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Exterior of a Job Centre Plus.

Lone parent experiences of welfare reform

4 Jun 2014 | Marion Davis

The findings from research commissioned by the GCPH into the experiences of lone parents moving into paid work as part of the UK government’s welfare reforms makes shocking reading. 

Degrading. When the kids were off in the summer holidays I got put on to another advisor, he’s really, really hard… he nearly had me in tears... I find it really hard to talk to him… he’s not interested in listening; he’s just pushing you on to get a job.

(Age 44, two children aged 12 and six)

When you go into the Jobcentre, a lot of them have an attitude on them more than they want to help you.

(Age 25, two children aged five and three)

Every time I come out of there I feel suicidal!

(Age 30, two children aged ten and six)

The research team from Edinburgh Napier University found that many lone parents felt pressured and stigmatised by the current Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) regime.

It was clear that many parents were not getting clear and timely information. Many did not realise that changes in the benefit rules meant that lone parents, not in work, were only entitled to Income Support until their youngest child turned five years old (down from 16 years old). Some were unaware that moving from Income Support to JSA involved job-search requirements and the possibility of sanctions that might lead to their benefits being stopped. 

Challenging assumptions

This current JSA regime is pushing lone parents into applying for and accepting jobs to avoid these new benefits sanctions. There is often an expectation that people claiming JSA are ready to move into work and have no problem with searching and applying for jobs.

Many of the parents that took part in the research challenge this assumption. They are often dealing with family circumstances that mean paid work is especially difficult to find or retain, with some parents reporting physical or mental health problems or caring for children with health or behavioural issues. 

Within this complicated picture, little support is offered to those lone parents to enable them to access a highly competitive labour market. The research noted that Jobcentre Plus Advisors often do not take into account lone parents’ specific needs, and that the atmosphere when parents attend is often punitive and suspicious.

Clear need for information and support

One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) is alarmed about the impact of these draconian measures on the health and wellbeing of parents and children. There is a pressing need for clear information at all stages of the process so that parents know well ahead of time when they will move to JSA, what it entails, their entitlement to support, and how their treatment will change over time. 

Early support for lone parents is vital so that intensive, personalised expertise is available from the first day of their JSA claim. Jobcentre Plus needs to give clear and explicit commitment to allow parents to undertake training or studying so that sustainable employment can be achieved. Individual circumstances and also children’s wellbeing must be fully understood. 

Lone parent families are already almost twice as likely to live in poverty as two parent families. A lack of flexible working, jobs that pay a living wage and affordable childcare means that many are struggling to find stable work that pays. At OPFS, we are concerned that these changes to welfare support, highlighted in the GCPH-commissioned research, will only make these barriers harder to overcome.

Lone parents facing extra pressure

Up and down the country, millions of lone mothers and fathers already face extra hurdles when caring for their children. These struggling families must not be hit any harder, especially at a time when support services are being cut and the costs of childcare and housing are rising. The findings from this latest research show that the current UK government’s welfare reforms, as they stand, are failing to move us towards a system that offers dignity and appropriate support to lone parents. 

As a member of the Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform, which is supported by over 40 organisations, OPFS believes that it is time for a system which prevents poverty, treats people with dignity and respect and supports everyone to flourish. 

An OPFS Freedom of Information Act request to the Department for Work and Pensions has revealed that over 9,000 lone parents in Scotland were sanctioned over a 12 month period. At OPFS, we believe that it is unacceptable that in a rich country we find families where basic needs are not being met, where children go hungry and destitution faces some of our most vulnerable families. 

Mitigation is not sufficient. Welfare reform is robbing our poorest children of life chances and meaningful existence. We must challenge a system which is condemning families to live in penury with a terrible impact on children’s health and wellbeing. Now it is time to say welfare reform is not working. Other European countries support much more generous and effective welfare systems and there is no reason why we cannot afford to do likewise.

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