At Single Parent Rights, we are calling on the government to reverse the latest Universal Credit work conditionality rules given the worrying findings from our recent research.

Our survey of 638 single parents in receipt of Universal Credit revealed that less than one third (32%) find their work current requirements manageable. And over 80% of single parents in receipt of Universal Credit are unable to meet the new 30-hour work requirements introduced last October for lead carers of 3- to 12-year-olds. Only 6% of single parents reported that they would be able to meet the new work requirements with single parents on low incomes, those from racialised minority groups, and sole carers facing  even greater challenges in meeting their work requirements.

The stories shared by single parents through the research were heart wrenching. One mother stated, “It’s really depressing and demotivating because I’m already doing the best I can working several part time jobs. I’m still in terrible poverty and my mental health is shocking especially in winter. I’m scared being forced to work more hours will break me”. Highlighting how single parent realities weren’t considered in the design of this policy. In fact, while the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) high level impact assessment into the change prior to its introduction stated, “lead carers might be more likely to be married” we estimate that 75% of the 525,000 lead carers impacted by this policy change are in fact single parents. That’s almost half a million people whose personal circumstances have been completely disregarded.

This isn’t about single parents not wanting to work – the majority already do – it’s about supporting single parents to find a manageable balance between paid work and their parenting responsibilities. Currently the balance has gone too far into pushing single parents into any work regardless of the cost of this work, or the benefits to the family.

Our research identified multiple barriers facing single parents looking for work/increased hours, including childcare availability (65%) and affordability (60%), concerns regarding the mental health impact on parents (60%) and their children (59%), a lack of flexible work (48%), and the prevalence of single parent discrimination within the workplace (35%). Single parent discrimination was an even greater barrier for unemployed single parents (45%) and no unemployed single parent reported no barriers to work.

The new work requirements follow on from changes last July which increased the frequency of work coach meetings for lead carers of one- and two-year-olds. Parents of one-year olds must now meet with a job coach every three months (up from every six months) while parents of two-year olds must meet with their job coach monthly (up from every three months).

While work coach meetings are intended to support lead carers looking for work/additional hours, our research revealed that 74% of single parents did not find their work coach meetings useful, this rose to 80% for those who had regular work coach meetings. Only 6% of single parents reported the meetings as useful. One single parent survey respondent stated, “they bully me and make my anxiety through the roof. I keep getting ‘you signed up for this’, I signed up for help not to be bullied.”

The UK is one of the only nations to focus on in-work conditionality, a policy approach largely untested, especially in terms of the long-term outcomes. A five-year study into the impact of sanctions concluded that they were ineffective and pushed people further into poverty. Citizen’s Advice have also reported failures by work coaches to recognise the challenges of balancing caring responsibilities and work search requirements, with single parents often reporting unrealistic conditionality rules.

At Single Parent Rights we remain concerned that the Government’s plans to increase the Administrative Earnings Threshold to 18 hours, and to make in-work progression support mandatory for lead carers will create an increasingly punitive social security system that pushes parents further away from employment, increases sanctions on single parents and – ultimately – leads to more children being forced into poverty.

We want to see the DWP reverse the increased work conditionality for single parents. There needs to be greater acknowledgement of the reality facing single parents, which requires them to be recognised as a group with specific needs. Ultimately the government needs to add single parents to the UK Equality Act so that policymakers consider the needs of single parents before implementing policies and prevent single parent discrimination.

Written by Ruth Talbot from Single Parents Rights