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United Kingdom: Enhancing employment opportunities to fight child and family poverty

The UK government is committed to ending child poverty as required by the Child Poverty Act 2010.  In April 2011, the Government published its first strategy for doing so, covering the period to 2014. This sets out how it is tackling the causes of child poverty, including low educational attainment, worklessness and welfare dependency, debt and family breakdown.

Supporting the most vulnerable families

By ensuring that work is the best option for those who are able, the Government intends to develop and maintain a fair society that looks after the most vulnerable.  It is introducing the Universal Credit to replace a range of other benefits to make sure that work pays and lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty. 

In June 2014, the British Government published a three-year strategy for reducing child poverty in the United Kingdom through action in three areas, namely: raising the educational attainment of poorer children; improving living standards for adults and children, and supporting families into work to increase their income. To help eliminate child poverty, the UK government chose to focus on tackling its root causes through actions in domains as varied as work, education, living standards and collaborative working between central government and local areas. The strategy seeks to enact the requirements of the 2010 Child Poverty Act, focusing on specific issues. The Government has therefore committed to better supporting the long-term unemployed, and tailoring support for single-parent families, among other measures.

The Government is delivering the Work Programme to provide individual help to overcome barriers to employment.  It is investing to help families with childcare costs while they look for work.  The Government intends that if at least one parent works 35 hours a week at the minimum wage – or 24 hours if they are a lone parent – the majority of children will be pulled out of poverty.  
DWP European Social Fund (ESF) funding for the period 2011-2013 includes support for families with multiple problems to help address the issues they face such as inter-generational worklessness and lack of qualifications. Through this provision, DWP’s providers are helping to move families closer towards and into sustained employment.
In 2013, 60.3% of mothers of children under six were employed. This is similar to the EU average of 59%. The same year part-time work was very popular and one of the highest in the European Union (42.6% vs. 32.7% for women).

Families in the UK are supported by the Working Tax Credit (a top up for working people with a low income) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) for those with children, whether or not they are working. As at April 2011, around 6.3 million families benefited from tax credits. The level of support depends on their circumstances but on average the award in 2010-11 was £4,525 per year (€5650). To ensure that support is well targeted and affordable, the Government reduced eligibility for households earning above £40,000 (€50000) from April 2011 but increased support for lower income families by raising funding significantly above indexation in the child element of CTC.

The government has set up Sure Start Children’s Centres to provide support for families. These offer access to a range of early childhood services for parents, prospective parents and carers. The services are available to parents from pregnancy to when child reaches primary school. Services include: family support, health care, advice and support for parents, outreach services, childcare and training and employment. There are over 3,000 centres operational in England, providing services for over 2.9 million children under 5 and their families. 1,800 of those are in the 30% most disadvantaged areas.

In addition, a Sure Start Maternity Grant, usually of £500 (around €625) to pay for essential items for a first baby might be available to low income families who receive certain benefits and tax credits.
Child benefit amounts are £20.30 (around €25) per week for the eldest child (up to the age of 16, or 20 if the child is in relevant education and training) and £13.40 (around €16.50) a week for each additional child.

Help and support for separated families 

The UK is reforming the current child maintenance system. The reforms are aimed at giving separated parents better support and helping them to make family-based arrangements.  This will enable parents to agree between themselves what and how much will be paid following a separation, without using the current statutory scheme, the Child Support Agency (CSA) or the courts. For those parents who are unable to make family-based arrangements, the Government is introducing an improved 2012 statutory scheme (called the Child Maintenance Service). This will eventually replace the schemes run by the CSA.

Where breakdown occurs it is funding support services for separating and separated parents to ensure the interests of children are met.  For families with multiple and complex needs it is investing £448 million to drive a radical shift in the help they get to ensure they get the support they need to turn their lives around.

Measures to encourage lone parents to seek employment mean that, from May 2012 most lone parents with a youngest child aged 5 lose entitlement to Income Support when claimed solely on the grounds of being a lone parent. If not returning to work lone parents can, subject to eligibility, claim either Jobseeker’s Allowance, if they are capable of work, or Employment and Support Allowance, if they have limited capability for work or a health condition. 

Towards equal sharing of parental leave

Maternity leave is very generous in the UK, with female employees entitled to 52 weeks off work. This full year of maternity leave is available to all employees regardless of how long they have been in the job or how many hours they work. 

During this time women may be eligible for either Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) from their employer or Maternity Allowance (MA) from the state. To receive SMP the woman must have been continuously employed for at least 26 weeks up to and including the 15th week before the week her baby is due and have average earnings of at least £102 (€113) per week. To qualify for MA, a woman must not be entitled to SMP, must have been employed and/or self-employed for at least 26 weeks in the 66 weeks before the week her baby is due and earn on average at least £30 (around €35) per week over any 13 weeks in the 66 weeks period.

SMP and MA are paid for 39 weeks. SMP is paid at 90% of average earnings for the first 6 weeks. This is followed by 33 weeks at either 90% of average earnings or a fixed sum of £135.45 (around €169), whichever is the lesser. Similarly, MA is paid at 90% of the average weekly earnings or a fixed sum also of £135.45 (around €169), for the whole 39 weeks.

Eligible fathers may qualify for two weeks paternity leave accompanied by Statutory Paternity Pay which is defined in the same way as SMP/MA. Parents have also right to up to 13 weeks of unpaid parental leave until the child’s fifth birthday. Any additional parental leave needs to be negotiated between the employer and the employee.

A new right to additional paternity leave and pay has been introduced for parents of children due from April 2011. Additional paternity leave will give fathers the right to take up to six months extra leave, once the mother has returned to work. The paternity leave is paid if taken before the end of the mother’s 39 week allowance of paid leave, which effectively allows the paid leave to be shared.

Provision of childcare facilities above EU average

In 2012, 27% of children under three were in formal childcare, this is above the EU average of 28%.  The percentage of children aged between three and school age in formal childcare (72%), exceeds the EU average of 83%. These meet the Barcelona targets for provision of formal childcare.

All three and four-year- old children are entitled to 15 hours per week of free early education for 38 weeks a year. The compulsory school age of five is among the earliest in Europe. From September 2012, all local authorities are required to report annually on how they are ensuring there is sufficient childcare to meet the needs of working parents.

Early Education for Two Year Olds

Currently, all three and four year-olds are eligible for 15 hours of free early education per week. The Government has committed to extending this to around 20 per cent of the least advantaged two-year-olds, around 150,000 children from September 2013.

The information in the country profile was last updated in January 2015.