Welfare reform and why single mums should be worried

The whirlwind passage of the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill continues this week, its feet momentarily touching the ground in the House of Lords. 

This Bill has not had nearly enough time for proper scrutiny, either by Parliamentarians or the wider public. A few short lines which threaten major changes to the way single parents are treated within the welfare system provide a case in point.

It has always been the case that people on out-of-work benefits have to apply for more or less any job they can reasonably be expected to take. But the operative word there is “reasonable”, because a job that’s appropriate for a single, able bodied 22 year old man may very well not be appropriate for a single mum who can’t afford childcare.  

This isn’t exactly rocket science – the basic point is that the vast majority of single mums who don’t work simply don’t have the option to, a fact that they themselves should not be blamed for.

This principle has been recognised within our welfare system for decades, with single mothers not required to work until their youngest child reaches a certain age. The exact level has varied over the years; initially 16, it was subsequently reduced to 12 and then again, more recently, to 5. Nonetheless, there was always a link between the time a mother was expected to be available to work and the time her youngest child started school.

That link would be broken as a result of a few lines in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill which quietly propose to change the law so that single mothers would be required to work, under the threat of sanctions, the moment their youngest turns three.

When I challenged the Government on this part of the Bill I got little more than vague waffle about an unfunded commitment to provide 30 hours a week of free childcare for the working parents of three and four year olds.

The basis for this completely spurious connection is a promise in the Tory manifesto which was essentially cut-and-pasted into a four-page Childcare Bill. This “skeleton” piece of legislation, as Peers described it back in the summer, was comprehensively rubbished on all sides of the chamber when the Government introduced it shortly after the election. Simply put, there is no detail, no plan and above all no money.

The Tories have set aside just £365 million to provide 30 hours a week of free childcare for three and four year olds. They’ve managed to do this with a straight face, despite the fact that less than a year ago the Tory Childcare Minister estimated it would cost £1.6 billion – more than four times as much – just to extend the number of free hours to 25!

Given how unlikely it seems that single mums will be able to count on 30 free hours of childcare any time soon, we should be worried about the prospect of more overzealous Jobcentres and Work Programme providers threatening to impose sanctions on women who refuse offers of zero-hours cleaning jobs at times when they know they won’t be able to find childcare they can afford.

Frankly, the evidence to date is not encouraging. Single mums are already subject to the sanctions regime once their children reach school age and as the Fawcett Society reported last year, 39% of them had a sanction overturned because staff were failing to apply proper discretion in recognition of their parental responsibilities. Sanctions were overturned at a higher rate for single parents than for any other group. To give just one example, a single mum living in Bristol was sanctioned for not applying for jobs an hour and a half away in London.

Even if, by some miracle, the Tory promise of extended free childcare does materialise at some point, it still won’t answer some of the most entrenched problems that single mothers face when looking for work.

For instance, what to do during school holidays? The free childcare entitlement only covers 38 weeks of the year, and given that the Government’s much-hyped “Universal Jobmatch” website doesn’t even have a facility to search for term-time only work, single mums face an uphill climb even when they are ready to look for work.

At no point during the debates we’ve had on the Welfare Bill so far has any Government Minister presented any scrap of evidence to suggest that threatening single mothers with sanctions is an effective or fair way to deal with these entrenched problems. All the evidence we have (not to mention our common sense) suggests the exact opposite.

In a Bill that’s overflowing with offensive proposals, Clause 15 hasn’t attracted all that much attention so far. But it should, because it offers the prospect of single mothers with three and four year olds being left without any income because of sanctions.

Anyone worried about the disturbing implications for single mums will watching the Lords closely, hoping the Bill gets the rough ride it deserves.      


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