Single parent = fucked; single parent + ill = totally, utterly fucked

I get quite a lot of searchers landing here for information about “single parent on benefits”. I fear I am not a useful resource but, given the opacity in the system and the difficulties I have encountered trying to find out information (with my fluent English, degree-level education, internet connection and middle-class background), I’m not surprised that desperate seekers end up here.

However my situation is slightly different to the usual single parent dilemma, which is that workplace inflexibility and the high cost of childcare often means you’re worse off working than on benefits. And believe me, as one who does it, living on benefits is not a picnic. My situation includes the fact that I have been, and still continue to be, not sufficiently well to work.

I’ve written already about the existing difficulties of being an ill single parent but it’s worth recapping them.

  • If you are an unemployed single parent with a child under the age of 16 you are entitled to claim Income Support (IS) – in my case £59.15 per week.
  • If you are too ill to work, and certified as such by a doctor, you are entitled to claim Incapacity Benefit (IB) – in my case £59.20 per week.
  • You are not entitled to both. The Department of Works and Pensions (aka “Belfast”, because that’s where the offices are based) assesses your case and awards you whichever benefit is the greater, regardless of any other factor. In my case this was incapacity benefit, by 5p per week.
  • What you are not told is that if you are on income support you are (eventually, after varying qualifying periods of up to a year and a half) able to claim:
    • – free prescriptions;
    • – free dental care;
    • income support mortgage interest (ISMI) as a homeowner, a benefit which only comes into effect after 18 months unemployment. Those in rented accommodation can claim housing benefit – see link below under council tax benefit;
    • – free school dinners for the children (administered by the local council);
    • – council tax benefit (CTB) (handled by the local council).
  • What you are also not told (and what I had to find out, slowly and painfully while my savings dribbled away) is that if you are on incapacity benefit you are not entitled to any of the above. Which obviously add up to considerably more than 5p per week.

The moral is – if you’re a single parent you can’t actually ever be ill.

Now, however, the landscape for single parents is about to undergo very significant change.

Today I went to a “work-focused interview for lone parents” at my local Job Centre. Compulsory. You have to take your passport along to prove it’s you and not some ringer you’ve sent along while out earning vast sums of money doing… something or other. And, for no reason that I could discern, I was asked if I’d been abroad any time in the last two years.

At this interview I was told that the government has new plans for single parents. The government, I was told, is busy creating just the sort of jobs that are ideal for single mothers with children, part time, between the hours of 10am and 2pm, although I wasn’t told what these jobs are or where they’re situated. However we have to take on trust the fact that suddenly, out of nowhere, there will be jobs doing something, earning at least the minimum wage, at the appropriate hours so parents can drop off and pick up their children to/from school.

This sudden job-creation activity is because from next year single parents will only be entitled to claim IS if they are caring for a child under seven years old. If their child/ren is/are over seven years of age they will be entitled to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). In my case this would be £59.15 per week.

What’s the problem, you may ask. IS is £59.15 per week, JSA is £59.15 per week too. Well, there’s a difference between the two. Obviously, otherwise the government wouldn’t be making the change.

This alteration in legislation was, apparently, announced in December 2007 with minimal publicity, according to an article examining the widespread repercussions:

Although there is a lot of talk in the government’s proposals about personalised help and support, anyone who has had experience of the JSA regime knows that there is a gradual tightening-up of eligibility for JSA the longer the claimant stays on that benefit. There may be a presumption from the Jobcentre that suitable child care is available and that the working tax credit system will be available to help with up to 80% of the cost. Some parents may be reluctant to use that child care and some parents may be worried that 10- to 13-year-olds – who are often too old for child care – may be left unsupervised after school.

The changes will affect about 300,000 lone parents on income support with a youngest child aged seven or over, or nearly 40% of those currently claiming the benefit. As the hardly revolutionary Social Security Advisory Committee commented: “We are concerned that the Green Paper proposes greater responsibility upon claimants without balancing proposals for how the rights of claimants will be enhanced.”

Having read the government document Ready for work: full employment in our generation, specifically (pdf) Chapter 2 Sustainable employment for lone parents, I am filled with foreboding. This is a surreal document. There are, on many pages, blue boxes headed “What you said about X” where X is the particular issue at hand. And without exception the opinions expressed therein, from relevant organisations and individuals, are at least 75% opposed to the measures proposed. But this appears not to matter in the slightest.

So the aim of the exercise:

Increased obligations will be supported by appropriate and affordable childcare, suitable and flexible jobs and tailored employment and skills provision, with Jobcentre Plus advisers given more discretion to assess individual circumstances.

Current and new flexibilities and services will help lone parents meet their obligations to look for, take up and stay in work.

There is a basic assumption that as a lone parent, once your child has reached the age of seven, it is less important that you work to parent your child and more important, an obligation in fact, that you work. And this is going to be possible because of three things – childcare, jobs and skilled advice. Let’s take each in turn.

