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Supporting Single Parents into Work

Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 17 November 2021

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking, which is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Members are also expected by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the estate, which can be done at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please do give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

I will call Dr Rupa Huq to move the motion and I will then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up. We have had an indication, however, that Stella Creasy would like to speak and I am happy to call her for a short speech.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of supporting single parents into work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. The full effects of covid are not yet all known, and the pandemic is not over, but this debate will examine some of the key concepts around employment, such as furlough, universal credit, 30 hours and flexibility, in relation to single-parent families. The pandemic and lockdowns in the last two years have been hard for everyone, but for the UK’s 1.8 million single parents, who work and care solo, some of the pre-existing financial, practical and emotional pressures have been exacerbated.

The Government like to trumpet their jobs miracle. It is true that at the start of the pandemic, 69% of single-parent families were in work, but many of those jobs were in sectors such as hospitality, high street retail and travel, which were hard hit by the pandemic. Single parents were more likely to work part time to combine caring and working on their own.

I welcome yesterday’s figures, which show that unemployment has fallen for the last nine months. I recently visited the Elim Hope Church in my constituency, which runs a job club to increase the skills of Staffordshire residents and to help them with job applications. Does the hon. Lady agree that such community outreach programmes are vital for helping people, particularly single parents and carers, who need specific support to re-enter employment?

It is great that the hon. Lady has been to her local job club in a church; I have been to mine and I would advise all hon. Members to do the same. The figures are encouraging, but there is often a “but” hanging around. I will come on to part time and full time; she has slightly anticipated what I will say.

As I said, single parents are more likely to work part time: some 50% of them work part time compared with 25% of coupled parents. I thank Gingerbread, which arose from the film “Cathy Come Home” and is the main pressure group on these issues. Throughout the pandemic, it has undertaken four research projects: in December, February and May—and there is an ongoing one. The previous projects looked at debt and poverty, and the current one is a longitudinal study of qualitative interviews funded by Standard Life. It is due in September 2022, but I have some of the findings and I will draw on them.

Gingerbread found that the unemployment rate of 12% for single parents is double that for main carers in couples—the non-single-parent variety. The labour force survey does not completely capture the effects of the end of furlough, because it is published three months behind, so that will be interesting to see.

I will turn to the number of single parents on universal credit since the pandemic. As we know, universal credit is an in-work benefit paid a month in arrears. It causes a whole load of problems and its rate was recently cruelly slashed.

The hon. Lady is perhaps about to tell us that a child of a single parent family is much more likely to grow up in poverty. She also pointed out that single parents are much more likely to work part time. In view of that, does she agree that it is important for young single parents to have the same standard allowance for universal credit as parents over 25 years old?

Yes, the hon. Lady makes a very good point. There are a lot of anomalies with universal credit; I think our last manifesto said to do away with it because it is not fit for purpose. The differential rates are not fair on the children. We called our group the all-party parliamentary group on single parent families because it is about the families and is not just a parent support club.

The hon. Lady makes an important point about differentials. Does she agree that the differentials according to age on national minimum wage rates could also have a profoundly difficult impact on younger single parents and their ability to afford to work?

Yes, the hon. Lady makes a good point. Again, it is the children who will suffer if these rates are cruelly different for people of different ages. The national minimum wage does not apply to the very youngest workers. We keep being told about the minimum wage, which the Government call a living wage, although it is not quite the same as the real London living wage that our party espouses. If it does not apply universally, that needs urgent fixing, because it is the children who will go without.

We have 1.3 million single parents on universal credit, and this change means that more single parents will be expected to work. When talking of differentials, there is the age of the child before a parent works a given number of hours. For example, if the child is three, that is 16 hours. When that child reaches five, the parent is expected to work 25 hours, and when the child is over 13, it becomes full time. That is a blunt and clumsy instrument for people who are doing all the caring and earning in one household. Research by the consultancy Timewise shows a dire shortage of part-time vacancies.

Single parents are more likely to have been furloughed than coupled parents, and for longer. That reflects the sectors they often work in. They are more likely to have needed to go on furlough for childcare reasons, because they are parenting on their own. They are less likely to be able to work from home. We had the luxury of being able to work on laptops last year but, in caring or shopwork, where there is a preponderance of single parents, that is not going to happen.

The Timewise research into flexible working also showed that there is little evidence of a long-term shift in the prevalence of job flexibility. We hear about such jobs, but they are very difficult to come by.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for being so generous with her time. She makes a really important point about work flexibility and how vital that is for single parents. Does she, like me, welcome the trial of a four-day working week, without loss of pay, in Scotland? Does she agree that that kind of initiative will enable a different way of looking at work? Not only will single parents be able to work but their employers can benefit from their skills.

