An All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work heard from a range of experts about how the current system doesn’t work for parents, particularly single parents.
Work is not necessarily a route out of poverty for single parents because they often find themselves in the lowest paid jobs due to a lack of flexible work and childcare and an inability to pay childcare costs, a representative from the charity Gingerbread told the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work yesterday.
Victoria Benson also said that single parents were more likely than coupled parents to be unemployed because of the difficulty in managing childcare and work and that the long-term unemployment rate has increased significantly for single parents since 2019 – up from 23% to 30% in 2021 – while it has remained stable for other parents. Part of this is due to a lack of part-time jobs, said Benson, with part-time job availability now lower than in the 1990s. Timewise research shows only one in 10 job vacancies stated that they could be done part time. Around half of single parents work part time, significantly more than coupled parents. Benson said that jobs need to be flexible by default so that single parents can have access to a wider range of roles.
She added that there had been an increase of nearly half a million single parents going on Universal Credit since March 2020 and 90% of single parents are expected to be on UC once migration from legacy benefits is complete in 2024. Single parents in receipt of UC will be expected to spend 16 hours per week looking for work and will need to be available for work of 16 hours per week when their child reaches the age of three. Although UC includes support for childcare, Benson pointed out that the limit of reimbursement that it provides has not increased since 2005 whereas childcare fees have risen hugely since then.
Another barrier for single parents is that any support is paid a month in arrears while single parents can only work when childcare is available. They tend therefore to be badly affected by a lack of childcare places in some areas and by a lack of wraparound and holiday childcare, which has not fully bounced back since the Covid lockdowns. Benson said many single parents would like to work more hours, but lack of childcare and flexible working prevents them from doing so.
The event also heard from Rosalind Bragg from Maternity Action who spoke about the low rate of statutory maternity pay [six weeks at 90% of average weekly pay followed by 33 weesk at £156.66 a week] – how it is less than the minimum wage and has not kept pace with inflation for years. That financial pressure has an impact on mums’ mental health and puts pressure on them to return to work early, she said.
Often they return to bosses at work with little empathy and face maternity [or pregnancy] discrimination. Maternity Action would like to see maternity protections extended once they return from maternity leave – something that was expected to be included in the shelved Employment Bill. Bragg also spoke about how ineffective Shared Parental Leave has been. Take-up has remained low ever since it was launched. Maternity Action would like to see a simpler model which guarantees individual entitlements for men and women rather than shared ones with rights being extended to the self employed.
Neil Leitch from the Early Years Alliance spoke of his organisation’s battle to get the Government to give it access to its assessment of the funding crisis the early years sector is experiencing. He said the Government had refused to give it access to the data until it took out a Freedom of Information request and was eventually granted access to a heavily redacted document after two and a half years which showed early years had been underfunded by two billion pounds a year.
The solutions it offered were to make use of the maximum child to carer ratios which allowed no capacity for children with additional needs. The papers also accepted that parents of children under three who were not entitled to subsidies would see their fees increase by up to 30%. Leitch said the UK spent the least in the OECD in terms of percentage of GDP on early years. He added that one part of the problem is that the Government seems to view early years as ‘babysitting’, even though access to quality childcare in the first five years is critical for a child’s success in later life.
The event also heard from Labour leader Stella Creasy who said the current system doesn’t work for families – the vast majority of mums experience a career penalty from having a baby and dads feel they cannot take paternity leave, she said. Many employers are ahead of the Government when it comes to supporting working families and understanding the business benefits of doing so in terms of recruitment and retention as well as productivity. She added that universal childcare pays for itself and questioned why the Government has not invested in spreading the word on the childcare support it does offer, such as tax-free childcare. She called for a rethink on how to create a system that works for parents and for business. “No-one is winning in the current scenario,” she said.
Flick Drummond, Conservative co-chair of the APPG, said Andrea Leadsom is conducting a review of childcare and understands the importance of investment. Leitch said he was sceptical as all the noises coming from Government were about staff to child ratios which would make things worse.