Hunt’s jobs drive will push mothers on benefits to work 30-hour week

<span>Photograph: Edward George/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Edward George/Alamy

A generation of parents on benefits will be pushed into near-full-time work when their children turn three in a significant shift in government policy, the Guardian has learned.

Charities and academics criticised the move as “unconscionable”, saying it “devalues unpaid care” and would disproportionately impact single mothers, driving families into debt and vulnerable children into poverty.

In a sweeping reform which was quietly introduced by Jeremy Hunt’s budget last week, but which the chancellor did not spell out in his speech to parliament, hundreds of thousands of parents who rely on universal credit will be discouraged from providing day-to-day care for their children.

The changes, to be introduced this financial year, apply to parents who are the family’s lead carer – the vast majority of whom are women.

The government says it could dock benefits unless parents:

• Are available for work up to 30 hours a week once their youngest child turns three, nearly double the current requirement of 16 hours.

• Meet with a job coach every three months – up from every six months – as soon as their child turns one. Parents of two-year-olds will have to attend coaching monthly.

• Seek employment if their partner is in paid work but their wages are topped up with universal credit. These individuals previously had no obligation to work.

A leading expert on benefits sanctions said the changes amounted to a major shift in policy. “This appears to mean that many, if not all, of the current parental ‘easements’ on universal credit will be scrapped entirely,” said David Webster of Glasgow University. “It’s a complete disregard of children’s needs and will have drastic effects on lone parents.”

The measures are being introduced as ministers cast about for ways of tackling labour shortages caused by Brexit, long waits for routine NHS procedures and an exodus of older workers since the pandemic.

While Hunt did not set out the detail of the reforms in his budget speech, he did signal his determination to use benefits sanctions to drive parents into more paid work.

“Independence is always better than dependence, which is why we believe those who can work, should,” the chancellor said.

“So sanctions will be applied more rigorously to those who fail to meet strict work-search requirements or choose not to take up a reasonable job offer.”

The policy appears to signal a change in how the welfare state values parenting. The benefits system has previously recognised the importance of unpaid work undertaken by parents who are lead carers, by allowing them to spend more time at home compared with other claimants.

Kate Andersen, a York University academic who has extensively researched women’s experience of welfare, said the move was in the wrong direction. “It is out of sync with what low income mums and parents want, it devalues unpaid care and says that your primary societal contribution is paid work,” she added.

In total, ministers estimate these measures combined could impact about 800,000 parents or carers. About 300,000 people with young children – nearly 90% of whom are women – will face a greater risk of sanction, according to estimates from the Work Foundation.

Mary-Ann Stephenson, the director of the Women’s Budget Group, said the move would disproportionately affect single parents, 85% of whom are mothers: “Women are the shock absorbers of poverty, putting further financial pressures on this group at this time – during the cost of living crisis – is unconscionable.”

Under the changes, parents who are the main carer will be expected to work 30 hours a week from when their youngest celebrates their third birthday. This is just under the 35 hours the government considers as full-time employment. Currently parents of three and four-year-olds are expected to work for 16 hours, while parents of five- to 12-year-olds are expected to work for 25 hours.

New parents on universal credit will also be expected to “prepare for work” by meeting with a job coach every three months – instead of every six months – when their child turns one. Parents of two-year-olds will have to attend meetings every month.

The changes, according to the Department for Work and Pensions, are designed to “align” benefits with Hunt’s early childcare offering, which will result in those on universal credit being able to reclaim more childcare costs and have their claims paid upfront.

Parents who fail to meet the requirements will face the prospect of benefit sanctions – having their payments docked. Latest figures show 422,000 individuals across the UK received a sanction in the year to October 2022. The average penalty was about £660.

The DWP said claimants had to be “available for work” – which “usually means any paid work at national minimum wage on a full-time basis”. A spokesperson said in some circumstances where that was not “reasonable”, it could be limited, adding that the 30 hours of work required was a maximum, and could be tailored.

However, Andersen said her research showed there was minimal tailoring of benefit conditions to mothers’ personal circumstances. “It’s not true it is tailored to personal circumstances. The mums were saying this aspect needs to be much more realistic,” she added.

Campaigners say conditionality forces claimants to take unsuitable and low-paid jobs and ends up penalising parents already on or below the breadline. There are concerns jobcentre staff lack expertise, and that employers cannot meet the demand for more flexible hours. Mothers of young children say they often struggle to attend work coaching, because of the cost of traveling to appointments and the complications of juggling childcare.

Ben Harrison, the director of the Work Foundation thinktank at Lancaster University, said the new requirements were a “really significant step up”, adding that research indicates sanctions impoverish claimants and damage mental health.

“Even employers themselves say pushing people to take any job, regardless of whether it is suitable to an individual’s skills or ambitions, is not helpful and can actually end up causing more issues for organisations than it solves,” he said.

Becca Lyon, the head of child poverty at Save the Children UK, said the move risked making children poorer.

She added that the charity was “particularly concerned” about new requirements for the parents of toddlers to meet a job coach every month: “Unless jobcentres start making provision for childcare so parents can easily attend appointments with a toddler in tow, we expect there to be a lot of missed meetings.”

A government spokesperson said work was “the best way to get on”, adding that a single adult on means-tested benefits would be better off by more than £7,600 in full-time –work on the national living wage. Under plans proposed in the budget, childcare payments for those on universal credit will increase and be paid upfront, instead of in arrears.

“The requirements any claimant is asked to meet will be clearly set out in their claimant commitment and work coaches will support claimants by understanding their individual circumstances – including caring responsibilities – and helping them into work.”