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Single-Parent Families

Volume 729: debated on Tuesday 14 March 2023

[Ian Paisley in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for single parent families.

There are a number of measures the Government preside over to the detriment of single parents, and I will come to some of them in a moment. However, the crux of the argument lies in the fact that the Government are failing single-parent families—they are failing the children and they are failing the parents.

In 2021, there were 3 million single-parent families in the UK. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s 2023 annual report, 40% of children in lone-parent families are living in poverty. That statistic should concern us all, and it demonstrates just how necessary this debate is. Being a single parent can make someone more vulnerable, and unexpected changes, such as the chaos of covid or the increasing cost of living, can have a huge impact on the quality of life of not only the children but the whole family. Shared Parenting Scotland told me yesterday that its evidence shows that, under this Government’s social security system, both parents end up worse off financially when they split up.

I predict that the Minister will give me a blow-by-blow account of everything the Tory Government are already doing, but the point of this debate is that what they are doing is not working. It is failing families, and single-parent families in particular. I will break this down into two categories: what the Government are already doing and need to do better to support single-parent families, and where the Government are being more of a hindrance than a help to single-parent families.

In 2019-20, 34% of children in single-parent households were in relative poverty, compared with 20% of children in a household with a couple. That is an unacceptable gap. At a cost of only £1.3 billion, scrapping the two-child limit on benefits would lift 250,000 children out of poverty and mean that 850,000 children were in less deep poverty. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is something the Chancellor should look to include in his Budget this week?

I absolutely agree with everything the hon. Lady just said, but I would go one step further and also scrap the benefit cap, which would lift 300,000 children out of poverty across the UK.

To come back to my two categories, the second was where the Government are being more of a hindrance than a help to single-parent families. In that category, I will put the Child Maintenance Service, the two-child policy, as outlined by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), the benefit cap and the rape clause. The two-child limit disproportionately affects women, as they are much more likely to be single parents than men. Some 47% of the families affected by the two-child limit are single-parent families. As I just outlined, it is estimated that removing the two-child limit and the benefit cap would lift 300,000 children out of poverty. I call on the Government to scrap each of those policies to help single-parent families.

I am keen to hear the Minister’s defence of the Child Maintenance Service, which puts vulnerable parents—mainly women—at risk of further manipulation from an abusive ex-partner. Not being assigned a designated case worker can cause the parent receiving the maintenance to relive trauma, with each conversation rehashing their situation and the breakdown of the previous relationship. CMS is a deeply flawed service that lets down single-parent families time and again. The entire service needs to be reviewed, and I call on the Government to conduct a root-and-branch review of it to make it more suitable and functional for parents. I am keen to hear whether the Minister is considering that point, given the number of times it has been raised with the Department.

The young parent penalty is also worth discussing. The arbitrary setting of two levels of universal credit seriously disadvantages those under 25—especially young parents—and to what end? This issue has been raised with the Department since the introduction of universal credit, most notably when over 100 organisations wrote to a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about it, yet there has still been no movement for young single parents. They have the same financial responsibilities as other parents but receive approximately £66 a month less.

I will move on to where the Government need to change their current stance, which seems to be well-intentioned but is falling short. We in the SNP welcome the inflationary increase to benefits, but it is just not enough for single-parent families, who are disproportionately affected by inflation, given that most of their income is spent on food and energy. It is crucial that any additional money gets into families’ pockets urgently, so the fact that the increase is being implemented only in April is an unnecessary and harmful delay.

That leads me on to tomorrow’s Budget. It is expected that the energy price guarantee will remain at £2,500, which is welcome, but our constituents, and particularly single-parent families, are still struggling to pay their bills. We need bolder action from the Government to keep money in people’s pockets now, rather than have it lining the pockets of energy companies.

The Government could act on one of the SNP’s Budget calls—cutting the energy price guarantee to £2,000 and maintaining the energy bill support scheme until the summer. This would save families £1,400 on energy bills, which would be a much-needed saving for families, and particularly single-parent families.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has reported that, of all the groups of people in poverty, children and others in lone-parent families are the most likely to suffer food insecurity. This means that single-parent families are often among the most vulnerable people in our society. Approximately a fifth of households in my constituency think they will have to use a food bank. This appalling statistic speaks volumes about the Government’s record on social security. Choosing to crack down on benefit fraud—most of which is caused by continual error in the Department, with it paying people too much—instead of getting money into people’s pockets so that they can afford to live is utterly shameful.

Gingerbread has found that single parents experience higher unemployment rates than couple parents, despite having the same desire to work. It found that those single parents who do work often want to work more hours than they are able to and must frequently abandon their career aspirations to take on work that better fits in with childcare arrangements and school hours. This means that many of them are on lower incomes than they would otherwise be. It also means that, at a time when employers are struggling to fill vacancies, they miss out on the potential of single parents, because of the way they structure roles. Although childcare costs are a key barrier in terms of single parents getting into work, those parents are also held back significantly by the shortfall of suitable, flexible, part-time jobs and a lack of tailored employment support from Jobcentre Plus.

The Scottish Government are providing almost £3 billion in this financial year to help households face the increased cost of living, including £1 billion to provide services and financial support that are not available anywhere else in the UK. That includes increasing the Scottish child payment by 150% to £25 per week per child. Has the Minister considered introducing a similar policy? We have also doubled our fuel insecurity fund to £20 million.

