Issue 2: March 2012

WELFARE REFORM - LONE PARENTS CAUGHT IN THE CROSS-FIRE

By Marion Davis, Policy, Development & Training Manager, Choices - One Parent Families Scotland

On 16 February 2011 the Welfare Reform Bill was introduced to Parliament. The Bill legislates for the biggest change to the welfare system for over 60 years and has been winding its way through the various parliamentary stages. Defying six defeats in the Lords, the government bounced the Welfare Reform Bill straight back to the Commons, over-turning those amendments. After stirring up a storm of public opinion against anyone on benefits, they feel unassailable.

There are over 163,000 lone parents with 295,000 children in Scotland. This will increase to 238,000 in next twenty years. Lone mothers will be hardest hit by the government's programme of benefit cuts and tax rises, according to an analysis conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It estimates they will lose an average 8.5% of their income after tax by 2015. Feedback from parents, using One Parent Families Scotland OPFS) services & messages left on the OPFS website highlight cases of lone parents who are worried about information they report as being given by Jobcentre Plus & Work Programme contractors causing fear and distress. The majority of cases are about lone parents with young children who say they have been told that they have to 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.

To dock the benefits of mothers – and most lone parents with care of the children continue to be female – when they are already impoverished and often in debt as a result of the consequences of divorce or separation, shows a disregard for the welfare of children and an ignorance of real life, that is reprehensible. Is paid work a good idea? Yes – depending on how settled a child is after a family split. And yes, once a child is older. Are job centre advisers the best people to decide on whether a child is fit for a mother to leave? Probably not.

Is paid work a good idea? Yes - depending on how settled a child is after a family split. And yes, once a child is older. Are job centre advisers the best people to decide on whether a child is fit for a mother to leave? Probably not

The policies around lone parents for decades have been a mishmash of moralising disguised as "incentives", paying little attention to the often first-rate research that government itself commissions again and again about the state of lone parenthood in Britain. It tells us plain and clear that poverty is the biggest problem affecting lone parents. One in four families are headed by a lone parent; 39% of lone parent families have a gross weekly income of £200 or less (compared with 7% of married couples). We also know that one in three lone parent mothers are depressed compared with one in four mothers with partners – and that lone parent families are more likely to face poor health. Most 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 poor qualifications so the only part-time work available is often so low paid, it fails to cover costs. What mattered then and now is training to improve skills and qualifications but often that comes with too little childcare, and so the merry-go-round of good intentions and too few opportunities goes on and on.

Government welfare reform needs to consider the important caring role that lone parents undertake and the added difficulties that they face in the workplace juggling work and home life singlehandedly. Moreover the UK welfare reform agenda has paid very little regard to Scotland’s differing institutional landscape in areas covering: Employability; Education; Skills; Childcare and Early Years; Parenting and Family Support; the Legal System and Health Services. Welfare reform is already affecting family wellbeing and will ultimately hinder the Scottish Government in achieving its child poverty reduction and solidarity targets. Although welfare reform is a reserved matter the Scottish Government has within its powers options to ameliorate some of the impact.

In the end, the challenges of lone parenthood is made up of a number of different causes but with common themes: poverty; too little good childcare; lack of confidence; too few skills; and a work culture that believes it's impossible for a woman to have a career as a part-time employee. What government needs isn't a single piece of legislation as in the Welfare Reform Bill. Instead, it needs a proper set of strategies that help a diversity of individuals to navigate the sometimes treacherous transitions in life – so they emerge in one piece, better equipped and ultimately able to free themselves from poverty.

The risk of poverty faced by lone parent families is dependent on the type of welfare state we have, i.e. on the kind, level and mixes of policies that impact on lone parents, and on their objectives. In the UK we have an Adult Worker model. The main assumption is that all able adults should be in employment independent of the type of family they live in.

The Parent-Worker models in Scandinavian countries have assumptions underpinning their policies that families are diverse and that adults should be supported as parents and workers. Parents are supported as workers through the provision of good quality childcare, family friendly employment opportunities and generous parental leave.

The Parent-Worker models in Scandinavian countries have assumptions underpinning their policies that families are diverse and that adults should be supported as parents and workers.

A welfare system should protect people from poverty. The Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform (forty plus organisations) promotes 4 key principles that a welfare system should meet. It should be:

Dignified: respect and compassion, valuing unpaid work and caring roles, and recognising the responsibilities of employers and govt. 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.

The Welfare Reform Bill as it stands fails to move us towards such a system.

 

By Marion Davis, Policy, Development & Training Manager, Choices - One Parent Families Scotland

Issue 2: March 2012

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