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Lone Parent Benefits

I wrote the following article for Socialist Campaign Group News March/April 2007


John Hutton, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has floated the idea that there should be more conditions placed on lone parents claiming benefits.  Single parents, whose youngest child is aged 11 or over, could lose their right to Income Support and be moved to the Jobseekers Allowance regime where they must be available for work.

It is commonly thought that single parents can receive Income Support without having to seek work until their youngest child is 16.  However, the Government has already introduced conditionality into the system of support for lone parents so that those with a youngest child of 14 must attend four Work Focused Interviews a year.   The Secretary of State, John Hutton wants these conditions extended.

Former city banker, David Freud was commissioned by the DWP to look at this issue and despite acknowledging in his recent report “Most lone parents want to work” went on to advocate conditions on their receipt of benefits.  Freud and the Government justify increasing conditionality by pointing to countries like Sweden and Denmark where more lone parents are in work.  Yet lone parents in the UK are a different cohort.  They are younger, likely to have more children and more likely to live in poverty than their European counterparts.  Crucially, UK parents contribute around 75% of the costs of childcare, compared to 11% in Sweden[1] whilst parental contributions across the EU are between 25% and 30%.

All the international evidence suggests that, where there is more publicly funded childcare, there are higher lone parent employment rates and lower rates of child poverty.  A review of 20 European countries showed that it was childcare, not work tests, which explained differences in lone parent employment rates.[2]  The 2005 DWP Five Year Strategy further underlines this point by discussing the failed work tests in New Zealand introduced without a good childcare infrastructure.[3] Freud himself says that the removal of eligibility to income support of lone parents with older children needs to be tied into the availability of childcare[4].

For lone parents with a disabled child or a disability themselves, the absence of suitable publicly funded childcare and lack of support around flexible working makes employment very difficult.  Conditionality proposals could seriously hurt these groups.  DWP statistics show only 19% of lone parents whose youngest child is over 11 claim income support in the first place, 25% are caring for a disabled child and 28% have a disability.[5] 

The DWP is aware of the problems lone parents face, stating in its Five Year Strategy: “…we think it would be wrong simply to move lone parents from Income Support onto the Jobseeker’s Allowance regime: an unrestricted requirement to search for work is inappropriate, given the complex and difficult circumstances many lone parents face.... Such an approach would be expensive, unfair and ineffectual."[6]

We should be building on the success of the voluntary approach of the New Deal for Lone Parents which increased the single parent employment rate from 696,000 lone parents in employment in 1997 to 1,008,000 in 2006. 

The Government and Freud know lone parents want to work, yet their proposals pander to the stereotype of the lazy, work-shy mother.  Lone parents face very real difficulties juggling the demands of family life with employment and finding and affording good quality childcare.  And sometimes it is the right choice to decide to be a full-time mother.  Let’s hope the Government take a more objective look at what works during the ‘extensive’ consultation David Freud says is needed.



[1] OECD (2005) op cit note 5.

[2] Bradshaw J et al (1996), Policy and the Employment of Lone Parents in 20 Countries. York.

[3] Department for Work and Pensions Five Year Strategy – Opportunity and security throughout life 2005 page 38

[4] Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work, David Freud, DWP, March 2007, page 115

[5] Written Parliamentary Question, Hansard 21.03.07 col 930W

[6] Department for Work and Pensions Five Year Strategy – Opportunity and security throughout life 2005 page 38

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