Dan Norris describes a rule making new demands on lone parents as a condition of getting income support (IS) or employment and support allowance (ESA).
Many lone parents with young children must undertake work-related activity (WRA) and attend far more work focused interviews (WFI) or face a cut in their benefits, following the introduction of the Income Support (Work-related Activity) and Miscellaneous Amendments Regulations, on 28 April 2014 (‘the 2014 Regulations’).1
The regulations give greater discretionary powers to DWP employment advisers to set the conditions a lone parent must meet to receive specific benefits.
Lone parents who wish to alter the WRA imposed on them, restrict their availability, challenge sanction decisions or defer WFIs are given limited protection by the 2013 regulations.
The 2014 regulations allow employment advisers to mandate WRA as a condition of entitlement for lone parents whose youngest child is aged three- or four-years-old and who are claiming:
- IS solely on the grounds that they are a lone parent; or
- ESA and are in the WRA group.
For universal credit (UC) and contributory ESA under the UC system, lone parents and responsible carers whose youngest child is aged three or four are now theoretically subject the work preparation requirement (similar to the WRA equivalent) in addition to the WFIS requirement. The limited rollout of the UC pathfinder means that very few lone parents are currently able to claim UC. The rationale for this change seems to be related to the extension of the free childcare entitlement for three- and four-year-olds to 15 hours. This childcare is an entitlement and not compulsory, so this potentially undermines previously positive incentives for parents to use it.
The regulations make it clear that ‘the particulars’ of any WRA requirements imposed by an employment adviser should be outlined in a written action plan given to the claimant. Claimants have the right to request a reconsideration of the action plan and the DWP must provide a written response.
WRA, defined as ‘[activities which] makes it more likely that a claimant will obtain or remain in work’,2 must appear to the employment adviser to be reasonable and cannot include a requirement that the lone parent applies for or accepts offers of work.
Work focused interviews
Until the introduction of the 2014 regulations, lone parents claiming IS, whose youngest child had reached their first birthday, were required to attend a preordained number of WFIs. Furthermore employment advisers had the discretion to waive the WFI requirement for lone parents altogether.
The 2014 regulations remove the set timetable for WFIs and give employment advisers discretionary powers to decide the number and frequency of WFIs for each claimant.
An employment adviser’s option to waive the WFI requirement altogether is replaced by a discretionary power to defer WFI until a later date.
When do the changes take effect?
The 2014 regulations came into effect on 28 April 2014. New claimants and renewal claims are affected immediately and existing claimants will be affected from the date of their next scheduled WFI.
Sanctions and good cause
Lone parents claiming IS who fail to attend the prescribed number of WFIs or complete mandatory WRA will see their benefit cut3 unless they can show good cause for their apparent failure. Lone parents claiming ESA who fail to meet these new responsibilities will be sanctioned according to existing ESA regulations.
The claimant must be notified of a sanction. The sanction will continue until the compliance conditions are no longer relevant to the lone parent’s benefit claim, or s/he meets the conditions.
Lone parents who can establish that they have a good cause for their failure to meet either the WRA or WFI requirement have five days to do so, extended to a month in cases where the claimant could not reasonably have provided evidence earlier. The time period during which a claim of good cause can be made is amended by the 2014 regulations to begin two days after notification of the alleged failure to meet a compliance condition is posted.
The regulations include what is effectively a list of examples of good cause,4 including:
- transport problems;
- failure to understand the requirement due to ‘learning, language or literacy difficulties’;
- medical or dental appointment;
- a disability which makes it ‘impractical to attend’.
The list is not exhaustive and a successful argument against the imposition of a sanction can be made even when a client’s good cause is not listed in the regulations.
A sanction will be imposed for each failure to meet a ‘compliance condition’. However, sanctions will not be imposed if the lone parent’s IS entitlement has been sanctioned within the last fortnight.
In any event, sanctions cannot leave a lone parent with IS or ESA of a value less than 10p.
It should be noted that the 2014 regulations prescribe protection for certain lone parents in specific circumstances. Lone parents can limit their availability to meet WRA and WFI conditions but cannot refuse to be available during their children’s school hours or during a period when their child is in the care of person over 18 (unless this is during a medical appointment). Lone parents who find meeting the requirements ‘unreasonable’ during any time of the day should ask the employment adviser to exercise discretion to defer the requirement to a later date.
Any WRA a claimant is asked to perform must be ‘reasonable’ – ie, it should be relevant to her/his individual circumstances (including any health issues or conscientious objections) and increase her/his chances of finding employment in the local job market.
Following the Supreme Court’s judgement in Reilly and Wilson vs SSWP (Bulletin 237, p10) advisers and claimants may, depending on the facts, be able to make a successful argument against a sanction imposed for failure to meet a compliance condition if they can show that the claimant was not given information sufficient to make ‘informed and meaningful’ representations about the requirements that their employment adviser before s/he drew up the action plan. You can find more information about the implications of the Reilly and Wilson vs SSWP case for sanctioned clients in the article ‘Sanction busting: part 3’ in Bulletin 237, p7.
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