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Single parents deserve support, not sanctions

Upcoming welfare reform, including the introduction of universal credit, is predicted to increase the child poverty rate for children in lone-parent families to 62 per cent. It’s time to pause and rethink a policy that could have drastic consequences, writes Marion Davis

Single parents and their children have been hardest hit by the Westminster Government’s programme of benefit cuts. According to the 2011 Scottish Census there are 170,000 single parents in Scotland with more than 281,000 dependent children. The majority are female. The most recent Department of Work and Pensions statistics show 49% of children in single parent families now live below the poverty line.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has advised that by 2021 single parents and their children will lose 20% of their current income due to welfare reform, including the introduction of Universal Credit – approximately £5,250 a year. On average, disabled single parents with at least one disabled child fare even worse, losing almost three out of every £10 of their net income.

The consequences are stark, with a predicted increase in the child poverty rate for children in lone-parent families to over 62%. This can only be described as catastrophic.

It is vital therefore that Universal Credit works for single parents.

More than 90% of single parents will be eligible by the time the system is rolled out. There are increased expectations for single parents to move into employment when in receipt of Universal Credit, but without support, single parents face particularly high barriers to (re-)enter the workforce and progress in work. Many will likely end up in a catch 22 — working but struggling to make ends meet as in mostly low-paid work.

Sadly the experiences of single parents already on Universal Credit highlight significant problems with both its design and delivery.

First, there is a lack of awareness amongst parents as to how the new system works.

There are also problems with the practicalities of applying under the new scheme. Many parents may face problems accessing a PC, laptop or tablet to complete the application form, or lack the digital skills to do so. There could be barriers to applying as a result of the lack of the required evidence of identity and access to a current bank account.

Considering the expectation that those applying for UC will move into employment, there has been very little attention given to the job- seeking requirements for parents of three and four-year olds without enough flexible, affordable childcare and flexible work opportunities.

The in-built delays have also been highlighted as a significant problem with a lengthy wait to receive the first proper payment. That’s why we think there is a need for increased publicity for Universal Credit Scottish Choices to give better access to twice-monthly payments and the housing element being paid directly to landlords. We would also request that entitlements are clear and single parents’ needs are recognised in UC claimant commitments, and they know their rights.

Moreover, the two-child limit in Universal Credit is a particularly pernicious cut because it suggests some children matter more than others. It’s also illogical because no parent has a crystal ball.

Families that can comfortably support a third child today could struggle tomorrow and have to claim Universal Credit because health, jobs and relationships can fail. Surely children should not have their life chances damaged because of the number of siblings they have?

The benefit cap is a limit that has been placed by the UK Government on the amount of benefit that can be paid to people who are receiving housing benefit or universal credit. This breaks the link between need and entitlement which is fundamental to a fair social security system. It should be abolished.

Single parents will, on average, be financially worse off because of Universal Credit, whether working or not. Some single parents already receiving Universal Credit are facing forced evictions and struggling to afford the basics. Feedback from parents, using One Parent Families Scotland services and messages left on our website, highlight cases of single parents who are worried and fearful.

Many of the cases are about single parents with young children who say they have been told that they must work full-time, at weekends and evenings or must take a job even if they don’t have suitable childcare or face a cut to their benefit.

In the case of single parents with pre-school youngsters there is simply a lack of part-time jobs and suitable childcare. This was a policy meltdown waiting to happen because it is well known that there is a shortage of flexible jobs in the marketplace and that childcare is expensive and in inadequate supply.

To cut the benefits of mothers – and most single parents with care of the children continue to be female – when they are already impoverished and often in debt because of the consequences of separation, shows a disregard for the welfare of children and an ignorance of real life that is reprehensible.

The often first-rate research about single parent families tells us that poverty is the biggest problem affecting single parents. We also know that one in three single parent mothers is depressed compared with one in four mothers with partners – and that single parent families are more likely to face poor health. Most are in their 30s and have come out of a long-term relationship or marriage.

Many have difficulties fitting childcare, concern for their children and paid work together in a pattern that succeeds. Many have few qualifications so the only part-time work available is often so low paid it fails to cover costs. The opportunity to get training to improve skills and qualifications is crucial but often that comeswith too little childcare and a lack of financial support to make it possible.

Government welfare reform needs to consider the important caring role that single parents undertake and the added difficulties that they face in the workplace juggling work and home life singlehandedly.

A social security system should prevent and protect people from poverty. The Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform promotes four key principles that a welfare system should meet. It should be:

  • Dignified: Delivered with respect and compassion, valuing unpaid work and caring roles, and recognising the responsibilities of employers and government as well as the public benefits of welfare
  • Supportive: lifting people out of poverty, so that all citizens are financially protected, whatever their  circumstances
  • Well resourced: providing adequate financial and human resources to ensure the smooth introduction of any reforms
  • Suitable: taking full account of Scotland’s differing institutional framework from the outset, so that any proposals enable a joined-up approach to tackling poverty.

Universal Credit, as it stands, fails to move us towards such a system. The only effective response is for the government to pause its roll-out and to rethink its impact.

It must be reformed to ensure financial security for families. Unfair benefit sanctions can result in children going without proper meals and take a severe financial and emotional toll on single parents and their children, with the situation set to worsen.

Universal Credit is scheduled to be introduced in Aberdeenshire, Perth and Kinross, Moray and Scottish Borders in June. Glasgow will see its introduction starting in September. We are preparing for calls for help and advice from parents who are at a loss with the new system, either through their applications being rejected due to an overly complicated application process, not being able to progress the application in the first place, or being left in a worse situation than we were before the Universal Credit roll-out.

The government needs to recognise that sanctions don’t work for single parents, and focus instead on providing support to better enable parents to take up fair work which is family-friendly and sustainable and improve access to further and higher education.

Marion Davies is One Parent Families Scotland’s Head of Policy and Strategy


This article first appeared in Children in Scotland Magazine Issue 186, published June 2018

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