The SNP Scottish Government consider social security as an investment in people that is key to our national mission to tackle child poverty, and we are using the limited powers and fixed budgets we have to support children and their families. However, there is only so much that devolved Governments can do to support single-parent families when 85% of welfare expenditure and income-replacement benefits remain reserved here.

In 2021, the Children’s Commissioners for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland wrote to the UK Government to call on them to scrap the two-child limit, which demonstrates that this policy is widely condemned across these four nations. So I ask again: will the Minister consider scrapping the two-child policy alongside the benefit cap?

Roughly 120,000 children in the UK receive no child maintenance, and many more do not receive their full entitlement, so it is abundantly clear that the CMS is not sufficiently protecting these children. I would be keen to hear what the Minister has to say about that policy and what defence for it can he bring to the table. In my eyes and those of the SNP, it is indefensible?

To summarise, the UK Government are failing single-parent families; they could do far more to step up to the plate and help to support them. We need far more action, and far bolder action, from the UK Government to mirror the radical, bold action the Scottish Government are taking to tackle the levels of child and family poverty.

I remind hon. Members that they should bob up and down if they want to attract my attention to speak in the debate. I call Jim Shannon.

It is not often I get called first in a debate in Westminster Hall. The reason I have been today is that I am the only Back Bencher —I hope that augurs better for the future. It was a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) putting forward the issues for single-parent families.

Over many years in my constituency, and particularly over the past three years, I have dealt with mothers who have valiantly looked after their children in the face of financial difficulties. The hon. Lady ably outlined that case and the problems for constituents, and I look forward to hearing what the two shadow Ministers—the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Wirral South (Alison McGovern)—and particularly the Minister have to say. I am not saying that to give the Minister a big head, but because I believe he understands the issues we are referring to. I know from my deliberations with him, and from those of others, that he shows understanding and compassion, and provides help, for those who are under pressure, vulnerable and finding life difficult. When he responds at the end, I am fairly confident—without writing his script for him—that he will be able to address some of the issues and concerns that we have.

We stand up for these lone parents. Every Member here will be aware of the struggles they have had over the past couple of months and—let us be honest—over the past three years, as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire mentioned. Covid brought the extra pressure of living together and not being able to go out. It brought the pressure of ill health and put pressure on finances, with people not being able to work and earn money for the family. Children must have the best start in life, and parents feel the utmost responsibility to ensure that they can give them that. Every parent—mum or dad—can give their child that start in life and put them on the road to a successful future.

Single parents want to be a good role model for their children but, in reality, they often experience long periods of unemployment, are unable to work all the hours they want, are forced to accept lower-paid jobs and may have to put their career aspirations aside in their child’s early years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the impact that that can have on a single parent’s mental wellbeing should not be overlooked? That would influence how the child feels in that relationship.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Yes, I do concur with that, because I have seen it in my constituency. People have come to me in times of torment and difficulty, when the pressure is very much upon them. With that in mind, we have to look not only at the financial help we give but at the broader picture of mental health and anxiety issues and at family support, when that is needed.

Parents’ guilt due to the current financial situation has left them no choice but to scrape their last pennies together to put a meal on the table. I am sorry to have to say that that is the reality. It is not the Government’s fault, by the way, but the nature of society and of what has happened over the past two or three years.

I thank the hon. Member for giving way. He is making an excellent speech, and we will all have heard many excellent speeches—as I am sure we will in this debate—about the experiences of single parents and their children. I am proud to be the child of a single mother. The hon. Member mentioned the word “guilt” and my mother grew up with a lot of guilt for being a single parent. Does he agree that we need to celebrate single parents? We need to support them and celebrate the diverse and different families we have—be that two mothers, two fathers, a mum and a dad, just a mum, just a dad, or those who are looked after. Single parents are truly heroes. We need to ensure that all Governments do everything they can to support them through what the hon. Member describes as incredibly difficult times.

The hon. Lady brings personal experience to the debate, which we all acknowledge. At the end of my contribution I am going to say just how much I admire single parents. I want to say that because the ones I meet regularly in my office are the ones who deliver each week. They are the ones who scrape and save and perhaps go without a meal. They do not get the help they need, when they need it. The hon. Lady is right about the parents who struggle and scrape to save every penny. They also give a level of love and affection to their children that helps build them up to enter society.

It is always a pleasure to come and tell some stories from Strangford, in Northern Ireland. That is not because Strangford is any different from anywhere else, but because it replicates every other constituency across the whole of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Office for National Statistics estimates that there are just under 3 million single-parent households across the UK, which equates to 15%. That is a big figure when we think of the pressures that those 3 million households are under.

The hon. Member is a very good friend, and I thank him for giving way. On the note that all Members in this House have significant amounts of casework on this issue, does he recognise that they have cases relating to the CMS that have not been resolved over a number of years, because the Department is stalling on fixing the grave issues with the child maintenance system?

I do, and the Minister has responded on that on a number of occasions. I hope he will take the chance today to respond—I am quite sure he will. It is good to reinforce issues on behalf of our constituents. Child maintenance payments are incredibly difficult. Sometimes there is an absent father who, in drastic circumstances, may leave his job to reduce his income so that he does not have to give a contribution to his wife and children. I find that absolutely disgraceful. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire puts down a marker in relation to that.

There are fathers I have known over the years who seem to have a portfolio of buildings and properties but who for some reason do not make their child maintenance payments in the way they should. I find that incredibly frustrating. We are seeking from the Minister some methodology to feed in that information so that urgent action can be taken. I think that is what the hon. Member would like to see; it is certainly what I would like to see.

