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Government needs to do more to improve the welfare of separated families

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Written by: Emma Lunn
22/10/2019
A report by the Social Security Advisory Committee highlights the steps needed to improve the welfare of separated parents and their children.

The Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), an independent advisory body of the Department for Work and Pensions, has called on the government to do more to ensure that after parents separate, the social security and child maintenance systems supports the welfare of both parents and their children.

According to the government, there are 2.5 million separated families, including 3.9 million children, in the UK.

The report particularly looked at the experience of parents who are not the main carers, but who want a continuing parental role. It says this group are often overlooked.

Shared care

The report found that many separated parents share caring responsibilities for their children.

However, those who need to claim social security can struggle to share care because the system assumes there is one main carer and so only one parent is entitled to child-related benefits.

The other parent can only receive single adult benefits which do not factor in the inevitable costs of caring for children if parents are sharing care.

In particular, young non-resident parents may struggle to share care, as housing support in the private rented sector typically only covers a room for an adult in shared accommodation. This can make it difficult, or impossible in some cases, for a parent to have their child or children to stay overnight.

The report said that most other research has focused on the parent with whom the children live most of the time and highlights the severe negative impact that separation can have on their financial wellbeing.

But it points out that children may also experience hardship if and when they are with their other parent, and suggests that paying child maintenance can push parents into poverty.

Supporting separated parents

Research found that separated parents without main responsibility of childcare have a poverty rate of 30 per cent compared to 21 per cent amongst working age adults.

Liz Sayce, the committee’s interim chair, said: “Social security needs to enable children, and families, to thrive whether or not parents have separated. We urge the government to develop a clear strategy for supporting separated parents in the social security system. While there is a general policy focus on children’s welfare, the government does not appear to be considering separated parents and their children’s welfare as a joined-up issue.

“We recognise that there are no easy policy solutions. Nevertheless, we believe that improvements are needed to ensure separated parents, both those with main and without main responsibility of care, are not unduly suffering. This is vital to ensure no negative impact on the welfare of their children.”

The committee’s recommendations

The committee is calling for a cross-departmental working group to be set up to lead urgent action on the strategy and issues highlighted in this report. It says there are obvious challenges for separated parents to share care under current policy for housing support in the social security system.

The committee recommends that:

  • The housing element of Universal Credit should enable young parents, under 35 years, who are sharing care and paying child maintenance, to have their children to stay overnight.
  • The DWP should consider options for the system to support all parents without the main responsibility of care and with more than one child to stay with them overnight.
  • The DWP should consider ways to improve the child maintenance formula, including reviewing earnings thresholds to ensure they factor in the well-being and living standards of both parents and their children.

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