Universal credit conditions put single parents in an impossible bind

2 Nov 17

Imposing job-seeking conditions on single parents is unfair when affordable childcare and flexible employments opportunities are scarce, says Gingerbread’s Dalia Ben-Galim.

Universal credit is having a disproportionate impact on single parents. But while recent attention has focused on delays to payment and waiting times, there are other changes that have slipped in under the radar.

A report published by Gingerbread this week highlights that many single parents are in an impossible bind. In universal credit jargon it is called ‘increased conditionality’; in reality it means that parents of three- and four-year-olds are required to look for work or risk being sanctioned.

This is a significant change. It’s the first time that parents of pre-school aged children are subject to job-seeking requirements or the risk of sanctions. By the time universal credit is fully rolled out, 220,000 parents of three- and four-year-olds – 75% of whom are single parents – will be affected by these new rules.

Over the last decade, ‘conditionality’ has become an accepted part of welfare reform across the political spectrum. The rationale is that claimants need the ‘stick’ of conditions and sanctions as well as the ‘carrot’ of financial and employment support to seek work.

But despite there not always being ‘carrots’, the ‘sticks’ remain. Gingerbread’s findings show that there is a significant shortage of part-time and flexible work and a lack of affordable childcare. This means that parents – especially single parents – are at risk of being sanctioned when genuine opportunities to seek work don’t exist.

Gingerbread is calling for these conditionality requirements to be suspended until sufficient childcare and flexible jobs are available. Without this, parents are being exposed to a greater risk of poverty. This at a time when single parent poverty levels are predicted to increase sharply with nearly two-thirds of children in single parent families expected to live in relative poverty by 2020-21.

And if these requirements aren’t suspended, we expect it will be left to local authorities to pick up much of the additional costs in increased pressures on housing and local welfare assistance schemes, both now and in the future.

As well as working with Jobcentre Plus to encourage them to suspend job-seeking requirements for this group of parents until there is available childcare and employment, local authorities can do more to support these parents.

Camden, for example, agreed to be a case study for Gingerbread’s research. The council has recently decided to extend eligibility criteria for the 30 hours’ free childcare for parents of three- and four-year-olds, matching that offered for two-year-olds, which is for the 40% most disadvantaged. Camden is also a Timewise Council meaning that it is committed to creating and sustaining more flexible work opportunities.

Conservative backbenchers may well have influenced the prime minister to shorten universal credit waiting times and fix some administrative processes and we will wait and see what the chancellor’s budget has to offer. But these changes won’t fix other active policy decisions that have been made.

In the meantime the evidence will keep on mounting that universal credit is not working for working single parents. Debt is spiralling and poverty rates will rise. Increasing conditions for parents without the necessary infrastructure will do little to support them, and little to alleviate the costs for already stretched local authority budgets.

  • Dalia Ben-Galim
    Dalia Ben-Galim

    director of policy, advice and communications at Gingerbread, the leading national charity working with single parent families

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