I thank the hon. Member for being so generous with his time. I attended a Council of Europe event yesterday on the Istanbul convention and its importance. One of the issues that was raised by women from across Europe and beyond was the abuse of single parents, and particularly single mothers, through the court system by former partners. Does he agree that we need to ensure that every system in every Government supports mothers who are trying to protect their children from violent men?

I certainly do, and there is no excuse for not protecting them. I hope that there is understanding and compassion in the courts to ensure that families are protected—there needs to be. The anxiety of the occasion can also put extra pressure on families.

The latest data from the family resources survey found that 50% of single-parent families were claiming income-related benefits in 2020 and 2021. One of my staff members has been working for me for over 10 years as a benefits adviser. I could not do without her; her knowledge of the benefits system is phenomenal, as is the money that she is able to get for those who are under pressure. Mr Paisley, I think one of your staff members is equally helpful to you and has managed to get back a substantial, seven-figure amount. We cannot do without them. My staff member does her very best daily to advise and assist those single-parent families who are in need. There are many who are in need.

Single-parent families are over-represented among benefit claimants.  The survey also revealed that single parents are more likely to be in poverty. Child poverty levels in Northern Ireland are running at 30%. You and I know that, Mr Paisley, through our workloads in our offices. There is no doubt that single parents are in a highly difficult position. The cost of living has increased the price of more or less everything. No matter what it is, the price is up. Food, electricity, oil, gas, school uniforms, childcare and transport have all dramatically increased in price over the last couple of months. To be fair, that is due to many things beyond the Government’s control, including Ukraine, energy prices and other problems with the movement of goods.

I have said this before, but in my office I have seen an increase in the number of food-bank parcel referrals since last September and October. It is not just those in a lower income bracket, but those in the middle class who are affected. People I refer to as the working poor are also under pressure. I would go as far as saying that at the peak of the cost of living crisis, we were referring 30-plus families every week for assistance, when we used to refer around 10. The Thriving Life food bank tells me that out of all the referrals, the most come from my office. My staff are excellent at dealing with people in a compassionate way and assuring them of support. Vulnerable people feel that wee bit more confident when they leave the office with some way forward. We try to help them with that.

It saddens me that those who are in need are often embarrassed to ask for help. The hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) is right. There should never be any shame in not having a level of income. Never should someone have to excuse themselves or apologise for that. When times are tough, we do our best to ease the burden on struggling families, especially single parents. It is my duty as an MP—as an elected representative—and as a person who has compassion, to respond positively and to help people whenever they need it.

I have heard of numerous child maintenance issues in my office over the last five years. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire referred to that. The main issue is that single parents simply do not feel that the payments are doing any justice, given how expensive things are. Whenever they get them, they are too small. Whenever they are agreed, they have not caught up with inflation. As another example, some parents look after their children and have them to stay six nights a week. They say to me that maintenance payments simply do not do any justice to the situation. I ask the Minister what extra help we can give to those families under financial pressure, particularly at this time.

The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that there are around 2.3 million separated families in Great Britain, and 3.6 million children living in such families. Here is a shocking figure: around 40% of those families were estimated to have no child maintenance arrangement at all. Wow—that is 40% of them with nowhere to go. I always ask questions to be constructive and helpful. What can the Government and the Minister do to help that 40% without child maintenance? Whether it is direct contact or special help for them, we certainly have much to do.

In Northern Ireland specifically, more than a quarter of the children born last year were born into a single-parent household. Just shy of 1,200 babies—5%—were registered by their mother alone with no record of a father, because that is what the person wanted. A further 5,154 babies—21%—had details of a dad, but one living at a different address. Those are probably most of the people who come to see me in my office.

Our social security and welfare state must do right by single parents. There should be no stigma or shame. The hon. Member for Livingston is right. Those people have come through hard times to rear a family when they were the only person producing anything in the house. Single parents do a fantastic job providing for their kids. That should never be taken away from them. Indeed, we should underline that and say how well they are doing to encourage them, give them confidence and help them move forward. Sometimes in life, people need that wee extra boost, extra nudge or bit of help. I underline that statement—they do a fantastic job providing for their kids, and that should never be taken away from them.

These are trying times. They are hard times. In my lifetime, it has never been like it has been over the last three to four years. We are living in an environment where parents—this is a fact—are skipping meals to ensure that their children are fed. That is the reality I deal with in my office every week.

Through my staff members who deal with benefit issues for my constituents in Strangford, I am aware that the UK social security system offers great support. We thank the Minister and the Government for what they are doing, but when we are confronted with extra problems, which are galloping away from us, we look to those who provide to help more.

It is important that those who are parenting individually know that they can turn somewhere for advice and support. Is there any direct help and support for those parents? They can turn to the offices of MPs and elected representatives and we then refer them to the Government for help as well. The rise in the cost of living is having an impact on everyone, but some are more vulnerable than others. We deal with the more vulnerable every day. We must do better to help them through.

The Minister is a compassionate man—one who feels for the vulnerable and hard-pressed single parents. I know he does, and I hope that he will outline a number of steps that he will take, which we can pass on to our constituents. I ask that all the information and all the help is made available so that we can help those who need help more.

On other subjects, we often say we are a voice for the voiceless. We are also a conduit—a door—for those who need help. I look to the Minister for support and help, so that we can grasp the way in which we can help our constituents to deal with the pressures of the day.