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. In the previous Parliament I signed an early-day motion for more research on the four-day working week. There is evidence that it creates better mental wellbeing. I would be interested to see more research. I do not think I would steamroll right into it, but it will be interesting to compare what happens in Scotland and see whether it could be expanded. Was Scotland not a guinea pig for the poll tax?

Let’s not go there. If what the hon. Lady has mentioned is tested first in Scotland and we bring it here, I am not averse to that.

The way the welfare rules operate and the “first work” agenda mean that there is pressure to move into any job as quickly as possible. That means that many single parents are moving into flexible jobs below their skill levels, so they are over-qualified: there is a mismatch between their qualifications and what they end up doing. I do not want this to be a load of moaning, so I will propose some solutions.

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), gave a bubbly, well-received presentation to our APPG on single parent families. She outlined a range of different measures to support claimants into work. There is job entry targeted support for people who have been unemployed for three months. There is Restart for those who have been unemployed for a year. Again, there are anomalous situations where, for instance, someone who has been furloughed for 18 months would not qualify for Restart despite technically not having worked. Those sort of loopholes need to be fixed.

There are schemes to get disabled people back into work. Why not have more programmes for helping single parent families? There could be more tailored support, and more single-parent awareness among job coaches. There is also an issue with the variability of job coaches; perhaps there should be more standardisation there.

We all know that good quality, affordable childcare is vital in getting parents back into work. Childcare costs are paid in arrears under universal credit.

I, too, am a member of the all-party parliamentary group that the hon. Lady mentioned. Childcare and getting back into work is a massive issue. I look back to my own situation over a quarter of a century ago when my mum was trying to get back into the workplace after she and my dad separated. Once, when I was 12 or 13, she secured a new job and I was off school sick—whether I was actually sick or not, I cannot remember. She went to work, and one of our neighbours phoned the police because I was in the house alone. The police turned up, phoned her work, and she had to come home absolutely mortified, and gave up her job. There is a real issue with childcare.

I want to praise Home-Start Renfrewshire and Inverclyde in my constituency, which I have met with a few times and does a great job. However, the hon. Lady is absolutely right—agencies like that need a lot more support from the Government than they have currently.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. He is an officer of our APPG on single-parent families, and it is interesting to hear his own experience. I hope that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children did not cart him away. The readaptation programme into work can be a big deal when someone has taken time out, and more tailored support needs to be provided.

There is a legal challenge under way to prevent childcare costs from being paid in arrears, which was initially won but was then lost on appeal. We are still hopeful that the Government will see sense on that. I have often heard the flexible support fund touted as a way to get people back into work, but looking at the sums involved, it is for something like getting a pair of shoes or a bus fare to an interview. I do not know whether the Minister has had to pay childcare costs recently, but they are blooming expensive. We need a distinctive fund for childcare costs or, better still, for them to be paid upfront. We could take a leaf out of Northern Ireland’s book, where just last week a £1,500 non-refundable lump sum was announced to help people who have found a job get back into work.

All of those options would be much better than the current skills underselling we appear to have. The Government’s flagship 30-hours policy seems to be very elusive in terms of finding a provider which can offer it, as there are such complex eligibility criteria for that entitlement. Only 20% of families at the bottom third of the earnings curve are eligible for that at all. That policy needs to become reality.

Universal credit being paid in arrears means many parents are caught in a trap, as shown by many of the rich, qualitative studies in the Gingerbread findings. One woman found her dream job, correct for her skill level, but she could not do it because the childcare costs would have left her unable to pay her rent. I hope that the Minster will look at redressing those things.

Some parts of the Budget, I must confess, are welcome. However, tinkering around with the taper rates, although an improvement, is not as good as the money that was taken away—£1,000 a year for the poorest, or £20 a week. I urge the Government to look again at reinstating that. There is nothing to address the high upfront costs of childcare that make moving into a job difficult for parents. We need more support to help single parents back into work that reflects their skills, with specialist single-parent advisers, as there used to be in job centres. That would be a good starting point.

Does the hon. Lady agree that as well as the measures she is talking about, organisations such as the Department for Work and Pensions and the child maintenance service need to get better and more robust at supporting single parents who are fleeing domestic abuse?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. One sad by-product of the pandemic is the rise in domestic abuse, with people locked up at home more. Yes, those organisations need proper domestic awareness training and to be sympathetic; they tend to have very much a “computer says no” mentality. In the civil service—the Minister’s officials might know about this—job sharing is incentivised, and there is even a register of jobs. Perhaps we could universalise that across all workplaces.

I have not had time to go into the mental health issues that we have seen post pandemic, or rocketing food bank use. Pre-pandemic, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, found that 14.2 million of our fellow citizens are in extreme poverty. Who knows where that is now? With safety nets such as furlough and the £20 uplift now gone, single parents and their children are more vulnerable than ever to being pushed into poverty. Gingerbread estimates that 1.1 million single parents will be hit by the loss of the uplift, losing £1 billion over the next 12 months. Remember: the Government used to champion the just about managing. They need to do so again.