Just where is this “appropriate and affordable childcare”? The government has devolved responsibility for this provision to the local authorities. Judging by my experience with my local authority it is irresponsibility bordering on insanity to expect them to have in place appropriate childcare by, the report states, April 2008. That’s last month. There’s also an “aim” that “by 2010, every school in England will be an extended school”. And how will that come about? through “working with local partners”. I can’t see that happening either, even if I actually thought it was appropriate childcare and wanted my children to spend from 8am to 6pm (nearly all their waking hours) in school.

Jobs. For lone parents. Who may or may not be able to access and then, oh joy, afford childcare (paying someone else to look after their children because they themselves, the parent, have an obligation to work. Doing something other than looking after their child). There are, apparently, going to be “Employment opportunities”. According to the report: “On 6 November 2007, the Prime Minister announced the Government’s intention to extend the right to request flexible working to parents of older, teenage children.” There’s no definition of “older” but, for the government’s purposes so far “older” appears to mean “over the age of seven years”. An intention. To request. So that’s where all these lovely 10am-2pm jobs are going to come from. Which, no doubt, allow the employee to take off the 13 or so weeks of school holidays throughout the year to look after their child/ren. No obligation on employers to grant flexible working, of course. Should the government follow through on its “intention”.

And finally advice. The Jobcentre Plus employees (hired and paid by… the Department of Works and Pensions) are going to be trained, one would hope, to guide lone parents through the complexities and significance of the new regulations. “We are here to help and support you” said the woman I saw today. Fine. Lovely woman. However these are the people who, presented with a woman with no job, severe depression and the lone parent of two young children, tell her to claim IB. At no point do they appear to realise or, if they do realise, point out, that she’d be better off claiming income support. These are the people who, having received all the (tens of pages of) paperwork, return it after a month without any action having been taken on it because the claimant (that’s me) had failed to write her name in capital letters in one box on the back of one medical certificate.

These are the people with whom the claimant (that’s me) has had not one, not two but three personal interviews to expedite the process of claiming benefits, a claimant who clearly finds the process difficult (I have broken down on each occasion) and who have never, not once, volunteered a single piece of information regarding optimising the benefits. “What you need is a big hug” said the woman I saw at the second interview as I wept uncontrollably, suicidally, over her desk. She proceeded to give me one, and other of the advisers joined in. I was touched beyond words. I was overcome with gratitude. I feel slightly sick, looking back on that. Because however much I might have needed a hug, and I did, what I needed a very great deal more was an accurate answer to my question “how am I supposed to feed, clothe and house my children on £59.20 a week incapacity benefit?” The answer, presumably within their grasp, was not “you need a hug” but “stop claiming IB and start claiming IS”. This, unfortunately, was not vouchsafed to me.

Forgive me if I am a little wary of the motivation and/or abilities of the Jobcentre Plus staff to “help and support” the claimant.

So where does all this leave me, individually? Well, there are a number of lessons I can learn from my experience today.

The first is that it is not a normal nor proportionate reaction when informed of the immanent cessation of IS to be washed with despair, immediately to think that the difficulties would be best resolved by suicide so the children could be cared for by employed people, that I am the problem and if I wasn’t around everything would be perfect. To weep uncontrollably. This leads me seriously doubt my ability at this time to hold down any sort of job, be it shelf-stacking in the local supermarket or something (like journalism) that I am qualified to do.

Depression is a vicious and horrible disability, all the more so for being invisible and stigmatised. I’m profoundly grateful to be able to do what I can do. Love my children. Keep them clean and warm and fed. Keep their lives as stable and organised and predictable as possible to allow them to grow and develop. I thank god for it, because I know that until so very recently it just would not have been so. But today told me what I already suspected to be the case, that these simple tasks are at the edge of my current level of capacity. Anything more would be extremely, extremely difficult.

The second is a reinforcement of the impression that the Jobcentre Plus staff either do not to know what they’re doing or that their remit is not to work for the best interests of the claimant (and the claimant’s child/ren) but to avoid informing claimants about benefits available if they do not already know about them. I base this on the fact that none of the collection of staff who had gathered round to stare at the woman weeping with her head on the desk of one of their colleagues mentioned the fact that under the new legislation they, the Jobcentre Plus staff, will have wide-ranging discretionary powers. None mentioned (whether through ignorance or design) that, according to the report, “Lone Parents with a health problem or disability may be able to claim the new Employment and Support Allowance”. Let me quote the report:

Some respondents were concerned that Jobcentre Plus advisers sometimes do not use the flexibilities that are available. As part of the plans to increase the tailoring of provision to meet the needs of each person, we plan to increase the discretion available to advisers. This will be backed by clear guidance for advisers on the existing and new flexibilities, and supported by the Jobcentre Plus reward and recognition systems.

This means that lone parents who have genuine reasons, or good cause, for not complying with their obligations to look for, or take up, work will not be penalised.

A search for “Employment and Support Allowance” reveals the following:

This will replace incapacity benefit and income support paid on the grounds of incapacity. It is is intended to start for new claimants from October 2008. From April 2010 all existing incapacity benefits claimants will be required to take the work capability assessment.