As always, it is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I extend my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) for securing the debate. It is timely to consider the impact that the cost of living crisis has had on one-parent families on the eve of the Chancellor presenting his Budget to Parliament.

Earlier this afternoon, I chaired the all-party parliamentary group on poverty. We heard a number of testimonies, including from single parents, on some of the changes that they would like to see to the social security system. I use the phrase “social security system” very deliberately. Likewise, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, on which I sit, is embarking on an inquiry into the adequacy of benefits in the UK.

All those points feed into the juncture we find ourselves in at the moment. We know from public polling that there is now consensus in public opinion that the current social security system is inadequate—a point that has been made a number of times today. Perhaps that is because they saw the benefits system—the social security system—for the first time during the pandemic.

The inescapable reality is that families of single parents—90% of whom are women; let us not forget or gloss over that point—with children are more likely to be in poverty. Any reduction in income is likely to be particularly harmful, which means that, in the face of the ongoing cost of living crisis, the British Government must do more—so much more—to protect children from poverty. In doing so, Ministers must urgently address the barriers to work that single parent families face. My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire and others have touched on the fact that childcare is a big barrier.

The SNP has been calling for a long-overdue root-and-branch review of the Child Maintenance Service, to make it work more effectively for the children whom it is supposed to serve. The Select Committee heard evidence from Viscount Younger of Leckie fairly recently, which did not inspire me that the Government are getting to grips with some of the issues in the Child Maintenance Service. My constituency postbag certainly reflects that.

North of the border, the SNP Government are using their devolved powers to try to ensure that children and families are supported during this difficult time. They are working hard to prevent them from being pushed into further hardship but, again, it is an undeniable fact that the Government in Edinburgh are very much operating with one hand tied behind their back due to the limitations of the current constitutional settlement on these islands.

To be blunt, for all the good that my colleagues can do with the Scottish child payment, to name just one example, it is the intransigence of this Westminster Government that actively hinders our ability to adequately lift one-parent families out of poverty. For example, the Scottish Government can do things such as bringing forward that game-changing Scottish child payment of £25 a week, but when the UK Government take away that extra £20 universal credit uplift, it almost wipes it out.

I want to pick up the point my hon. Friend is making about the Scottish child payment and the profound impact that it is having. Many of my Livingston constituents have told me what a huge impact it has had. I compare those experiences, although they are profound, to my mum’s experience. She talked about being double taxed. She was taxed on her income and, when she paid her childminder, she was taxed on that income. Many women faced that, and still face that in other parts of the UK, but in Scotland, at least, we are doing what we can with the limited powers that we have.

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on; it is about how devolved powers are used. I will come on to that and the question of what devolution is for, but she is right to praise the Scottish child payment. It is something on which we have managed to get cross-party consensus. One of the few things that I have enjoyed about the SNP leadership debate, which has been absolutely terrible in my view, has been watching the candidates try to outbid each other on the Scottish child payment. That is a good thing; we should always strive to do more to protect families and children. The fact that it is so much the focus of that debate can only be a good thing. It has been a ray of light in what has been an otherwise dreary contest.

We know that inflation disproportionately impacts low-income groups such as single parents, who spend a relatively high proportion of their income on food and fuel. According to the Resolution Foundation, the poorest tenth of households experienced an inflation rate of 11.7%. It is against that worrying backdrop that I remain concerned about the British Government’s approach to social security. I do not want to be churlish; of course, any additional support is welcome, but these kinds of one-off payments are only a temporary fix. Permanent solutions are needed. Rather than offering one-off payments to shore up the incomes of struggling families, the Government should reverse the damaging long-term policies that are impacting the most vulnerable. That is why I will not tire of calling on the Government to reinstate the universal credit uplift, and, indeed, to increase it to £25 a week and extend it to all means-tested legacy benefits.

At 1 o’clock, the APPG on poverty took evidence from the Disability Benefits Consortium and we remained baffled as to why the 2.5 million disabled people on these islands were completely overlooked and forgotten during the pandemic when that £20 uplift was put in place. Ministers need to go further than that. They need to scrap the benefit cap entirely and get rid of the immoral and heartless two-child limit, which is utterly incompatible with the Government’s own family test. In this place, we rightly talk about the importance of a compassionate society—even the Conservatives. There is this thing, I believe, called compassionate conservatism. I do not know how a two-child limit is in any way compatible with compassionate conservatism.

Does my hon. Friend consider that the rape clause and the benefit cap do not align with their vision of a compassionate society at all?

Exactly. Quite rightly, my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire should not be sparing the blushes of the Conservatives, who are mandated to turn up to this debate—that is why there are two of them here. The reality is that there cannot be a compassionate social security system when there is this arbitrary cap in place that takes no cognisance of the cost of living. It is not compatible with a compassionate society to turn around and say, “We’ll pay for the first two children, but, by the way, do you see that third one? Out on their ear.” It certainly is not compatible with a compassionate society to turn around to women who have experienced rape and sexual violence and conceived a child as a result and say, “Okay. You have told us that this third child was born as a result of rape. Can you prove that?” That is my question to the two Conservatives who are here. Perhaps that is a problem; that got through the policy process. Was it two white men sitting there thinking, “This policy is absolutely fine”? I can tell the House that the women I speak to at Glasgow East Women’s Aid in my constituency are appalled that, years and years on, we have the abhorrent rape clause.  I know that Ministers find this issue incredibly uncomfortable, and they often tell me, “Don’t refer to it as a rape clause.” They want to refer to it by its official name, which is the non-consensual sex exemption. Let us just think about that for a minute: in 2023, the state asks women in this country to prove that they have been raped, simply so they can get state support. It really should shame the Government.

