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Economic Justice

Vulnerable women are the victims of changes to the benefits system

Fawcett Society’s Ava Lee blogs about how vulnerable women are disproportionately affected by recent benefit changes and what can be done about it  


“I don’t want to go to the Job Centre anymore. I’ve got bad blood pressure, and I don’t want to accept this pressure from them. These people are pushing you, pushing you, and in the end I feel like I am in dessert. There is no job, and I can’t take it….”
Nadya, a single mother from Sheffield.


Recently the Fawcett Society launched our new report: Where’s the Benefit? An Independent Inquiry into Women and Jobseeker’s Allowance.   The report was a culmination of months of work examining how changes made to the benefits system specifically Job Seekers Allowance (JSA), have impacted on women. The results were very concerning.   We found that the benefits system concerned with job seeking is making some groups of vulnerable women even more likely to experience poverty, ill-health, exploitation and abuse. Lone parents, women who suffer violence at home and women who have difficulties with English are being particularly hard hit.   We also found evidence of failings in both the design and the implementation of the JSA system. For example, although special arrangements should be made to protect claimants who are experiencing violence from a partner, claimants are not routinely told that this is possible. Lone parents, nine out of ten of whom are women, are often expected to look for full time work involving up to three hours travel every day even when this makes it impossible for them to also look after their children.


“Barbara called the Helpline in distress…the Work Programme Adviser gave her an appointment at 9.30am [but] she needed to travel on 2 buses [to take] her daughter to school. The Adviser told her to get her child into after school care even though the local service is full and also said it was alright to leave her for a couple of hours on her own.”
Submission from One Parent Families Scotland.


Some women are being expected to meet near impossible conditions in order to receive a basic benefit. When those conditions aren’t met these women are sanctioned, often losing all of their benefits – sometimes repeatedly – as the result of a system that doesn’t take account of the specific circumstances of many women’s lives.


“I think we’re a much easier target to be sanctioned, because, as women, we are less likely to kick off and be violent, much, much less likely, and I think that’s what makes us easier targets. And 99% of the time we’ve got children hanging off us so we haven’t got time to be arguing with these people, so you are having to take it and think, I’ll deal with that later, or I’ll deal with that tomorrow.”
Focus group participant.


We examined a vast amount of evidence including research that other people had written, undertook focus groups up and down the country, one to one interviews and had a day of evidence where we heard from women affected by the changes as well as NGOs, academics and expert practitioners who told us just what was happening.   An expert panel reviewed all the evidence before making recommendations, including Amanda Ariss – the CEO of the Equality and Diversity Forum who was the chair, Carlene Firmin MBE –  Head of the MsUnderstood Partnership and Research Fellow at the University of Bedfordshire, Baroness Meacher, Sir Keir Starmer QC and journalist Rosamund Urwin. The panel reviewed the evidence and attended the live hearing making recommendations for the final report.


The Inquiry made 12 recommendations including:


  • Specialist advisers should be available to support claimants such as lone parents, women experiencing domestic and sexual violence and women with difficulties speaking and understanding English. These advisers could ensure that the policies already in place to protect vulnerable women are followed in practice.


  • The conditions demanded of claimants should take account of the impact of caring responsibilities, language barriers and the impact of domestic and sexual violence.


  • Claimants should be told about policies which are there for lone parents and people experiencing domestic or sexual violence.


  • All claimants should receive a thorough diagnostic interview after three months of claiming JSA, to ensure they are receiving the support they need to move into sustainable, quality employment and are not being required to take up activities, at a cost to the public purse, that make little or no contribution to their job search.


Inquiry Chair Amanda Ariss said: “It is deeply worrying that a benefit that exists to support us all if we find ourselves out of work is putting vulnerable groups of women and their children at risk of unnecessary financial hardship, mental and physical ill-health and, in extreme cases, exploitation and abuse. This makes no sense.   These women are not being provided with the support they need to move into work, which would benefit the women themselves, their families and the wider economy. Instead they are forced to meet conditions that are sometimes close to impossible, with the constant threat of sanctions should they slip up.   It doesn’t have to be this way. With some modest changes to the design and implementation of JSA we could have a system that supports women to move into quality, sustainable work.”