Where next for back-to-work support?

Into work support from the work programme and job centre is not delivering for single parents, or for the tax payer.

A young single mother and her child living on a housing estate in Middlesbrough, circa 1984. Photograph: Getty Images

If there’s one mantra that underpins much of the government’s social policy reforms, it’s that work is the answer. Whether it’s benefit cuts, radical welfare reform, troubled families, or child poverty–the end game is principally based on getting people into (or back to) work.

Indeed, getting into stable work that pays a decent wage is single parents’ best route out of poverty for their families. Yet there are still 1.16 million children growing up in single parent families where no-one works.

It’s an issue that successive governments have failed to resolve–and, despite the promises of a new approach to employment support, our research published today shows that this government is no closer to making this a reality.

Turning rhetoric into reality

The coalition government has made clear commitments to delivering a more personalised approach to employment support. This includes the promise to give “more responsibility to Jobcentre Plus advisers to assess claimants’ individual needs and to offer the support they think most appropriate”, as well as the Work Programme’s aim of “creating a structure that treats people as individuals and allows providers greater freedom to tailor the right support to the individual needs of each claimant”.

But in practice, our research shows that this rhetoric is firmly at odds with many single parents’ experiences, despite all the evidence showing that the best way to get single parents into work is to offered tailored, personalised support.

Where does this leave single parents? Their starting point is already behind that of other groups—while 59 per cent of single parents are in work, that’s still significantly behind the proportion of mothers from couple families: 71 per cent. More worryingly, despite the billions being invested in the new Work Programme by the government, its first year results—at 3.5 per cent of claimants achieving job outcomes—were already well below government minimum performance targets. And single parents were doing worse still—in fact around a third worse than other claimants. Just 2.5 per cent of single parents achieved job outcomes on the Work Programme. Drill down to young single parents and the figure gets even worse: just 2 per cent achieved job outcomes.

Where there’s a will—there must be a way

Single parents are highly motivated to work. They are the sole breadwinners for their family. They want to be role models, and they want and need to provide for their children.

But they face very specific and significant barriers to work: the cost and availability of childcare, a shortage of family friendly jobs and being able, once childcare and travel are factored in, to make work pay for their family.

Many of the single parents we speak to say that they will take almost any job, as long as they can balance it with caring for their child. Others have clear aspirations to train and skill up in a particular sector, or start on a path that takes them to a career rather than just a job.

We know it’s not lack of motivation that’s holding single parents back. They are a group with huge potential but they are still being failed by government back to work schemes that offer them a one-size-fits-all approach which barely meets the lowest common denominator of need.

Duplication

Even if the Jobcentre can only achieve delivery of a more of a basic and generic approach, the Work Programme should be the start of more intensive, targeted support that helps those a bit further away from work—those who have been long-term unemployed, or those who have requested a bit of extra help. As one of the single parents we spoke to said:

It lifts your spirits a little bit thinking maybe this is different, maybe this is something that is more about me, because that’s how they sell it to you—it’s more personalised. But actually your experience isn’t that different.

Instead single parents found it was groundhog-day. They again were offered basic courses ill-matched with their experience and met with advisers who weren’t trained to understand or meet their needs.

Some of our interviewees even felt sorry for their Work Programme advisers:

The atmosphere was awful. While the advisers weren’t unpleasant, there was such a high turnover of staff that they really struggled.

Again, single parents were recognised for their strong motivation to work. But this didn’t always work in their favour: in fact we found evidence that those closest to work were being ‘parked’—seemingly because their advisers thought they would find work on their own.

Of the single parents on the Work Programme who did find work, only one of our interviewees attributed it to the support they had received. However, all of those who stay in work for six months will result in a pay-out for providers. Is this really value for money for the tax payer?

What next?

There must be an urgent, renewed focus on single parents from Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme providers. We want the government to set a clear and ambitious target for single parent employment and an action plan to achieve it.

The government must undertake a rapid review to draw out the key differences between Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme provision, map out a seamless referral process between the two, and remove duplication in the services provided.

Advisers need greater training and direction to ensure that across both the Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme advisers are informing single parents about their rights to balance job seeking with their childcare responsibilities. Advisers should also be helping single parents to access consistent and reliable support for childcare costs when preparing for work.

And we want to see Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme providers carrying out assessments of single parents’ need for skills training, and investing in vocational skills—not just basic skills and employability.

In short, there has to be an overhaul of both programmes to ensure that they are making an impact, are helping single parents into sustained work and are delivering on the government’s promises. Supporting single parents into work can be—and should be—the answer.

Find out more about Gingerbread’s three-year campaign to Make it work for single parents.