Some 86% of households trapped by the benefit cap are families, often headed by single mothers—the very people we are debating today—and it is the Government’s job to support families, not to subject them to further hardship. The Minister and the Government can and must do better. They should take heed of the wise words of John Dickie of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, who calls for the

“cruel and irrational benefit cap…to be scrapped at source by the UK Government as a matter of utmost urgency.”

Those are not my words as a nasty, nationalist MP. They are the words of John Dickie of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland—somebody who is a respected expert in this field—and the Minister would do well to reflect on that.

The continued refusal of Ministers to fix the extensive and known problems with universal credit is unacceptable, and it is clearly subjecting vulnerable people to wholly unnecessary hardship. Even more damning is the fact that this hardship has been noted outwith these islands. The Government like to fly around the world—it was San Diego yesterday—on Union Jack-clad private jets and talk about the importance of global Britain, but let us look at global Britain. A recent report from the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) is a member, found that the level of support provided under universal credit was a key contributing factor to child poverty. The report, published in November, stated that policies such as the two-child limit and the benefit cap

“restrict the amount of benefits a household can receive, regardless of their specific needs, and thereby continue to exacerbate child poverty.”

In its recent submission to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Human Rights Watch also gives a damning review of the British Government’s restrictive social security policies, such as the two-child limit and the failure to reverse the cut to universal credit, and sets out their negative impact on the right to an adequate standard of living—things such as food and housing for families with children.

I want to refer briefly to the wonderful folks at One Parent Families Scotland, because they have been campaigning for an awfully long time to end the benefits-related discrimination against single parents under the age of 25. People under 25 are entitled to a lower allowance of benefits than those aged 25 or over, but before the introduction of universal credit there was an exemption for single parents in recognition of the costs of caring for a child alone. Now that the exemption has been removed, children are certainly paying the price. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire set out, young single-parent families are now up to £66.13 worse off per month under universal credit compared with the legacy system, which equates to a drop of 20%. Denying young single parents—largely women—the same level of social security penalises children on the basis of their parent’s age and pushes young families into poverty, with an incredibly detrimental impact on their rights and wellbeing. It frustrates me that Scottish Government officials rightly talk about getting things right for every child, yet baked into the social security system is an inherent unfairness.

It is one thing for me to stand here and quote respected committees, international bodies and think-tanks, but I want to highlight some local examples from the east end of Glasgow, which I am incredibly proud to live in and represent. Last week, I was joined in Tollcross by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn). While we were at Tollcross advice centre, Matthew Leach, the financial inclusion officer, told me of several examples—he even provided me with case studies—that highlight the folly of the UK’s current social security system. Time constraints mean that I cannot read them all out, but I will certainly send them to the Minister’s office this afternoon to highlight just how challenging the Government’s policy makes life for single parents in these islands.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has said, life is hard enough for everyone right now—the cost of living crisis means that everyone is having to do more with less—but we know from today’s testimony alone that life is particularly hard right now for single parents, and the fact that the British Government are making life harder only adds insult to injury.

In conclusion, Westminster must do better. If it will not, an independent Scottish Government stand ready to step in and fulfil their obligations to families, whatever shape, size or format they come in.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) on securing this important debate. She made a very good speech, highlighting many of the issues that single parents face. We also heard strong contributions from the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow East (David Linden), who ran through a number of important issues.

My nan, who died in August, was made a single parent at the age of 40 by the sad death of my grandfather when my mum was 14. I saw her work her fingers to the bone for years. That is the main message of my contribution today: single parents in this country work so hard. They work hard to care for their kids and to bring them up really well, despite the odds sometimes being stacked against them, and they work really hard in their job, committing and offering their skills and talents, because they know that they have to work harder to get the same recognition. Single parents in the United Kingdom work really hard, and I think it is incumbent on the Government to support them a little better than is the case at the moment. It is with hope that I say that single parents work really hard and ought to be backed by the Government. I am pretty sure that the Minister will agree with that sentiment. It is a cross-party idea that single parents are deserving of our support, and I hope that he will agree with that, too.

Hon. Members have raised important issues about the Child Maintenance Service—what it does and does not do, how that could be improved and, if it were improved, how that would help with incomes. Members also raised matters relating to domestic abuse. We know that too many people are struggling and that, sometimes, the way the state operates does not help. But I want to focus on single parents in work, because, despite recent decreases in their employment, a large majority of single parents are working.

The Government often say that employment is the best route out of poverty. I worry that that is not true at the moment. I think we should want it to be true—I think that everyone deserves employment with dignity, self-respect and a decent pay packet. That is true for single parents just as it is for everybody else. Unfortunately, at the moment, 41% of children in working single-parent families are in poverty, including 27% of families where the parent is working full time and 54% where the parent is working part time. We have known for years that being part of a single-parent family puts a child at much greater risk of poverty, even where their parent is working hard. That is why we need to focus on the areas where we can remove barriers to work for single parents and, at the same time, think about how to get them better-paid jobs and help them to do more with their skills, so that their time and talent are not wasted.

I commend the hon. Lady on her excellent contribution. One issue, which the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) mentioned, is childcare. We hope that in the Budget tomorrow the Chancellor of the Exchequer might announce some extra help with that. Without that help, single parents are under even more severe financial pressure than other families, so that is really important.