The APPG’s point is that all families matter. That is why we champion single-parent families. We heard from Adrian Chiles, Robert Peston and Shappi Khorsandi, and we would love one day to welcome that well-known opposition politician and son of a single parent, Marcus Rashford, to our APPG. We live in hope. We want to show that it is not always only the man from the Ministry who should make policy; some things get flagged as anomalies, but the single mum at the school gates often knows best. As we steer out of this pandemic, although the Government go on about the plan for jobs, they need to address the 1.8 million single parents—a quarter of all households. That really would be levelling up.

Thank you, ma’am. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmadamship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) on securing this crucial debate, which highlights an example of the disjuncture between what happens here in Westminster and what happens in real life. In real life, over the past two years, families across all our constituencies have really struggled, and those people having to lead a family on their own have struggled most.

The single parents in our communities are utter heroes for being able to manage a family, trying to keep in work and trying to stay sane, given the pressures we put on them. A number have been outlined, including the craziness of saying that, somehow, for a single parent under the age of 25 on universal credit, it must be cheaper, so they do not need the same level of entitlement. I have never known a child to be cheap only because of the age of the parent; perhaps, at 44, I should have learned my lesson. We also pay childcare costs retrospectively, so someone who does not have savings—as single parents disproportionately do not—cannot get childcare so that they get back into work, as they want to.

In my short contribution, I flag to the Minister that there might be one parent, but it is the same bill, particularly when it comes to childcare. In this country, the cost of childcare and nursery fees for the under-fives has risen three times faster than pay in the past decade. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that, when splitting the cost, that might be marginally more manageable than just one wage trying to cover the bill. Childcare is not just a nice add-on, it is not just good for children, it does not just help women—mainly—get back into work. It is, economically, one of the best investments we can make, because universal childcare pays for itself, as Women’s Budget Group research shows. We get a higher tax take, and crucially for this debate, it lowers welfare bills.

I say to the Minister: not only do we desperately need urgent reform to universal credit, particularly for single parents—penalising a parent for being under 25 penalises their child; I hope he thinks of the children when he does that—but we need to reform childcare costs so that we can actually get people into work so they can earn the money to not need universal credit in the first place. We also need to see universal childcare as one of the best investments we can make, and one of the best things that his Department can lobby the Treasury for, to make sure that not only single parents but all parents can manage their children. However, single parents in particular face these costs, and it is absolutely right that we recognise that childcare is the cost of living crisis for most families.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes—or should I call you ma’am? I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) for securing this debate. I am grateful for the work that she does in chairing the all-party parliamentary group on single-parent families, and for the contributions from Members of the APPG that we have heard today. Like them, I recognise the heroic work that so many single parents do across the country, supporting businesses and organisations in the work they do—and supporting their children as well. We recognise that important contribution.

We want everyone to be able to find a job, progress in work and to thrive in the labour market—whoever they are and wherever they live. It is good to see the proportion of single parents in employment increasing. It has grown by 11.4% since 2010, and is now at 68.5%. However, we want to go further. Through the support that we are providing as the economy bounces back from the debilitating effects of the pandemic we will see employment rates continuing to improve. We are committed to continuing to see an increase in the number of single parents in the workforce, which is why we have a comprehensive package of support that helps lone parents to enter and, importantly, progress in employment.

First, I reiterate that universal credit provides incentives to work as part of its fundamental design. In the Budget, as has been recognised by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton, we have gone further; we have taken decisive action to ensure that work pays by cutting the universal credit taper rate from 63% to 55% and increasing universal credit work allowances by £500 a year. This is essentially a tax cut for the lowest- paid in society, worth around £2.2 billion in 2022-23; it means that 1.9 million households will keep, on average, around £1,000 on an annual basis. This will be complemented by a generous increase to the national living wage. The Government are extending the national living wage, from April 2022, to £9.50 per hour to all those aged 23 and over. We want people to be able to work, and we are making work pay.

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), cannot be here today as she is attending a Select Committee hearing. Crucially, she is pushing hard for our comprehensive £30-billion plan for jobs, which will enable more single parents to take advantage of the nearly 1.2 million vacancies we currently have in the labour market. As part of our plan for jobs, the rapid estates expansion programme has led to the opening of around 180 new job centre sites all around the country; I am sure Members will be experiencing that in their own constituencies.

Those job centres will help us to meet the growing demand for our employment services, and help to ensure that all claimants looking for work receive the right support. The new estates are helping us to house the 13,500 new work coaches whom the Department for Work and Pensions recruited in the last financial year. I recognise the important contribution that they make; I am sure that the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton does as well. They are real heroes in our local communities, and in my view they are too often unsung. Our plan for jobs programme will support more single parents to find the role that is right for them, no matter what their age or their experience.

