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.


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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.