Work and Pensions Committee - Universal Credit implementation: meeting the needs of vulnerable claimantsWritten evidence submitted by Gingerbread


1. Gingerbread is the national charity working for and with single parent families. Welfare benefits and employment issues form an important part of our policy and advice work. Queries relating to welfare benefits consistently make up around half of all calls to our Single Parent Helpline. We provide information and campaign on key aspects of the welfare system as they affect single parents. It has been a longstanding goal of the organisation to ensure single parents get the help and support they need in order to move into employment.

Gingerbread’s response covers the following issues:

Proposed arrangement for claims and payments.

Provision of support and advice for claimants.

Proposed arrangements for the claimant commitment.

Proposed arrangements for sanctions.

Parent flexibilities.

Access to further education.

Impact monitoring.

2. In summary, Gingerbread is concerned that vulnerable claimants will not receive adequate help and support to complete their claims, either online or using the telephone service. Bearing in mind claimants could receive a financial sanction for errors, providing timely and appropriate support must be an essential part of the government offer to would-be claimants. In the absence of any regulations regarding “good reason”, we remain unconvinced that the claimant commitment will provide an adequate safeguard against the inappropriate use of sanctions. Further to this, the claimant commitment will not provide details of what Universal Credit recipients can expect from Jobcentre Plus (JCP) in terms of support, nor does it explain the parent flexibilities.

3. Gingerbread has particular concerns regarding the treatment of the parent flexibilities within the draft regulations; namely that the majority of the flexibilities which allow responsible carers to limit their conditionality because of their caring responsibilities are being weakened as a result of over simplification.

1. Proposed Arrangements for Claims and Payments

1.1 Making and managing claims online

4. The move to online claiming is a significant step change in the way benefit claims will be processed and managed. Out of all single parents, 94% have a computer at home (compared to 98% of couple families). 90% use the internet (compared to 94% of couples). However, internet usage varies by income level; the lowest income households are less likely (87%) to use the internet than highest income (97%). Similarly, social tenants are less likely to be online (84%) than homeowners (96%).1

5. For the majority of single parents, making an online claim for Universal Credit and managing their claim online is achievable. Recent research2 suggests that single parents are keen to receive more information and services via the internet.

6. Among the single parents who are members of Gingerbread, we are aware of the growing use of smart phones to access the internet. In a member survey in March 2011, 52% of respondents said they owned a phone with internet access, and since we developed our own mobile site we have seen a steady increase in the proportion of our web users accessing our online services through smartphones. This reflects a population-wide growth in access to and use of smartphones (and, increasingly, tablets) to access the internet, which is projected to increase exponentially in the coming years.

7. Ensuring that the Universal Credit claims website is fully mobile compliant from the start is vitally important to encourage the increasing number of smart phone users to claim online; particularly as for many claimants this will be their primary mechanism for accessing the internet. We think it will be of particular use for managing payments, for example updating childcare usage or informing JCP of a change in circumstances.

1.2 Moving to monthly payments

8. Research indicates that single parents may struggle more than other claimant groups to make the transition from fortnightly to monthly payments.3 We also saw this when single parents moved from weekly income support payments onto fortnightly Jobseeker’s Allowance payments (before income support also became a fortnightly payment).4 Single parents are more likely to budget on a daily or weekly basis5 than other claimants, and moving to monthly budgeting will be a significant adjustment for many when it comes to managing household finances.

9. Gingerbread is concerned that without adequate information and support prior to and during the transition to Universal Credit, single parents could run out of money before the end of the payment period. It is unclear at this stage what help there will be for claimants who find themselves in debt as a result of moving from fortnightly to monthly payments. In particular, what consideration has been given to providing grants to cover a shortfall when transitioning from fortnightly to monthly payments, rather than claimants having to rely on budgeting advances or “pay-day loans” which need to be re-paid?

2. Provision of Support and Advice for Claimants

10. There will be a minority of single parents who will struggle to make a Universal Credit claim online. Claimants with limited computer literacy and financial literacy will need to be supported to make the transition to online claiming. In conjunction with the introduction of online claiming a comprehensive support package must be put in place to improve the computer and financial literacy of claimants.

11. Those unable to claim online must not be disadvantaged as a result of using the telephone service. Information about their claim and award must be provided in a timely way that is in an easy-to-understand format. They must also be able to manage and update their Universal Credit payments quickly and efficiently using the telephone service. The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) preference of claimants using online tools must not have the unintended consequence of creating a two tier service, particularly as telephone service users may be more vulnerable and find it harder to engage with the claims and payment regime.