We agree with the Minister about the importance of helping people get into work. Can he explain why he thinks that, during that process¸ the universal credit support we give to families, and particularly to single parents, should be assigned by age? What is it about a child of someone who is under the age of 25 that makes the Government think that they are cheaper, and do not need the same rate of universal credit—can he justify that anomaly? This is something that makes it harder for parents under the age of 25 to get into work because they do not have the money to pay those up- front child care costs. Why is it that the child of an under 25-year-old is cheaper?

The hon. Member makes an important point, and asks her question with characteristic commitment to the cause—I understand where she is coming from. We want to make sure that this safety net is available to everyone, and that we help people get into work—that is the most important thing. The lower rates for younger claimants who are under 25 reflects the fact that they are more likely to live in someone else’s household and have lower earning expectations. I will repeat: what we want to do is help more people get into work and then progress in that work so they have more money of their own in their pocket.

The other way that we can help young people, in particular, is through the kickstart scheme. I hope that hon. Members can see the effect that that is having in their constituencies, by helping 16 to 24-year-olds to secure fully-funded six-month job roles. The good news is that we have now seen over 100,000 young people supported into kickstart jobs. To complement this, our new DWP youth offer is providing extra wrap-around support to young people.

For older single parents who are looking to return to employment, the restart scheme offers a fresh start, helping more than 1 million people who have been unemployed for over 12 months. That is in addition to our job entry targeted support scheme—JETS—which supports people who have been unemployed for at least 13 weeks.

It is important to understand the success of the plan for jobs at a macro level, but it is also important to share the excellent work that our jobcentres are doing at a more local level for single parents in particular. Some of the case studies are very interesting. In Merseyside, for example, we have dedicated sector-based work academy programmes—SWAPs—that support lone parents to apply for and move into employment opportunities, with working hours that work for them and their childcare needs. In Birmingham, we support the YMCA to deliver a programme called parent journeys, which aims to provide tailored work and lifestyle-focused support for 42 lone parents over a 12-month period. There are many more examples of these tailored, local approaches, but time does not permit me to elaborate; I would be more than willing to share them with the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton. I would also like to recognise the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke), who talked about the importance of community outreach. We see examples of that in our own constituencies, and those should be praised.

I turn now to in-work progression, which is also a very important priority for members of APPG. We are enhancing our programme of support for workers on universal credit. Starting in April 2022—just a few months’ time—more people who are in work and on universal credit, including single parents, will be able to access work coach support, focused on progression advice and removing barriers. That could include signposting to careers advice and job-related skills provision, and helping claimants overcome practical barriers to progression, for example childcare costs, which we have discussed. Jobcentre Plus specialists will also work with local employers and other organisations, including skills providers, to identify opportunities for people to progress in work.

I am grateful to the Minister for describing those programmes. However, rather than a one-off programme in Merseyside that acknowledges single parents, surely we should have a strategy that acknowledges them at every stage. A one-size-fits-all approach means, for example, I think, that two people each earning £39,999 receive their full child benefit as a couple, but a single parent on £40,000 starts to have it wrenched away. Those anomalies need to be ironed out. Will the Minister commit to a strategy that acknowledges single parents all the way through?

The point of raising the case studies was to show that there are tailored, local approaches that are working and are based on local circumstances. The situation in Merseyside is different from that in rural Lincolnshire, so we need to find ways that work in those different communities. However, I am sure that this is a subject to which we can return.

In the few minutes that remain, I would like to highlight the fact that the Government are considering carefully the recommendations of Baroness McGregor-Smith’s in-work progression commission. We will respond formally to the commission’s report in the coming months. We are doing a lot more to help with skills and, particularly through the national skills fund, to make sure that we can provide opportunities for all generations of adults who have previously been left behind.

Many hon. Members discussed childcare. I will not spill the beans on the childhood experiences of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), but he makes an important point. We must find ways to help lone-parent families. The childcare situation has improved dramatically since his day—and thank goodness for that. Childcare is available through universal credit, and free childcare is available through the Department for Education. The flexible support fund can also be used to provide for childcare up front—as we know, most childcare is paid for in arrears. There is support available.

We are also doing a lot of work to support the consultation by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on flexible working, which is another issue that hon. Members have raised. That consultation is important. The Scottish Government have their approach to flexible working, which we recognise, but we need to do more to look at part-time work, job sharing and other flexible working arrangements, which have become a norm for those who have been able to work from home during the pandemic—not everybody. We need to look at the responses to that consultation, and see what we can do to create more options for single parents, which is a really important priority.

I welcome today’s debate and thank the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton for her contributions. I hope that she can see that we are making significant strides in helping more people.

Sitting suspended.