The Government is planning to change Universal Credit rules on when primary carers need to start looking for work and almost double the hours which they have to be available to work.
The Government is planning a radical change to Universal Credit rules for primary carers of young children, which campaigners and experts have labelled ‘unconscionable’.
Primary carers whose youngest child is over three will need to be available to work up to 30 hours a week, almost double the current threshold of 16 hours, if they want to continue receiving Universal Credit. The Government says this is “to align with current childcare offers (30 hours free childcare)”. The new policy is expected to come in during the 2023/2024 financial year.
Parents of one year olds will have to meet with a job coach every three months to discuss future moves into work as soon as their child turns one, up from every six months. Parents of two-year-olds will have to attend coaching monthly instead of every three months. The Government says this is a “small increase in requirements” and that “this proposal will encourage lead carers of young children in receipt of UC to think about and prepare for work now and in the future through increased engagement and support”.
The Government says interviews with coaches “must be arranged taking childcare availability into account” meaning claimants can re-arrange interviews if they have a good reason why they cannot attend – for example, rescheduling appointments around childcare, social services or medical appointments.
Campaign groups have expressed concern over the move, particularly with regard to single parents. They claim it devalues unpaid care and would disproportionately affect single mothers, driving them into low paid jobs. Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Women’s Budget Group, says: “Women are the shock absorbers of poverty, putting further financial pressures on this group at this time – during the cost of living crisis – is unconscionable.” On Twitter Dr Deborah Dean, Associate Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Warwick, echoed that view and added: “Nobody with any expertise on these issues, including the people living the issues, thinks this will do anything of use. It will only cause harm.”
There are currently some limitations on work search and availability, such as a lack of available free or affordable childcare locally. The Department for Work and Pensions says that “the requirements will be tailored to a claimant’s circumstances (e.g. location of job, claimant eligibility for free childcare provision, availability and location of childcare provision, and transport)”.
However, welfare expert Dr Kate Andersen from the University of York said her research showed that little consideration is given to mothers’ personal circumstances when it comes to tailoring benefit conditions.
The changes were not mentioned by the Chancellor in his Budget speech in which he talked about raising the cap on the amount of money that UC claimants can get to cover childcare costs and paying for upfront childcare fees for claimants. He also spoke about plans to increase the number of hours UC claimants need to actively seek to work per week if they are not to trigger benefits sanctions – up from 15 hours to 18 hours. And he said the sanctions regime is being tightened, which experts say is exacerbating acute poverty.
The Government says their aim is to get more people into work and to lift people out of poverty through encouraging them to work more hours.