ESA will be paid to people in Great Britain (separate legislation will be introduced for Northern Ireland) who satisfy the following:

* have a limited capability for work – have a physical or mental condition, which means that it is not reasonable to require them to work.
* are at least 16 years old and who have not reached pensionable age
* are not entitled to income support or jobseeker’s allowance (including joint-claim jobseeker’s allowance)
* pass either a national insurance contribution test (similar to that for incapacity benefit – people under age 20, or age 25 in certain circumstances will not have to satisfy the contribution test) or an income test (similar to that for income support).

Anyone claiming ESA will be assessed during a 13 week period, or longer if necessary, to determine whether they have a limited capability for work but also whether or not he or she is capable of ‘engaging in work-related activity’.

And further:

Suggested changes to the mental health activities and descriptors

There were 15 suggested activities in the October 2006 report rather than the current 4. These have different descriptors. A number of further recommendations were made in the transformation of the personal capability assessment report – February 2007 which reduced the proposed activities to 11. The 11 activities are now:

1. learning tasks
2. understanding instructions
3. memory and concentration
4. getting about – the February report recommended that this activity be renamed from “forward planning”
5. coping with change
6. execution of tasks
7. initiating and sustaining tasks – the February report recommended that this be reworded from the previous “initiation of tasks”. It was also recommended that the previous activity 12 “maintaining appearance and hygiene” become a subset of this activity.
8. inappropriate behaviour with other people – the February report recommended that activity 8 (appropriate behaviour with other people) and 11 (emotional resilience) be amalgamated into this single activity.
9. dealing with other people – the February report recommended that activity 9 (forming relationships with other people) and 10 (ability to communicate appropriately with other people) be amalgamated into this single activity.
10. coping with social situations – now includes the old activity 14 – “panic attacks”.
11. awareness of hazard.

The pass mark for mental health activities will be 15. It is possible to score 6, 9 or 15 in any one of the 15 activities.

I have no sense of what the implications of all this are for me. Does the fact that I can research and collate all this information mean I am employable? or does the fact that I weep on benefit advisers’ desks and contemplate suicide mean I am not? I have absolutely no idea. Should I, in preparation for this new scenario, be consulting with my doctor about being “signed off” as unfit for work even though I am not claiming incapacity benefit?

What I fear is that I shall be forced to take work of some sort which I shall struggle with, fail at, become more depressed, become even less able to work; my depression will affect my ability to care for my children, my children will suffer; our already precarious financial circumstances will spiral out of control into a completely untenable situation; my already tenuous ability to fill in all the forms, pursue every last avenue and grapple with bureaucracy will be eroded; we shall sink. I shall sink. I shall give up the struggle and pursue the course that seems the most obvious at these times. I don’t want this. Oh dear god I don’t want this. But I fear it, I fear it terribly.

UPDATE: points of information

There are two other benefits not mentioned above because they are not directly related to being a single parent.

The first is the non-means-tested, tax-free, universal child benefit.

The second is the means-tested tax credit scheme.

For the record

Nothing much is happening beyond the continuing attempts to battle with the benefits system while actually continuing to feed, clothe and house the family.

It is full of ironies. The first is that it transpires one cannot be ill and a single parent at the same time. By claiming incapacity benefit (for being designated as too ill to work by a doctor – “certified”, indeed) one is not eligible to be considered for help with council tax, mortgage interest repayments, school meals, prescription charges, dental care etc etc.

I applied for benefits as a lone parent with two young children and was not aware of the complexities of the situation. It seems those who make the decisions about these things are not aware of the complexities either. What I require is income support. I can’t have income support and incapacity benefit at the same time. I was awarded incapacity benefit which is for me alone, ignores the existence of the children and excludes the possibility of help with anything else beyond a payment of £61.35 per week.

So I have had to stop claiming incapacity benefit, (which unsurprisingly took immediate effect and elicited a letter a day later informing me all payments had ceased); I have opened a new claim for income support (which took four days and will take a further fortnight to process) and have appealed against the original decision to give me incapacity benefit rather than income support (which I have almost no faith will achieve anything).

It appears that now, after days of dragging the poor half-terming-holidaying children round municipal offices all over the borough of Brent, there is nothing left to do but to wait and hope.

Another irony is that if I sell anything to raise money in the interim I am deemed to have income. This then excludes the possibility of obtaining more in benefit than any object I have to sell is worth. The cut-off point for income is £25 per week so perhaps I could sell one item or group of items a week for £24.99 (just to be on the safe side).

Not ironic at all is my admiration for the principles of the ex. He regrets that it is not possible for him to provide financial support towards his child without negating more benefits than his contribution would cover. But obviously he cannot be a party to any form of benefit or tax fraud by making payments in any way other than directly into my bank account. It is inspiring to come across such honesty and devotion to the rule of law in a world where so many people think only of themselves.

Tomorrow I shall pick up my camera which, after a month away (presumably in intensive care) is now, I am told, better. (Oh yes, I mentioned that already. Well, no harm in enjoying the fact twice.) I shall have some time without the children also for the first time in a month (it’s really annoying being the only child of a disfunctional family – no relations around for childcare options) and I shall hang out with friends. I shall imbibe culture and companionship. And very probably coffee. And click, lots, I hope. 🙂