Benefit sanctions are pushing single parents in London further from work

A new report from Gingerbread joins the mounting evidence that, far from encouraging people into work, sanctions can, in fact, move people further from employment.

Drawing on case studies with single parents on key job-seeking benefits (Jobseeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit) living in London, the report finds that the sharp loss of income as a result of a sanction means parents are no longer in a financial position to seek work – for example, to travel to interviews or jobcentre appointments. In another example, the intense financial pressure following a sanction meant a single parent could not explore an application to a well-paid and flexible job in the civil service (recommended by her job coach) and took up a lower paid job instead, to make up their sanction losses more quickly. Others found sanctions significantly damaged their relationship with the jobcentre and their work coaches – particularly if their sanction was later overturned. And, unsurprisingly, the emotional turmoil of warnings and sanctions did little to help job-seeking.

I have anxiety and they made my condition worse. They [work coaches] often put threatening messages in my journal on a Friday.

These examples show how single parents may be actively seeking work, and still be sanctioned. This is often the result of being unable to meet inflexible job-seeking conditions. One parent was sanctioned for not completing the requisite weekly number of job applications, despite the government’s mandatory job website, Universal Jobmatch, not having a sufficient number of suitable jobs. Another parent risked a sanction as she found it difficult to seek work for the 25 hours required while her child was home during the school holidays – she was told her only option was to get childcare, but was ineligible for support with costs while she was out of work.

This should be disappointing reading for the DWP. There were big promises that the introduction of ‘claimant commitments’ and Universal Credit would usher in an era of tailored support, ensuring conditions are appropriate to benefit claimants’ circumstances. Yet these examples show that longstanding issues remain regarding the tick-box approach to assessing job-seeking behaviour and that there is a fundamental lack of understanding of the barriers  single parents face in terms of seeking and maintaining employment.

In fact, there are worrying signs that Universal Credit has made things more difficult for single parents. Problems in administering support for childcare costs in the new system (previously administered through tax credits) have meant some parents have struggled to remain in work – yet one single parent received a sanction warning after being forced to give up her job due to her jobcentre’s failure to provide childcare support she should have received.

I don't think the children should be punished…still need to be fed and clothed and live in a warm home…sanctions undermine the purpose of the benefit system in our country to protect the poorest and most vulnerable from poverty.

There is a danger that the government will continue to dismiss cases such as these as isolated examples. We know, however, that substantial numbers of single parents are affected. There were over 27,500 single parent sanctions in London alone since the new sanction regime was introduced in October 2012. Across the UK, the number of sanctions for job-seeking single parents increased sevenfold between 2005/06 and 2016/17 – the  latter year taking into account Universal Credit as well as Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions for the first time. Importantly, this in part reflects the systemic shift in government policy to subject increasing numbers of single parents to sanctions over the years – from reducing eligibility to Income Support, to new 2017 rules where parents of pre-school children are subject to full job-seeking requirements under Universal Credit.

It is against this backdrop that the government should take stock of the sanctions system. These findings suggest the old sanctions model is outdated and inappropriate, particularly for those who face substantial barriers to work. Single parents overwhelmingly want to work; the majority already do. There is little purpose in imposing conditions and heavy sanctions if a claimant has every intention of finding a job but is prevented by a lack of childcare, part-time or flexible work or suitable training. Continuing down the path of ever-increasing conditions for single parents is surely misguided. Urgent action is needed to minimise financial penalties and refocus on positive rather than punitive jobcentre support. Without this, single parents and their children will continue to be caught in the gaping gap between the policy intention and reality of benefit sanctions, bearing the chaos and severe emotional and financial strain that this entails.

See the full report here.