Yes. If you are a single parent and you are on an income that is too low, what do you do? There are only so many hours in the day and somebody needs to care for the children while you are at work. Without a really good childcare system in this country, single-parent families are always going to be behind everybody else. There are myriad reasons why we need to sort childcare in the United Kingdom, and this is one of the key features. We have a shortage of people in the labour market, so we cannot let anybody’s time or talent go to waste.

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. The sad reality for many single parents is that working in even a very good job does not pay enough to make them better off than they would be if they stayed at home, because of the cost of childcare. For many parents, that is at the root of their ability not even to work and thrive, but just to survive.

Of course, the hon. Lady is right. The knock-on effect for British businesses is really quite big, because they are missing out on all the talent that exists in single-parent families.

The United Kingdom has a good story on single-parent employment, which has been on a generally upward trend since the mid-1990s, having previously been falling since 1979. In 1997, 45% of single parents worked; by 2010, that had risen by 12 percentage points to 57%. I am not sure what happened between 1997 and 2010, but I think it was probably quite good.

That was obviously a bit of a joke about the Labour Government and how they were brilliant on lone-parent employment, particularly in relation to jobcentres, which I will come to. The numbers have continued to grow, which is good; again, I hope that represents a cross-party consensus. Worryingly, however, single-parent employment has fallen since 2019. We need to focus on it again and work out how to turn that around.

Single parents are also likely to be underemployed. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), many single parents could do more and offer more to our economy if childcare were available. We know that single parents are more likely to be women, and the kind of work that women are more likely to do militates against their having better pay. We need to work on employment segregation. The jobs that women do mean they end up being paid less, which has a massive knock-on effect on single parents. If we could change that so that women’s time and talent were valued properly, as they should be in our economy, we would give single parents and, crucially, their children a much better chance.

Childcare has been mentioned because it is the glaringly obvious cause of many of the challenges that single parents face in our economy. The Institute for Fiscal Studies points out that there are at least eight different programmes to help with the cost of childcare and many families are eligible for more than one form of support simultaneously. That complexity makes it hard to understand what someone is eligible for. However, despite the plethora of schemes, the supply of childcare is not really any good, because there are failures in the way that the schemes run.

We need to have a root-and-branch look at childcare. We are all hopeful that we might hear something in the Budget. There are things, such as reforming the way it works through universal credit, that we could have done already. Labour wants to invest in breakfast clubs, which could be funded by savings that we have identified from changing tax arrangements for non-doms. That would help single parents to do a job that starts at 9 am and give them a lot more flexibility.

In addition to the extremely important issue of childcare, our success as a nation in helping single parents to have a choice of jobs and success in employment was driven by Jobcentre Plus services. In recent years, I have worried that the focus on supporting single parents has declined. I hope that is not the case, but we need to make improvements. Gingerbread found recently that just a third of single parents agreed that contact with Jobcentre Plus was personalised and relevant to their specific situation. That is not great. Lone parents face specific barriers, and they need specialised support. Gingerbread found a lack of continuity in relationships with work coaches, and that people were being pushed to apply for unsuitable jobs. That is problematic. We know that Jobcentre Plus works best when it provides tailored and specific support.

Of course, we also need workplaces to change, with more part-time and flexible working. Will the Minister say how he sees the DWP making that happen? Do the Department’s own flexible working policies support single parents? What does the Department advise work coaches to suggest to employers on flexible or part-time work to support single parents? There is a huge amount of skill and life experience available to businesses, if only they can ensure that the employment they are offering is fully inclusive. There is no better time to address this. We have businesses crying out for staff. Why not look for talent in single-parent families?

We await tomorrow’s Budget, and I live in hope that we will see expansive, brilliant childcare reform that will really help—I am slightly sceptical after 13 years in this place, although perhaps my Pollyanna-ish tendencies should be tempered with a bit more scepticism—but whatever happens tomorrow, we also need action far beyond childcare, including reform to the support that Jobcentre Plus offers; improved public transport, because fewer single parents are likely to have their own car; and big changes on flexible working, so that everybody is fully included. In this time of staff shortages, making employment more inclusive and ensuring that it involves more people would be a big win, which could help our labour market to be sustainable into the future. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say as a precursor to tomorrow’s excitement.

Well, it is the word of the day so far. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. It is an honour to respond to this debate secured by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan). We are in Brain Tumour Awareness Month; I know she did not suffer a tumour as such, but as a fellow recoverer from neurosurgery, I join her in celebrating the month. We say many thanks to Headway and the Stroke Association, which have done great work supporting her, and I put on the record my thanks to the Brain Tumour Charity, the National Brain Appeal and Brain Tumour Research, which have done great work supporting me, and to Neil Kitchen, who, with a very small chainsaw on my head, performed the operation that kept me alive after I collapsed in Central Lobby in 2011.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on an important issue, which I want to try to address in some detail. I accept the dubious honour of being the warm-up man for the Chancellor tomorrow, and there were many and varied pitches to him. I note those by the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), for East Dunbartonshire, for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I will come on to his points on childcare—and for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), and by the shadow Ministers, the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Wirral South (Alison McGovern).

The hon. Member for Livingston made the good point that we should celebrate single parents. I utterly endorse that. In this moment of personal reflection, I put on the record my thanks to my mum. When my parents split up, she brought me and my brother up alone. She is presently disabled, just out of hospital and very unwell. She worked for MI6 when not many women were entitled to do that. I will be getting her into trouble for revealing that piece of information, but I think she is safe from any retribution from the security services.

