Supporting women back to work

What makes for good support to help people into work? A Child Poverty Action Group initiative examined what works and what the bigger barriers are.

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How can we best help people into work who want to work, but face a whole layer of interconnected barriers? There has been a lot of focus from Government on encouraging mums back to work based on tightening benefits rules and bringing more parents under conditionality. That means they face sanctions – loss of benefits – if they don’t meet the Government’s job search criteria. There is pressure to accept jobs that might not be the right ones for parents in the longer term. The Government says this is backed up by support offered by work coaches in Job Centre Pluses, who take into account people’s different circumstances.

However, many benefits experts say the support offered is patchy at best and the threat of sanctions undermines any trust between work coaches and jobseekers as well as damaging jobseekers’ mental health.

This is certainly what the Child Poverty Action Group [CPAG] found when it undertook an initiative, Your Work Your Way, which aimed to find out if personalised support, including money for training, could make a difference.

Its report published this week shows it can, although there are bigger issues such as access to affordable childcare which are barriers employment support alone cannot overcome. The scheme was based on tailored employment support and offering clear welfare rights advice and funding for costs associated with looking for work or setting up self-employment. 97 per cent of the 70 participants were mothers, and all had faced significant barriers to work, particularly work with some sense of career progression into higher paid roles.

CPAG says building a relationship of trust between the coaches offering support and the mums was critical in finding work that worked for their family situation. The jobs secured ranged from an HGV driver, a teaching assistant and a make-up artist to a child therapist, a healthcare assistant and a dog trainer.

At the end of the project over half – 54% – were able to move into paid work, with 49% staying in work for six months or more. 76% of participants took part in work-focused training and 80% said the project had increased their financial confidence.

Barriers to employment

Yet the project also highlighted significant barriers, including access to affordable childcare, lack of available flexible jobs and poor financial incentives from working, particularly for second earners in receipt of universal credit who, due to the lack of a second earner work allowance and the taper rate, lose 55p in UC for every £1 they earn. These barriers were beyond the remit of the support they offered.

On childcare, it says these are more than just the high cost of childcare. There is also a lack of available places particularly in rural areas; limited availability of provision for children with SEND (special educational needs and disability), wrap-around childcare and holiday provision; and limited availability of flexible childcare that suits parents working atypical working patterns. While eligible working parents on universal credit can get support with childcare costs up to 85 per cent of these costs, many find it hard to cover the remaining 15 per cent of fees, even with the Government’s cap. There is a flexible support fund which can help parents in training with childcare costs, but awareness of it is low.

The CPAG would like to see 100% of childcare costs covered through UC, the removal of eligibility criteria for childcare support through UC, the extension of support to parents in training, free wraparound care, more funding for providers to help them expand the subsidised childcare on offer and more support for holiday childcare.

Other recommendations include the introduction of a second earner work allowance for couples on UC; the introduction of tailored employment support and the relaxing of the conditionality rules; financial support for training and self-employment as well as access to welfare advice through work coaches; and incentives for employers to provide flexible employment opportunities and to develop into-work schemes for parents such as M&S Marks & Start.

These are all vital, but the starting point is empathy and listening. People may face a whole range of different barriers, each impacting on the other. Yet many want to work. It’s about making sure that work fits the people we have to do it rather than shoehorning people into jobs that are doomed to failure, which may leave people in a worse position than when they started. It’s not enough to get people off one set of figures and reduce the benefits bill temporarily. It’s that longer term, joined-up view and care that is often missing.

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