unacceptably low.

  The first objective of any policy to tackle the poverty and social exclusion facing so many one parent families must be to improve the financial situation of lone mothers and their children. Undue emphasis should not be placed on driving lone parents into the labour market, creating a danger that those denied the chance to be full-time carers will become victims of stressful, low-paid, inflexible employment and unsatisfactory childcare arrangements. This would not be in the best interests of children, society's future.

  Full-time work is not an immediate option for many lone parents because of the needs of their children. The primary factors which motivate a woman's decision whether to work or not will be what is in the best interests of her children. Lone parents should therefore be exempt from the compulsory requirements to attend work-focused interviews, a move which doesn't necessarily remove them from participating in the Gateway proposal as they stand.

  The current proposals on the Single Gateway and the New Deal often assume that Lone Parents can simply improve their lot by entering a job market offering low paid, temporary employment which is not family friendly. If the NDLP is to operate effectively, more must be done to ensure that employers offer lone parents the type of employment opportunities that will truly improve their family's standard of living.

  Otherwise, the Gateway to the New Deal will become at best, a revolving door.


 
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