Criticism grows as welfare reform implemented

The government has initiated the first stage of its welfare reform programme today despite fierce opposition from children’s groups.

Single parent families are being forced into employment under the reforms to the way child benefits are paid out.

One Parent Families/Gingerbread said this is the “wrong policy at the wrong time”.

Starting from today lone parents whose children are aged 12 or over will be forced to actively seek work for a minimum of 16 hours per week or risk losing 40 per cent of their benefit.

This will mean that 100,000 or more single parents will be added to the Jobseekers Allowance (JSA).

Far from helping families children’s groups said the policy will lead to parents taking low paid jobs and “cycling” from work to benefits, putting families in greater risk of falling into debt.

With unemployment reaching 1.79 million and the number rapidly increasing, lone parents are entering an extremely tough labour market with Jobcentre Plus under considerable additional pressure.

There are fears Jobcentre Plus will focus on the most desirable applicants in terms of skills, availability and experience, and prioritise those meeting this description, leaving people out in the cold.

One Parent Families/Gingerbread said: “We are also seriously concerned that they are unworkable given the current pressure on JobCentre Plus.

“With thousands more unemployed workers entering jobcentres, single parents are unlikely to get the personalised support they will need if they are to find jobs. How will the threat of benefit cuts help single parents to negotiate an increasingly tough labour market?”

Last week, the Independent Social Security Advisory Committee condemned the changes.

“Overall we have considerable reservations about the proposals, both in terms of their potentially negative impacts, and their potential to improve the situation of lone parents and their families, and to reduce child poverty,” said Sir Richard Tilt, head of the committee.

The committee recommended the government not proceed with the reforms and called them “a leap in the dark”.

The government feels the change will encourage single parents to enter employment. Most single parents do actually want to work but only at the right time for their family and without jeopardising their role as parent.

Fifty-six per cent of single parents are already in employment and this number rises to 71 per cent when their youngest child is between 12 and 15.

They see employment not just as a route out of poverty but also as a means of creating self-esteem and providing a positive role model for their children. The employment rate for lone parents has risen steadily over the last few years.

The change will occur in stages. The first to be affected will be new claimants whose youngest child is over 12. The following year the age of the youngest child will drop to ten, and seven the year after.

Thirty per cent of lone parents on benefits lack any formal qualifications and the change will prevent them entering education, as JSA is not available to those studying full time.

The rights to flexible working hours is currently only available for parents with children aged under six years old and the One Parent Families/Gingerbread society believes the government should speed up their plans to introduce this for parents with children aged up to 16 years old.

A review by One Parent Families/Gingerbread recommended: “The government should delay implementing the second phase of the reforms at least until it has evaluated the impact on the first tranche of lone parent families to be affected by the change.

“Immediate extra exemptions should also be introduced including where a parent has experienced domestic violence.”