NB I wrote this blog back in March 2020 but it's still relevant, still important and still needs to work better than it does.
For those who don't know, Gingerbread is a national charity working for equality for single parents.
Following on from their research on career progression barriers for single parents that I took part in they asked me write a blog for their website on my experiences of childcare as a single parent. The blog was part of the work they are doing on their key proposal policy areas in the build up to the recent general election. You can see what the policy areas are and what they are calling on the Government to do in their single parent manifesto:
Make Childcare Work
When I first went back to work after eight months of maternity leave, my mum did all my childcare. I was fortunate that I live close to my parents – I couldn’t even think about paid childcare. After living off £600 a month statutory maternity pay for the past nine months, how do you even begin to think about childcare costs in London today?
My mum works two days a week so I was able to work the three she didn’t, and fortunately, I was able to negotiate this with work. Many single parents, however, do not have these opportunities. I was very lucky. I was unable to pay my mum anything as I was unable to receive any help towards the cost as my mum wasn’t a registered childcare provider. To do this would have been a lot of extra work for her and made life a lot more complicated.
So, my mum was doing all my childcare whilst I was at work which was amazing, but this has become unsustainable. My son is a lively toddler and it has become too tiring for my mum to be doing all his childcare. Naturally, he now requires a lot of stimulation and has a lot of energy to burn, so it became pretty evident that nursery was going to need to be an option.
To secure a nursery place, you need to pay both a deposit and a month’s fee upfront. This is a significant amount of money to have spare when you are relying on universal credit! Once you have paid these, you can then let universal credit know and they will hopefully include a contribution (based on their assessment) in your following month’s payment. It is not guaranteed, and therefore, you spend the month hoping you will get something when you’re not really sure. You also only get payment towards your monthly fee, not the deposit that you made.
In my case, I had to use the Advanced Payment process with universal credit. This is where you apply for an advance payment amount to cover emergency costs. An amount is then deducted from your monthly universal credit payment to repay the advance payment, meaning each month you receive less money. Deductions for advance payments have a significant effect on people’s monthly payments over a prolonged period of time. This is why I support Gingerbread’s manifesto ask to provide support to cover the upfront costs of childcare through a childcare deposit scheme.
Payment date of universal credit
The payment date of universal credit is non-negotiable. Both my rent and nursery fees are due before my universal credit payment, both of which I have tried to negotiate the payment dates on and haven’t been able to. The total amount of my rent and nursery fees exceeds my salary, and so I cannot cover both without my universal credit payment which is not paid until a week after they are both due. This puts me in an endless cycle of late payments and living from payment to payment without ever being able to get ahead.
The insecurity of universal credit
You make the commitment of nursery and go through the hideous process of settling in on your own as a single parent before the DWP confirm that you will get a contribution towards it and how much for. The point of this is that, if it’s less than what you thought you might get, or less than what you can afford, then you have already made the commitment and your child has already started in nursery. The maximum the DWP will contribute towards nursery fees is 85%. This sounds like a lot but nursery fees are so expensive, even 15% can feel like a lot of one person’s part-time salary.
Furthermore, you are required to pay the monthly childcare fee in advance. You then provide evidence of this each month and the decision is made about how much to pay towards it in your next payment. Granted, if your situation never changes financially, this also shouldn’t change – however, the insecurities and past experiences of universal credit leave you in a state of anxiety each month until it is confirmed that they will be giving you something. Not to mention that if with everything else going on in your life as a single parent, you forget to declare the cost and provide the evidence, you would simply receive nothing.
Relying on universal credit is not like relying on a salary or a part salary. It feels volatile. You feel you have a complete lack of control and quite often are completely powerless due to the way the system is set up and the inflexibility within it.
Work and progression
I have been discussing the potential of increasing my hours with my employer. The complexity of this in terms of paying additional childcare and the potential impact it will have on universal credit payments makes it a difficult decision. I agree with Gingerbread’s manifesto ask that the next government must make work pay for single parents. Single parents like me should not lose out financially by increasing their working hours.
Even with estimations and calculations, it is both confusing and risky. It feels that way anyway because a simple change can have massive implications on your universal credit, and if you don’t get it right (because it is so complex), it can have huge negative implications for you.
In my experience, estimations haven’t always been completely accurate. It’s like, ‘Here you are having made your decision and commitment, and what you receive might not be what you thought, but it’s done now.’ So, what are your options? For many of us, you stay as you are because it’s safer. You are somewhat frozen, trapped, because moving forward feels overwhelming.
The blog and other really useful stuff can be found here on Gingerbreads website: