Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Rights, responsibilities and trust

Today's welfare reform green paper contained one very welcome policy change. It specifically mentioned new responsibilities for employers to help provide job opportunities. It was less than a couple of months ago when John Hutton, under the old regime, specifically denied that employers should have any responsibilities beyond not breaking the law for helping people into work. So credit where credit's due, this is a step forward, and Local Employment Partnerships sound like they might be able to help make a difference.

A less good idea, despite the all party consensus behind it, is that from October 2008, lone parents whose youngest child is 12 years or older will no longer be entitled to income support just because they are a lone parent. Instead, they will claim Jobseeker's Allowance, and be expected to look for suitable work.

Peter Hain said, "Today’s reforms offer a step change in our approach – with new support matched by new responsibilities. Those facing particularly severe barriers to work will now get fast-tracked help. Others who have a history of long-term benefit dependency could face tougher responsibilities from the start of their claim."

The phrase 'have a history of long-term benefit dependency' is a particularly noxious one when used to describe lone parents on low incomes who are caring for their children. This idea that what they need are 'tougher responsibilities' is misguided. Most lone parents, particularly those with older children, work. Many others would work if there were jobs available. The evidence shows that advisers almost never use powers to cut benefits (far less than 1% of cases), because it destroys the relationship with the person seeking work and doesn't address the reasons why people can't find work. So to speak of 'tougher responsibilities' is malign macho posturing.

It is actually a particularly stupid decision to choose 12 as the cut off point in terms of age. There are many children who are happy and settled at the age of 8 or 9 who find the transition to secondary school and becoming a teenager a difficult time (I was going to write that every parent will know that, but in fact it is known by anyone who can remember being 12 or 13). This is exactly the age where just about all parents find it harder to check that everything is ok for their children and spot problems, and so it makes sense for parents to have the choice (remember the choice agenda?), according to what is best for their family, between working and not working.

Ah, say the experts, but if you look at other countries, they have 'work tests' for lone parents when children are much younger. No other country pays benefits to lone parents without requiring them to look for work when their children are older than 11. In Denmark parents of four year olds have to prove they are actively seeking work, for example. But the countries where higher proportions of lone parents work are ones where lone parents receive much more support, in particular in affordable childcare.

The 'tougher responsibilities' won't help people find jobs which don't exist, which they don't have the skills for, or which are impossible for them to combine with other responsibilities. All it will do is make life a bit more stressful and a bit more difficult for some people who don't have much money and have caring responsibilities. They are getting the blame this week for not going to work, and next week the moral panic will be about young people causing trouble and the parents will get the blame for being at work and not spending enough time with their children.

Lone parents aren't a problem who need to be taught about responsibility. Every lone parent knows all about those. What the government needs to do is to listen to them, give them the support they need to be able to cope with their responsibilities, and trust them to do the best for their families with the help that they get. The Green Paper acknowledges this in parts, and doesn't in other parts. Over the weeks and months ahead, the aim must be to build on the good ideas and get rid of the bad ones.

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