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The Universal Credit small print that could hit part-time working mums

Working is no longer enough to receive in-work benefits. Universal Credit claimants will have to show they're angling for a pay rise. 

Imagine the kind of hardworking, just-about-managing, two parent family the Daily Mail loves. Like many other mothers in a country where childcare is expensive, the woman in the couple works part-time. Although her husband is working, because it’s low paid work, they also receive tax credits. Apart from receiving this top up, they have hardly any interaction with the welfare state.

These are the kinds of families that will find themselves affected by Universal Credit.

The controversial new benefit, which is being rolled out across the country, is replacing not just unemployment benefits, but in-work benefits like tax credits and housing benefit. But it comes with some changes as well. 

One of these affects people already in work. Under Universal Credit, anyone earning beneath a certain threshold will be required to show that they are trying to boost their income. In other words, if they can’t show the Department for Work and Pensions that they are looking for extra hours, or a better-paid job, they could end up not just low paid, but also losing their benefits as well. 

In-work conditionality applies to everyone, although single parents in particularly are likely to find it hard to comply, since they have to juggle hours around their childcare responsibilities. But it will also affect second earners – often part-time working mums. 

“It’s a big shift in the role of the state,” says David Finch, a senior economic analyst at the Resolution Foundation. The threshold is defined as 35 hours at minimum wage (some exceptions apply for families with very young or disabled children). Although couples can combine their hours and pay, for those who still don’t meet the threshold, it will mean a pressure on second earners that hasn’t been felt before. They will be expected to attend Jobcentre meetings, and could receive sanctions if judged not to be trying hard enough. 

Those part-time earners are also likely to be women. A 2012 report by the Resolution Foundation estimated that 1.2 million people will be affected by the in-work conditionality rules. Roughly 90 per cent of single parents are women, and 41 per cent of women work part time, compared to 12 per cent of men. 

The problem is, as MPs on the Work and Pensions select committee noted back in May 2016, the vast majority of claimants working 30 hours a week already want to increase their income or hours. The committee concluded: “There is strong evidence that their barriers to earning more tend to be structural or due to personal circumstances, rather than motivational.”

“There is only so much you can do through asking your employer for extra hours,” says Finch. “Then you could be in the position of having to apply for an additional job.” Of course, the chances of finding another job (and balancing it with childcare) vary hugely depending on where the claimant lives. The unemployment rate in the North East of England, for example, is almost twice that of the South East.

This may explain why, so far, the DWP seems wary of imposing sanctions on working mums who just can’t get a pay rise, and why, too, Jobcentres are given some discretion over how the threshold is applied. So far, there has been little use of sanctions. 

However, Finch points out that without more guidance or training for Jobcentre staff, discretion itself could lead to unfairness.  “You could have two people with similar circumstances, but who find themselves with different work requirements.”

If the government was offering to give low-paid part-timers the career advice they need to progress in careers, or it was stimulating the economy in a way that opened up new jobs, no doubt many would welcome in-work conditionality. But instead, the rule seems likely to just remind the working mums of the world that they are not good enough, at least in the eyes of the DWP. Another reason to stop the roll out of Universal Credit.

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”