Cost of the cuts 2: How to spend less time with your kids

Ceri Jones describes the frustrations of dealing with the government bureaucracy that is reducing support for single-parents

Along with a growing number of men, I am what was once considered a rare statistical ‘blip’ – a single parent. The most recent figures suggest that there are 186,000 single fathers in the UK, that’s about 8 per cent of all single parents.

You could be forgiven for thinking that all single parents are under 21, have their annual foreign holidays and their Christmas spending splurge funded by the tax payer. You might also think that they have no desire to work and raise their sixteen children with another ten on the way! You can see why I can’t identify with the images thrust in front of me by the media on an almost daily basis.

Dealing with the deficit

This is the second of a weeklong series of articles dealing with the fall-out in Wales from the Westminster Government’s efforts to reduce the budget deficit. Tomorrow Adele Baumgardt, an equal opportunities consultant, argues that the disproportionate impact of the cuts will drive back 40 years of gains women have made in Wales.

Of course, this doesn’t correspond with the single parents that I meet or with any of the statistics that are gathered. For a start, the median age of the single parent is 38. Less than 2 per cent of them are teenagers. Moreover, 57 per cent of all single parents are in work.

The vast majority of people are single parents due to a marriage or long-term relationship breakdown. I’m yet to meet the young mother who decided to get pregnant in order to get on the housing list, or as a means of escaping an obligation to work. And statistics show that there are approximately 3 million children living in a single parent household – that’s 23 per cent of all dependent children.

And this is the point. We are talking about a significant proportion of our future generations. The environment in which they are raised will undoubtedly have an effect on how our future society is shaped. As the late Whitney Houston crooned, “I believe that children are our future, treat them well and let them lead the way”.

So what does the government’s approach tell us about how to raise our children? What is the ‘correct’ way to develop children in an environment deemed ‘not ideal’ by our decision makers?

Since the present coalition came into power, there have been a number of changes to the support to which single parents are entitled (some of which affect couple parents as well). None has involved an increase. First of all the contribution towards paying for childcare was cut from 80 to 70 per cent, a decrease which hardly chimes with the “making work pay” ethos we keep hearing so much about. To an unsupported parent on a low wage, or even higher earners with two or more children to support, that 10 per cent cut can make a massive difference. In practice, for many people affected it cuts the “disposable” portion of their income.

In Norway, the provision of high quality accessible childcare is seen as a necessity for working parents, and is provided through higher taxes. Given that Norway repeatedly ranks highly in the ‘happiest places to live’ rankings, perhaps we should take a leaf from their book of social modelling.

In the Welfare Reform Act 2012 the coalition also brought in new legislation to end entitlement to income support for single parents whose youngest child is aged 5 or 6. This followed a progressive shift which started under the previous government: in 2008, any single parent whose youngest child was aged 12 or over was moved from income support to job seekers allowance; in 2009 this applied to those with children aged 10 and 11; and in 2010 it also applied to single parents with children aged 7, 8 and 9.

But in the current economic environment, with so few jobs available – and particularly jobs that allow single parents to balance work with the vital role of bringing up their children – how realistic is it to launch a further 120,000 single parents of 5 and 6 year olds onto the labour market now, where they risk sanctions if they fall foul of the rules?

Meanwhile, there has been the utter farce of the shake-up in the Child Support Agency, whose main role is to pursue parents who fail to contribute to their children’s upbringing. The aim was to turn an inefficient, poorly administered organisation into something resembling a useful service. How was this to be done?

It is suggested that all parents who use the service should pay an upfront fee, backed up with an on-going charge of between 7 and 12 per cent on any maintenance paid to parents who rely on the Agency to collect their child maintenance.  In addition an extra 15-20 per cent charge will be added to the other (paying) parent’s payment.

The effect would be to take money directly away from the parent who has the responsibility for care, and so from the child as well. Is this morally just? Not only that, taking money from the parent involved in caring for the child, as well as the one that isn’t, is in practice paying for the Agency’s inefficiency.

According to a report by the National Audit Office in 2012 it is hoped these measures will raise £71 million by 2014-15. Even in the Audit Office’s own view, this is a “high risk” objective. Their own survey evidence reveals that parents have “a low willingness to pay fees”. The Audit Office’s report concludes that the government should be looking elsewhere to make savings by cutting administrative costs.

The message being imparted is: work more, spend less time with your kids, pay more for your childcare and give the Child Support Agency a slice of your maintenance payments. Never mind the fact that the employment market is the worst it’s been in a generation, wages are being driven down and re-training and support services are dwindling. There is so much more that I want to scream about, but as any parent will tell you, time is always at a premium.

Ceri Jones is an Employment Support Officer for Gingerbread, the single parent charity

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