Navigating a maze of sanctions: Single parents are often punished for failing to fulfill requirements which did not apply to them

Single parents forced to cut food spending as welfare punishments bite

Single parents forced to cut food spending as welfare punishments bite

For some time now, welfare has been all stick and no carrot. Labour started it and the coalition continued it.

For single parents the full effect of this approach is now becoming clear. They are being pushed into activities they are under no requirement to do by over-zealous Jobcentre Plus advisers. They are being wrongfully sanctioned, forcing them to cut spending on food and heating and having a knock-on effect on children's health and wellbeing. And worst of all, it's not even working.

Labour started the process in 2001, when it made it compulsory for single parents on income support to go to work-focused interviews. Income support is supposed to replace their salary so they can focus on parenting full time. Labour and the coalition have started moving single parents off it and on to jobseekers allowance as their child grows up. Jobseekers' allowance has a much more severe set of requirements to prove you're looking for work.

Anyone who doesn't comply loses 20% of their income support until they do. If they are sanctioned for missing a job centre appointment for instance, they remain under sanction until they book another one and attend it – a process which can take weeks.

If you're sanctioned under jobseekers' allowance, the punishment is more severe. You lose all of it, initially for four weeks but potentially for up to three years.

Single parents were supposed to be protected from inappropriate sanctions, but the data shows they're actually more likely to be wrongly sanctioned than other jobseekers' allowance claimants. The needs of single parents – such as being close to where their kids are, not having to work during summer holidays and being free to pick them up from school – are becoming increasingly invisible.

The fact is, most single parents want to work. Eighty-four per cent of single mothers want a job, or to become self-employed or go back to studying. But they face barriers, such as the high cost of child care, the prevalence of low paid jobs and a lack of flexible working. Sanctions don't help get them into work. They simply reveal the negative, cynical outlook of those who propose them. Single parents are best encouraged back into work by assistance, not threat of punishment.

A report out today by Gingerbread, which provides advice and support to single parents, shows tens of thousands of single parents are facing wrongful sanction. When they appeal these sanctions they are more likely than most claimants to receive a 'non-adverse' judgement, suggesting they should never have been sanctioned in the first place. Two in five sanction referrals and decisions against single parents are overturned. But by then it is often too late, and they and their children have had to go through weeks of hardship.

There are multiple reports of Jobcentre advisers failing to apply rules designed to protect single parents' caring responsibilities and wrongfully threatening them with sanctions.

One parent with an 18-month-old child was wrongly told they'd need to be prepared to work night shifts and travel long distances for a job. Another with a two-year old child said her Jobcentre Plus adviser called every few days to tell her to look for work and said that if she failed to answer the phone her benefits would be stopped.

A single mother was sanctioned for turning down night shifts because she couldn't find anyone to look after her young daughter overnight. Another said she was sanctioned for missing a job centre appointment when her son was in hospital.

In the first 21 months of the new regime up to June 2014, 145,000 single parents on jobseekers allowance received a sanction.  Forty-one per cent of those cases which were reassessed then had the sanction cancelled, compared to a 32% average for jobseekers allowance. It's clear single parents are being wrongly targeted.

But even when those decisions were found to be wrong, parents and their children had often gone through weeks – sometimes even months – of hardship. Single parents who have been sanctioned are more likely to be in debt, suffer from ill-health or have children with health problems.

The consequences for children can be severe. Their health is put at risk and their ability to concentrate in school suffers. Even when the sanctions are removed, the financial hardship often continues, because so many parents are forced to start paying back the money they borrowed to get them through the sanction period.

The government's own research finds limited evidence that sanctions help people to move into work and even when it does push them towards work it is usually badly-paid and insecure. Single parents are twice as likely to enter low paid employment as other workers. The fact they need to fit work around parenting doesn't make it any easier. Those on zero-hours contracts are more likely to be cycled back on to jobseekers allowance. Pushing them into these jobs is a false economy.

Why does this happen? Because the sanctions regime sidesteps actually having to face up to the obstacles single parents face in getting into work.

When we replace sanctions with voluntary programmes offering tailored back-to-work support, the numbers improve. The voluntary New Deal for Lone Parents got people off benefits faster than the average. To a certain extent that may be because you're dealing with a self-selecting group – the people who sign up for such deals are probably keener to work than the average benefit recipient. But the new deal worked even for those furthest from the labour market, such as young single parents and those with older children, for whom sanctions are less successful.

Unfortunately, voluntary assistance is out of fashion. Personal programmes tailored to meet the caring needs of single parents are considered expensive. But it actually saves the taxpayer money in the long-term to find people decent, well-paid work which allows them the time and money to bring up well-developed children. Instead, we are mired in a tough love approach so admired by IDS and his predecessors.

It's only likely to get worse. The remaining flexibilities available to single parents are going to be significantly reduced by universal credit. Only one of the 12 flexibilities will be carried over in its entirety. Single parents will be treated like jobseekers without caring responsibilities.

The harsh way we talk about benefits recipients has changed the way we deliver it. And it's the children who bear the brunt.