12. Comprehensive support and advice is particularly important as claimants may face a financial penalty for errors made in their Universal Credit application. Gingerbread does not believe that the threat of financial penalties is an effective way to reduce error. In our view, readily-available and appropriately-tailored support and advice for all claimants and in particular for claimants with low levels of computer literacy or those who are reliant on the telephone service, is a much better means of reducing error.

13. We would be deeply concerned if claimants were being penalised for errors, but were unable to access the help and support they needed in order to submit a claim with all the correct information.

3. Proposed Arrangements for the Claimant Commitment

14. There is a considerable amount of emphasis placed on the claimant commitment in the new Universal Credit regime. The information provided by the claimant in this document will dictate what elements of Universal Credit they will receive and the conditionality attached to their claim. Without any circumstances detailed in the regulations to protect claimants from the inappropriate use of sanctions, it will also (by default) form the basis of an appeal if sanctions are applied to a claim.

15. Officials have indicated that the claimant commitment will ensure the requirements on responsible carers will be appropriate. This presupposes that claimants will know what information to provide in order to ensure that work requirements do not impede their caring responsibilities. It also presupposes that JCP advisors are aware of the full range of parent flexibilities and feel confident in applying them to a claim. We know from calls to Gingerbread’s telephone helpline that JCP advisors are not necessarily familiar with the relevant regulations. The claimant commitment focuses on the responsibilities of claimants but does not detail what claimants can expect from JCP, nor is it the intent to provide an explanation of the parent flexibilities up front.

16. It is Gingerbread’s view that the claimant commitment should ensure that both responsible carers and JCP advisors are aware of the parent flexibilities. It should also be clear to the claimant how the flexibilities are being applied to their individual circumstances.

4. Proposed Arrangements for Sanctions

17. The draft regulations do not detail the circumstances when “good reason” (currently good or just cause) can apply and a sanction can be legitimately avoided. It is concerning that the application of good reason will be left entirely to advisor discretion and referred to only in guidance, rather than in secondary legislation.

18. There are currently two circumstances which count as good or just cause whereby responsible carers are protected from inappropriate use of sanctions.

Refusing a job offer or to follow an instruction from an advisor when there is no affordable or appropriate childcare available6

19. A responsible carer should not be penalised if there is no appropriate or affordable childcare available locally. Childcare coverage is far from universal; in England only 29% of local authorities report that they have enough childcare provision across the whole authority for children aged between five and eleven. This falls to six per cent in Wales.7 It is not within a claimant’s control whether childcare provision exists and this should be reflected in the regulations. As such, lack of affordable or appropriate childcare should be included as a circumstance under good reasons for non-compliance to prevent an inappropriate use of sanctions.

Leaving a job because of a lack of available and affordable childcare8

20. Working patterns and childcare needs (as well as availability) are not static, sometimes changing on a frequent basis. This can result in a responsible carer needing to leave a job because it is no longer compatible with the childcare available. Current regulations take into account circumstances when a responsible carer may need to leave a job because of a lack of available and affordable childcare. This is an important provision, but there is no comparable regulation in Universal Credit. Gingerbread takes the view that similar provision should be made under good reason, to ensure a claimant does not incur a payment sanction for circumstances over which s/he has only limited, if any, control.

21. It is unclear whether the overarching intent of these important regulations will be reflected in guidance. The parent flexibilities form an important regulatory framework which supports responsible carers into employment that fits in with their caring responsibilities. Increasing the amount of advisor discretion must be accompanied by greater advisor accountability. No provisions have been made for increased accountability for JCP or Work Programme advisors. Guidance, in fact, gives advisors more leeway to disregard a claimant’s individual circumstances because they are not legally bound to consider the substantive content in guidance. This is in contrast to when circumstances are stipulated in regulations, and as such advisors are obligated to take them into account. Reducing reducing regulations removes important safeguards, erodes accountability and transparency in decision making, and increases uncertainty for claimants.

22. It is Gingerbread’s view that all instances of good reason, including those that directly relate to caring responsibilities should be detailed in regulations. We do not believe that guidance will offer adequate protection for claimants or accountability for advisors when imposing sanctions.

5. The Treatment of Parent Flexibilities Within Universal Credit

5.1 Parent flexibilities—restricting hours for responsible carers with children aged 13 and over

Expected hours of work WR21 regulation 81 (2) (a) (ii)

23. The draft regulations allow for responsible carers to limit the number of hours they can work based on their caring responsibilities. This reflects current regulations. However, the draft regulations contain a condition that the Secretary of State has to be satisfied that the claimant has reasonable prospects of finding work. This will apply to responsible carers with a child aged 13 and over.