Without a shadow of a doubt, we need to celebrate and support those who have the honour and distinction of ploughing a lonely furrow in trying to ensure that upbringing is done in the most appropriate way possible, to the best of their ability, in circumstances not necessarily of their own choosing. We all understand it is complicated.

There are a number of points I need to address, but I want to start with the overarching point, which is the degree of support that the Government have provided over the last couple of years and will provide on an ongoing basis. I think that it contextualises the individual benefits and support that already exist. Clearly, we have to take in mind the Chancellor’s autumn statement, which reflected our commitment to support families across the UK, setting out a series of measures on top of the £37 billion announced in May 2022. About 8 million households on means-tested benefits such as universal credit will receive payments of up to £900, and obviously state pensions and benefits will increase by 10.1%, increasing expenditure on social security and benefit pension rates by £22 billion for 2023-24.

It is fair to note that we have never spent as much as we spend on the welfare system in this country; we are spending record levels.

Politicians always like to twist statistics, but if we compare what we spend as a proportion of average earnings, is it not the case that we are pretty much back to the days of Lloyd George in terms of our spending on social security?

I manifestly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not have my Lloyd George statistics to hand, but given that the welfare spend in the times of Lloyd George was effectively minimal and that we are now spending £245 billion through the welfare system in 2023, including £108 billion on people of working age, record sums on the state pension and record sums on the disabled, I suspect that the House of Commons Library would be delighted to correct the hon. Gentleman on the error of his Lloyd Georgian ways. Of course, were I to be mistaken, I would be delighted to be corrected by the Library.

I was not expecting the hon. Gentleman to rely on Lloyd George in support of the Scottish National party cause. I noted with interest and curiosity his description of his three colleagues who are running for the SNP leadership as dreary—or of the process as being dreary. I could not possibly comment. I am sure that they will be able replacements for Nicola Sturgeon. The statistics and the polls show that independence is a whole lot less likely than it was three months ago, but I am sure that the winner will turn things around in a heartbeat.

I think the Minister might want to correct the record on support for independence—we are in a much better place than we were just a couple of weeks ago—and get back to the subject of single-parent families.

Order. The debate is on single-parent families, not independence or the candidates for leader of the Scottish National party.

I utterly endorse that very strong steer. I have no intention of correcting any record because I stand by the statistics.

On spending, there is also the energy price guarantee, which will be extended until the end of March 2024; a typical household bill will be around £3,000 per year as a result of that support. For those needing extra support, we will be providing an additional £1 billion to help with the cost of household essentials this year, bringing total support to £2.5 billion since October 2021. There is also an extension of the household support fund backed by £842 million for 2023-24, and devolved Administrations receive funding that totals £158 million through the Barnett formula.

Much was said about childcare, and I want to address it in a bit of detail. While there is, of course, intense speculation about what may or may not happen tomorrow, it is relevant to make the point that, since 2010, we have taken a system of almost non-existent childcare in this country to a substantial, comprehensive and broad-ranging offer. For example, in 2010 there was no 85% universal credit childcare, and parents could not receive the paid-for 15 or 30 hours of childcare. Universal credit claimants can claim back up to 85% of their registered childcare costs each month, irrespective of their hours worked. That is available to all parents who satisfy the childcare cost and the work condition to qualify for help. This is obviously a substantial increase from what existed before and it applies to any parent up to the maximum amount of £646 per month for one child and £1,108.04 per month for two or more children.

Separate from the universal credit childcare element, the Government also provide free childcare for many families. There are the 15 hours free childcare a week we brought forward for three to four-year-olds in England. In 2017, that doubled to 30 hours for working parents of three to four-year-olds. There are similar schemes available in the devolved nations. Since 2013, we have also provided 15 hours of free early education entitlement to disadvantaged two-year-olds. The obvious aim is to improve long-term educational outcomes, and narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.

Parents are eligible if they are in receipt of certain income benefits, and have a household income of less than £15,400.

Some of what the Minister describes is a very complex landscape, with which many of my constituents have significant issues. Does he share my concern that there are many billions of pounds of unclaimed benefits every year? Perhaps that is because it is such a complex system. It is difficult for people, such as single parents, who are under pressure to navigate it.

The Chancellor is looking at that matter. Clearly, any person who does not claim an entitled benefit is one person too many. We all accept that. We would definitely like to see a higher number of people taking the UC element of childcare. Support already exists, such as the flexible support fund, to assist that process.

The hon. Lady should also be aware that the whole purpose of the childcare is to assist people into employment. The published statistics show that the effect of bringing in the childcare, however imperfect she may consider it in the present situation, has definitely made a massive difference. For example, there are now 1.2 million lone parents in employment. There is clear evidence that demonstrates the importance of parental employment.

We can argue about the relative merits and improvements that have taken place over the past few years or decades. Bluntly speaking, there is the opportunity for childcare support, but that has to be married to the enhancements of existing benefits and the changes we introduced, such as the work allowance and the taper. Universal credit is designed to make work pay, so that not all a person’s net earnings are deducted from their UC.

Claimants with children or a limited capability for work will also benefit from a work allowance. The work allowance is the amount of earnings a UC household can earn before the single taper rate of 55% is applied, and their universal credit begins to be reduced. That has been reduced and changed over the past two years. Together with the changing of the taper rate and the work allowance, that boosts support for single parents and all families, who are dealing with this.

