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.

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.

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

Caroline Davey is the Director of Policy, Advice and Communications at Gingerbread.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war