24. Responsible carers limit their hours because of their parenting responsibilities. Their prospects of finding work at a lesser number of hours may be adversely affected by the state of the local labour market and the availability of childcare, neither of which they have control over. Current regulations allow all responsible carers (with a dependent child up to the age of 12) to limit their expected hours of work regardless of how this affects their prospects of finding work.9 There is also an easement in guidance regarding reasonable prospects of finding work for responsible carers with a child aged between 13 and 16. We think this strikes the right balance.

25. The focus of this regulation is mis-directed at the claimant, whose parenting responsibilities are pre-determined and can’t easily be adjusted to accommodate for a lack of suitable jobs or childcare. It would appear that the individual claimant is being made responsible for external factors which are beyond their control.

26. It is Gingerbread’s view that regulation 81 (2) (a) (ii) should be removed, or an easement provided in guidance.

Work availability requirement: able and willing immediately to take up paid work WR6 regulation 87 (3) (b)

27. The regulation stipulates that a responsible carer should have up to 48 hours to attend an interview taking into account alternative childcare arrangements. The current regulations allow up to one week, which is reasonable adjustment when a responsible carer may need to organise formal childcare in order to attend an interview. Reducing the additional amount from one week to 48 hours is overly restrictive in our view. It is unrealistic to expect a responsible carer to be able to organise childcare with only 48 hours’ notice, particularly if they are solely reliant on formal childcare provision. Failure to find childcare in 48 hours could result in a higher level sanction for non-compliance.

28. The following regulations for single parents claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) do not have a comparable regulation under Universal Credit:

Limiting work search requirements when a child has been excluded from school;10 there is no affordable, appropriate childcare available during the school holidays;11 subject to a parenting order or contract12

29. There is no explicit reference to the above circumstances in the draft regulations. These make up an important safety net to ensure responsible carers are not penalised for non-compliance when facing difficult family circumstances or during school holidays. Dealing with the consequences of a school exclusion or complying with a parenting order can be time consuming and stressful. It is important that in these circumstances a responsible carer can focus on their family without the additional pressure of fulfilling work search requirements.

30. Finding and paying for childcare in the school holidays is a significant problem. Two thirds of local authorities are failing in their legal duty to ensure there is sufficient childcare available in their area during the summer holidays.13 Gingerbread does not believe that responsible carers should face a payment sanction for failing to comply with work search requirements when childcare is not available during the school holidays.

31. It is not clear whether or not these circumstances will fall under regulation 86 (2) (d) or 90 (4) (c) (temporary circumstances) and if this will be made explicit in guidance. Gingerbread takes the view that Universal Credit regulations should reflect current provision and that guidance will not provide a strong enough steer for advisors, or a strong enough protection for single parents.

5.2 Parent flexibilities—childcare element

The work condition AW13, regulation 28 (2) (b)

32. As drafted, this regulation excludes self-employed claimants from being treated as meeting the work condition if they are experiencing a period of sickness, and therefore ineligible to receive support for childcare costs. Without continuing financial help, self-employed responsible carers may have to give up an existing childcare place during a period of ill health. When well enough to resume working, claimants will need to find alternative childcare and put in a new claim for childcare costs. This adds an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and creates a barrier which could potentially delay a claimant’s return to work.

33. Current regulations allow self-employed single parents to claim working tax credits (including childcare tax credits) for up to six months if are experiencing a period of sickness.14

34. A self-employed claimant who is a responsible carer is just as likely to need continued support towards their childcare costs whilst unwell as other claimants. Excluding self-employed responsible carers may increase financial hardship during a period of sickness as in order to retain a childcare place a claimant would need to pay the full cost. We would not want to see responsible carers, including single parents, put off from pursuing self-employment opportunities which may best suit their work requirements—and meet their work aspirations—over the longer term.

35. We would like to see self-employed responsible carers included in regulation 28 (2) (b) to bring it in line with existing provision.

The childcare costs condition AW14, regulation 29 (1) (b) (ii); 29 (2)

36. This regulation appears to only allow support for maintaining the childcare arrangements in place from the point at which a claimant is treated as being in paid work. If additional childcare were needed under these circumstances, for example when a school holiday falls within an assessment period, the wording of this regulation prevents eligibility for further support.

37. We are concerned that the draft regulation is unduly restrictive and risks being narrowly interpreted by advisors. Childcare needs may change on a frequent basis; advisors must have flexibility to use their discretion and take into account a claimant’s individual circumstances. We have received assurances from officials that the intention behind this regulation is not to preclude support for additional childcare if required and that guidance will make this clear. However, we would prefer to see an amendment to the draft regulation to encourage a wider interpretation and do not think it is sufficient to rely on guidance to provide a strong enough steer to advisors.

