The following is an extract from a government document entitled Ready For Work: full employment in our generation, issued with minimal publicity in late December 2007 – obviously a good time to bury bad news:
“We intend that, from October 2008, lone parents with older children will no longer be entitled to income support solely on the grounds of being a lone parent. Instead, those able to work may claim jobseeker’s allowance. They will be expected to look for work and, if necessary, acquire the skills they need to do so, in return for personalised support.
“The change will be introduced for lone parents with a youngest child aged 12 or over from October 2008 a youngest child aged 10 or over from October 2009 and a youngest child aged seven or over from October 2010.”
The implications of this massive change in benefit entitlement – that comes in under the Welfare Reform Act 2007 – will obviously be felt by lone parent claimants within the next few years. But it also has a significant impact on council provision – for child care planners and providers, for out-of-school activities, for employment and HR policies, for social work departments, and others.
At present, a lone parent can claim income support for themselves until their youngest child reaches 16. It is arguable that 16 is relatively generous – it could be seen as reasonable to have to seek work as a condition of getting benefit if your youngest or only child is a fit healthy 14- or 15-year-old.
But the government’s proposals go much further than a slight reduction in this age limit. By bringing it down to the child’s seventh birthday in only two years time, it transforms the benefit system for lone parents. Unless they qualify for income support on other grounds (for example, by being a carer, by being medically unfit for work, or by being a foster carer), a lone parent will have to register for work and claim JSA in order to receive an income from the Department for Works and Pensions.
Although there is a lot of talk in the government’s proposals about personalised help and support, anyone who has had experience of the JSA regime knows that there is a gradual tightening-up of eligibility for JSA the longer the claimant stays on that benefit. There may be a presumption from the Jobcentre that suitable child care is available and that the working tax credit system will be available to help with up to 80% of the cost. Some parents may be reluctant to use that child care and some parents may be worried that 10- to 13-year-olds – who are often too old for child care – may be left unsupervised after school.
In addition, lone parents who are returning to education, even in the next couple of years, may find their ambitions thwarted by losing income support and having to sign-on as unemployed instead. Imagine a lone parent with a five year old. They are on income support now and intend to go into further education in September 2009 to do a two-year full-time A level course. At present, they can remain on IS and full housing benefit until their course is completed. Once these proposals are enacted, they will either have to give up the course or give up their JSA.
The changes will affect about 300,000 lone parents on income support with a youngest child aged seven or over, or nearly 40% of those currently claiming the benefit. As the hardly revolutionary Social Security Advisory Committee commented: “We are concerned that the Green Paper proposes greater responsibility upon claimants without balancing proposals for how the rights of claimants will be enhanced.”
Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. If you have a question e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the 14 February issue under the headline “Lone parents face massive benefit change from October”