As we go into autumn the government has a renewed emphasis on their ‘Plan for Jobs’. However, there are two issues that threaten to hamper single parents’ employment: firstly, a dire shortage of good quality, flexible jobs and, secondly, a lack of affordable childcare.

We call this 'the single parent work challenge'.

Single parents and flexible working

Before the pandemic

  • There were record numbers of single parents in work – at 69%.
  • Single parents were less financially secure and on lower incomes than other family types – for example, mothers in couple households earned almost twice as much per week as single mothers.
  • Single parents were also concentrated in routine jobs in the retail and hospitality sectors, which have been adversely affected by the economic impact of the pandemic.

Since the pandemic

  • Single parents were more likely to have been furloughed (30%) than couple parents (21%) and to have stayed on furlough for a longer period than couple parents.
  • Single parents have a higher unemployment rate (12%) than coupled parents (6%) and are likely to face even greater unemployment when the furlough scheme closes at the end of September.

Gingerbread’s pre-pandemic research, Held Back: Single parents and in-work progression in London, showed that:

  • Single parents were hampered by the lack of quality flexible vacancies. A shortage of quality part-time jobs meant that many single parents were forced into choosing flexibility over job level – so, trading down in order to have access to a job with flexibility (particularly part-time hours).
  • Even where single mothers have the same qualifications as couple mothers, they are less likely to work in a role that accords with their qualification level.
  • Welfare rules mean that single parents with younger children are permitted to work part-time until their children reach the age of 13. Single parents needing to move into work relied on advertised vacancies and the demand for these roles outstripped supply.

Gingerbread’s research report in May 2021, Caring without sharing: single parents’ journeys through the COVID-19 pandemic, showed that:

  • The pandemic saw a dramatic increase in the number of jobs that could be done flexibly, including an overnight switch to many roles being worked from home.
  • But single parents were more likely to work in jobs that cannot be worked from home – the shift to home working was less pronounced for single parents (a 21% increase) than for couple parents (a 38% increase).
  • There has been a decrease in part-time work. Timewise found that only 8% of jobs are advertised as part-time – a drop in the number of advertised roles to the level in the 1990s.
  • Work coaches have found it hard to support single parents into work due to a lack of part-time and flexible jobs.

While it is positive that the government is consulting on a day one right to flexible working, the current proposals do not go far enough; they fall very short of making jobs flexible by default.

  • The proposals lack adequate enforcement; there will merely be an obligation on employers to explain their reasons for not allowing a request and some speeding up of the process.
  • They offer no mechanism for mandating employers to mention flexibility at the point of job advertising. This flies in the face of the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team’s findings: that showing and offering flexible working options in job adverts increases applications by 30% and that greater transparency in job adverts would create at least 174,000 flexible jobs to the UK economy per year. This led the Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss, to call for employers to make flexible working a standard option for employees, to help level up the UK, boost opportunities for women and reduce geographic inequality as we recover from COVID-19.

Recommendations for change

  • What single parents want is certainty and security when they apply for a job; they need to know the expected hours of a job and how it is to be worked so they can be sure that the job will fit in with their caring responsibilities on their own and the available childcare.
  • Gingerbread wants progression of the Employment Bill to legislate and enforce for jobs to be advertised as flexible by default. In the interim, at the very least, a day-one right to flexible working must include a proper framework and an outline of sound business reasons for refusing a request with a strengthened system of enforcement.
  • The government also needs to be proactive in introducing other measures to help open up more flexible jobs – particularly quality part-time roles. The civil service has been a trailblazer in creating more flexible job opportunities through job sharing and we call on the government to take forward this good practice in the public and private sectors and offer financial incentives to employers who divide up full-time roles into job shares.

Single parents and childcare

  • The high cost and lack of availability of childcare make it harder for a single parent to move into or sustain employment. This is even more difficult than for couple parents (as couples can share pick-ups and drop-offs, which can mean they can need fewer childcare hours and can share the burden of childcare costs between two wages).
  • While the government promises up to 85% of childcare costs under Universal Credit (UC), this is not delivered in practice. This is because childcare costs are capped at a level set in 2003 – some 18 years ago – and have not increased with inflation nor the higher costs of childcare more broadly (including increases resulting from the pandemic). Furthermore, childcare costs under UC are paid a month in arrears, which means a single parent must meet these costs upfront and then claim them back. There are also other upfront costs needed for securing a childcare place – usually, a deposit is required. These combined costs can amount to hundreds of pounds, making childcare costs a barrier to entering work – and, for those single parents who move into work, a high likelihood of falling into debt.
  • The pandemic has reduced the supply of formal childcare, with over a third (35%) of local authorities reporting that the number of childcare providers permanently closing in their area had gone up in the last year. Childcare providers were struggling to remain sustainable during the pandemic, with 39% of local authorities seeing childcare providers raise their prices. The Department for Education’s own figures showed that over 20,000 childcare providers closed their doors in the first three months of 2021. In London, the situation is particularly stark, with the Greater London Authority finding that 64% of nurseries and 56% of childminders indicated that they were at risk of closure or concerned that they’d not be operating in 12 months’ time, for financial reasons.

Gingerbread Helpline recent calls about childcare

“It has been such an incredibly stressful time as a single parent to deal with this, especially trying to get back to work where childcare is so ridiculously expensive.”

“I’m stuck in a bit of a trap regarding work – I’m entitled to 80% back (of childcare costs), but I have to find the money to pay for it all upfront first and so I can only afford one morning a week”

Examples from Caring without Sharing Research

Dawn has a primary school-aged child and relies on after school care to stay in work:

“I did not realise they had lowered the number of kids that could go (to after school club) so I went to book some afterschool sessions and there was nothing available.”

Penny has a pre-school aged child and has seen her childcare provider close for financial reasons during the pandemic. Her only available childcare is now 15 miles away from her work.

Recommendations for change

  • The government should create a childcare infrastructure support fund to help stabilise the childcare market and prevent providers from closing.
  • The government should roll out a national childcare deposit fund to help parents meet any upfront costs of childcare when they enter work, building on the scheme developed by Gingerbread in partnership with the Greater London Authority. This should be universally available and paid from a specific fund rather than being drawn on a discretionary basis from the Flexible Support Fund.
  • The Department for Education should review the childcare caps set in 2003.
  • The Department for Work and Pensions should act on the High Court ruling in January 2021 to change the payment structure under UC so that childcare costs are made upfront, rather than in arrears.