Amount of childcare costs element AW15, regulation 30 (2) (a)

38. Regulation 30 (2) (a) stipulates that support for childcare costs will be further limited if usage is deemed “excessive”. The regulation as drafted appears to limit support for childcare costs to a claimant’s hours of paid work, or could be interpreted as such. In order for childcare to make work a viable option for responsible carers, financial help towards childcare costs must also cover travel time as an absolute minimum in addition to hours of work.

39. Whilst Gingerbread appreciates the need for appropriate checks and balances, we take the view that this regulation is an unnecessary burden on responsible carers who may feel pressure to constantly justify their childcare usage. There is no evidence that we are aware of to suggest that childcare tax credits are being used inappropriately. What we do know is that responsible carers are struggling to pay for the childcare they need, as costs continue to rise above inflation and support has been cut from 80% to 70%. In a survey15 of parents by Save the Children and Daycare Trust, a quarter said that childcare costs have caused them to get into debt and a quarter of parents in severe poverty have given up work or turned down a job because of high childcare costs. Gingerbread takes the view that it is highly unlikely that responsible carers are going to abuse the childcare element.

40. The example given by officials is a claimant working for two hours a week and claiming 35 hours a week childcare. This is a highly unrealistic scenario bearing in mind the cap on maximum amounts and that a claimant would still be paying 30% of the costs. Whilst some claimants might use a little more childcare than their working hours and travel time, there could be a variety of reasons for this including attending a college course, going to an appointment or caring for another family member. It is difficult to see how these examples could be viewed as excessive. Gingerbread takes the view that this regulation is unwarranted and overly intrusive, and would prefer to see potential abuses of the childcare element dealt with by other means.

41. When Lone Parent Obligations (requiring single parents to move from income support to jobseeker’s allowance in successive waves, depending on the age of their youngest child) were first introduced in 2008, it was explicitly part of the government’s approach that a comprehensive set of parent flexibilities were clearly set out in regulations, to allow single parents to balance work requirements with their caring responsibilities.

6. Access to Further Education for Responsible Carers Subject to All Work-Related Requirements

6.1 Meaning of “receiving education” EN7 regulation (10) (4)

42. This regulation restricts a claimant from accessing education or training which the Secretary of State considers incompatible with expected hours of work. However, it does not detail any of the circumstances in which this would apply. For example, does regulation (10) (4) mean claimants can only undertake education and training in the evenings (when childcare is difficult to source and more expensive due to anti-social hours); that claimants can only study for a very limited numbers of hours per week (limiting the type of course they could take); or that claimants cannot work and study part-time (for those subject to in-work conditionality)? This regulation will negatively impact on responsible carers trying to gain qualifications in order to enhance their job prospects.

43. It would also appear that 10 (4) is in conflict with 90 (3) (a), the latter ensuring that responsible carers in education or training will be treated as being in the no work-related requirement group.

44. Being in education or training is not covered by the relevant deductions stipulated in 86 (2). It is unclear whether this is because a responsible carer in education or training is subject to 90 (3) (a), and therefore work search and work availability requirements cannot be imposed on them, or because a claimant in education or training is required to continue to look for work for the same amount of time as his/her expected hours of work. The latter is problematic for responsible carers as studying in addition to their expected hours of work may be incompatible with their parenting responsibilities.

6.2 Circumstances under which work search and work availability

45. This regulation would allow claimants subject to full conditionality to be exempt from work search and work availability requirements if in education or training. Gingerbread welcomes the inclusion of this regulation as the opportunity to gain further education qualifications can be a vital stepping stone into work.

46. Access to further education prior to entering work is of increasing importance as responsible carers are now subject to full conditionality when their youngest child turns five. In the current system, their opportunities to gain additional qualifications have been eroded with loss of fee remissions (when in receipt of income support) and the application of the conditionality regime (when in receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance). Responsible carers claiming JSA have to be prepared to give up a course if offered a job or face a payment sanction, even when completing the course would help them to secure better paid and more stable employment.

47. The Universal Credit explanatory memorandum notes that the government is still considering the treatment of claimants in certain types of education, with wording to be inserted into regulation 79 (2) (f). Gingerbread has long held the view that responsible carers (subject to all work-related requirements) undertaking further education courses, including access courses, should be treated as fulfilling work search and availability requirements until their course ends. Regulation 90 (3) (a) appears to achieve this.