Much was made by the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire and for Strangford of the issue of child maintenance, and I will try to address those points. I always enjoy the start of the hon. Member for Strangford’s speeches, because the first minute is normally a paean of praise to the individual Minister, irrespective of who that Minister is. I am always tempted to jump up and implore him to stop there, because that is the best part as far as I am concerned. My mum loves his speeches.

I accept the hon. Gentleman raised a number of key points. Child maintenance is devolved to Northern Ireland, and clearly the Department for Work and Pensions is not responsible for its delivery. In respect of child poverty in Northern Ireland, in the three years to 2019-20, 18% of children in Northern Ireland were in absolute poverty before housing costs. That is 6% less than in the three years to 2009-10. I accept that every percentage is too high, but I respectfully suggest that the statistics show things are better than they were. I take his comments on board.

To respond generally on child maintenance, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire raised a number of matters. I refer her to the three parliamentary answers given by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), on 28 February, which set out in detail some of the points the hon. Lady raised. My suggestion to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire, because she is clearly very exercised on that point, would be that she sits down with Lord Younger, the child maintenance Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions—I am always pleased to give other Ministers the chance to have a meeting that is not my responsibility. I strongly suggest that she sits down with the officials and the individual Minister and goes through some of those key points. If she is interested in that, then, clearly, I will organise and facilitate it and make it happen.

While I accept that there is always criticism made of the system, the system is, with respect, both doing better than it was and under a transformational procedure.

On the point of transformational change, I wonder what the Minister would say to my constituent, Felicity, who has been struggling to get maintenance for her son over a number of years because of consistent failures in the child maintenance system.

Well, the simple point is that I strongly urge the hon. Lady to raise that with the individual Minister. I cannot comment on a particular case, as she knows, but, without any shadow of a doubt, the Department is clear that our role is to support parents who choose to use its services, encouraging them to make a family-based arrangement to start with, or supporting them with the statutory scheme if they cannot.

The Child Maintenance Service is genuinely delivering a transformation programme and aiming to improve outcomes for children by enabling parents to set up, and then manage, their child maintenance arrangements in ways that suit their own individual circumstances. Significant improvements have been made to the online offerings, whether around applying for child maintenance or the development of a new service to help in arranging child maintenance. All of that makes for a more accessible service.

Let me give a few examples. In the quarter ending September 2022, 872,000 children were covered by Child Maintenance Service arrangements—an increase of 25,700. Our current estimate is that, as a result of regular child maintenance payments, 140,000 fewer children are growing up in poverty. Clearly, these matters are always difficult, always contentious, and always a difficulty between individual parents. We accept entirely that the principle is that child maintenance is designed to encourage parents to work together and make their own family-based child maintenance arrangements wherever possible, which is usually better for the children, but it can play a role in helping to lift children out of poverty and can help to enhance the outcomes of individual children.

I will turn back to some of the other points that I wished to make. Clearly, as a result of some of the decisions made in September, the child benefit itself—which is payable to anyone responsible for bringing up a child up to age 16, or under 20 if they are in approved education or training—will increase by 10.1% from April 2023 for the eldest or only child, and there will also be an increase for every other child. Alongside the financial assistance that child benefit provides, claimants also receive national insurance credits to protect their future entitlement to pension entitlements. Those can be transferred to grandparents providing childcare.

I will touch on a couple of quick points that were raised on other matters. There were multiple references to the Chancellor. On flexible working, the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), is obviously bringing forward legislation on that point.

There have been great changes there, and I can assure colleagues that the Department for Work and Pensions, as with other Departments, operates a very flexible working arrangement. It is not necessarily based in Whitehall, I can assure them. For example, I have two ladies who job share one of the most senior roles in Government in the Department for Work and Pensions. Between them, they cover one directorship in one of the most impressive job share and flexible-working examples I can imagine. Frankly, that is becoming the norm on a greater and greater basis.

I will conclude by stating that I accept and endorse the approach of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire on how we are driving these matters forwards. I accept that more can be done on the Child Maintenance Service, and I encourage her to take up my offer of a meeting, on behalf of my parliamentary colleague. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to set out certain matters in detail, including the amount of support that is available to single-parent families. Clearly, I will report back to the Chancellor the last-minute additions to the Budget that many have put forwards.

We are committed to meeting the needs of individuals and single-parent families in the United Kingdom, and we continue to provide the Scottish and Northern Irish Governments with generous funding and support where these matters are devolved.

We have heard a lot today about support—or, indeed, the lack of support—for single-parent families. I thank colleagues from across the House for joining me in calling on this Tory Government to do so much more to support single-parent families.

Single parents should be praised, and we have heard personal examples from my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on the Labour Front Bench. I will add the example of my nanna, Bea, who raised my mum and my aunt Pauline in a single-parent house. She had to work so damn hard to provide for them. All these decades later, we should have got to a much better place, where single-parent families actually feel supported.

I will pick up on some of the points made by the Minister. He wasted some time pondering independence and the SNP leadership contest, suggesting that he did not want to stand up and defend the Government’s record on support for single-parent families. On his point about child maintenance, I will certainly take him up on the offer to facilitate a meeting on my constituent Felicity’s ongoing situation, and more broadly on CMS in general.

The Minister glossed over some of the decisions made in September. Some recognition from him that this Government are responsible for inflation being where it is would have been appreciated, but to see the Government actually doing something to tackle the cost of living crisis for families would be even better still.

I thank Members from across the House for their contributions, and I hope the Minister takes away some of the points we have raised and actually delivers for single-parent families.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered support for single parent families.

Sitting suspended.