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We all want a welfare system that is fit for purpose; one where limited resources are used wisely to support unemployed people back into work.

Checks and balances – or “conditionality” – is a long-standing component of welfare-to-work provision. Conditionality sets out what is expected of people who are preparing or looking for work. For over a decade, single parents have experienced increasing levels of conditionality. Tougher rules come with a heightened risk of a sanction – namely a financial penalty for non-compliance in relation to jobseeking or work preparation activities. The rationale for this is to increase the single parent employment rate and reduce the risk of poverty. While there’s no doubt that more needs to be done to increase the single parent employment rate (currently at 63 per cent), there is limited evidence that sanctions actually help people move into work.

Gingerbread’s new report, Single parents and benefit sanctions found that tens of thousands of single parents are at risk of being wrongly sanctioned because they are struggling to fulfil jobseeking rules that don’t reflect their caring responsibilities or take into account labour market conditions.

Sanctioning rates have increased sharply since 2010 for all claimants, including single parents. There is growing concern that many people, not only single parents, are being wrongly sanctioned and that longer length sanctions are causing significant financial hardship for families. This has prompted the Work and Pensions Select Committee to launch an inquiry into benefit sanctions to examine the effectiveness of the regime, the impact on claimants and to investigate alternatives to financial penalties.

In the last two years, 145,000 single parents have received a sanction decision. They are more likely than other jobseekers to receive a non-adverse decision. Worryingly, this suggests single parents are either being wrongly referred for a sanction in the first instance or incorrectly sanctioned and the decision is subsequently overturned.

A recent caller to Gingerbread’s telephone helpline had been sanctioned for not taking on a night shift job because she wasn’t able to find childcare overnight for her young daughter. This should never have happened. The government has put safeguards in place – called the “parent flexibilities” – to help single parents tailor their job search to reflect their caring responsibilities, but as this example shows, these are not always being applied by Jobcentre work coaches or Work Programme providers. The most common issue raised by single parents is being expected to look for full-time hours, shift or weekend work. Requirements such as these are unrealistic and coupled with the lack of affordable and available childcare and an inflexible labour market, single parents struggle to meet these demands.


Financial difficulty

The impact of a sanction can be far reaching, extending beyond the sanction period itself. Single parents have to find ways of coping with the loss of income, including: cutting back on essential spending and children’s activities, turning to family or friends for financial help, or relying on food banks and other forms of in-kind support.

Hardship payments are the primary means of emergency support should a single parent receive a sanction. Only 18 per cent of single parents are told about hardship payments compared with 23 per cent of other JSA claimants, and worryingly, only a tiny minority (five per cent) of single parents go on to receive a payment.

Sanctions aren’t working; they don’t help single parents to find jobs and cause significant financial hardship. Valuable time and resources could be better spent providing good quality training and work experience: the things we know make a positive difference to single parents looking for work.

The needs of single parents are becoming increasingly invisible in welfare-to-work provision, and the vast majority of the parent flexibilities available in the existing system are not replicated in Universal Credit. Single parents need tailored support from advisers who are specially trained to help them overcome their barriers to employment. Conditionality needs to be changed to incorporate well-designed support that works with the grain of single parents’ own aspirations and which taps into their existing motivation to work. A preventive, rather than a punitive, approach should be applied. Crucially, transparency and accountability must be improved.

The sanctions regime is broken and is in need of urgent reform. The Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry will no doubt offer options for a way forward, but the onus will be on the government to grasp the mantle of sanctions reform.

 Philippa Newis is a Policy Officer at Gingerbread