48. It is not clear how 90 (3) (a) relates to 10 (4) and 79 (2) (f), once drafted. We would be concerned if either the application of 10 (4) or the subsequent draft of 79 (2) (f) qualified 90 (3) (a) in such a way that its application was limited.

7. Impact Monitoring

49. Universal Credit is a substantial overhaul of the welfare benefits system. Its impact on claimants will be considerable, with 2 million households receiving less financial support16 than under the current system, and all claimants having to meet stricter conditionality measures. All aspects of Universal Credit will need to be monitored and evaluated over time to assess whether it is fulfilling the government’s aims and objectives and to understand its impact on the lives of claimants and their families.

50. Gingerbread is particularly interested in the impact of Universal Credit on single parents and how this compares to other household types. The following areas are of primary concern:

Financial hardship

Monitoring of applications for hardship payments including the number of successful and unsuccessful applications, reasons for refusal, type of hardship payment provided and in what form

Use of food banks among Universal Credit claimants

The level and type of debt incurred by Universal Credit claimants.

Long term employment outcomes

Support interventions provided by JCP and Work Porgramme providers

The effectiveness of interventions in helping claimants secure suitable employment and to remain in work.

Claimant commitment

The accuracy and effectiveness of diagnostic tools to inform the claimant commitment

The role of the claimant commitment in reducing the number of sanctions imposed on claimants

Levels of understanding among claimants regarding the content of their claimant commitment

Claimant knowledge of how to appeal a decision.

Parent flexibilities

Levels of advisor knowledge about single parents and the parent flexibilities

The application of parent flexibilities by advisors

The level of understanding of the parent flexibilities amongst single parents

The uptake of further education courses by single parents

The impact of greater use of guidance rather than regulation in implementing the parent flexibilities.

8. Conclusion

51. Taken together, the parent flexibilities currently available provide a coherent framework which enables single parents to find employment whilst continuing to provide the day-to-day care of their children.

52. Aside from regulation 81 (b), all the parent flexibilities have either been qualified to narrow the circumstances in which they can be used17 or are not accounted for at all. The cumulative impact of these changes will make it harder for single parents to find suitable employment and put them at greater risk of incurring sanctions for reasons that are beyond their control.

53. Without these flexibilities, responsible carers will struggle to find sustainable employment and it increases their risk of cycling in and out of low paid work which doesn’t take account of their caring responsibilities.18 Research consistently shows that single parents are highly motivated to work.19 It is counter to the evidence base to erode provisions which support responsible carers into work and helps them to remain in work.

9 August 2012

1 Maplethorpe, N et al (2010), Families with children in Britain: Findings from the 2008 Families and children study (FACS), Research Report Series No. 656. London: Department for Work and Pensions

2 Trinh, T and Ginnis, S (2012), Work and the welfare system: a survey of benefits and tax credits recipients, London: Department for Work and Pensions

3 Trinh, T and Ginnis, S (2012), Work and the welfare system: a survey of benefits and tax credits recipients, London: Department for Work and Pensions

4 Peacey, V (2009), Signing on and stepping up? Single parents’ experience of welfare reform, London: Gingerbread

5 Trinh, T and Ginnis, S (2012), Work and the welfare system: a survey of benefits and tax credits recipients, London: Department for Work and Pensions

6 Regulation 72 Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996 as amended by Regulation 11 (12) of the Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008

7 Daycare Tust (2012), Childcare costs survey 2012, London: Daycare Trust

8 Regulation 73A Jobseekers Allowance Regulations 1996, as inserted by Regulation 11 (13) Social Security (Lone Parents & Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008

9 Regulation 13 (4) (6) & (7) Jobseekers Allowance Regulations 1996

10 Regulation 14 (u) Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996 as amended by Regulation 11 (8) of the Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008

11 Regulation 14 (t) Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996 as amended by Regulation 11 (8) of the Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008

12 Regulation 3A Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996 as amended by Regulation 11 (7)of the Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008

13 Daycare Trust (2012) 2012 Holiday childcare costs survey. London: Daycare Trust

14 The Working Tax Credit (Entitlement and Maximum Rate) (Amendment) Regulations 2003

15 See:

16 DWP (2011), Universal Credit Impact Assessment. Available at:

17 Draft Universal Credit regulations: 28 (2) (b); 29 (b) (ii); 30 (2) (a); 87 (3) (b)

18 Newis, P (2012) It’s off to work we go? Moving from income support to jobseeker’s allowance for single parents with a child aged five. London: Gingerbread

19 Trinh, T and Ginnis, S (2012) Work and the welfare system: a survey of benefits and tax credits recipients. London: Department for Work and Pensions

Prepared 21st November 2012