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Active Labour Market Policies towards Out-of-Work Partnered Parents in France and the UK during austerity

Abigail Taylor
p. 247-265


Understanding of the impact of the financial crisis on active labour market policy in the experiences of out-of-work partnered families is limited. Recent work examining the influence of labour market policy on jobseekers has focused on individuals or macro-level single country studies. Literature on work-life balance under austerity has primarily studied policy targeting of those in work. Nonetheless, family policy is integral to active labour market policy and workless families are the focus of increasing policy attention, particularly in the UK. This paper, based on a qualitative study of out-of-work partnered parents conducted in 2013 enables analysis of how differences in active labour market policies under austerity are borne out in parental experiences within France and the UK. The paper suggests that despite austerity, active labour market policies towards out-of-work parents continue to differ in the two countries, with support being broader, more reactive and more personalised in France.

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Introduction : Aims and Existing Studies

  • 1 Windebank and Whitworth, 2014, p.99.
  • 2 See for example the 2012 review of social policy under austerity edited by Farnsworth and Irving, a (...)

1The 2008 financial crisis rapidly spread from an acute banking predicament to cause a considerable decline in business investment, household demand and output across the European Union. In turn, pressure on social welfare systems across Europe increased with many governments entering an age of fiscal consolidation. Farnsworth and Irving (2011) argue that the short, medium and long-term impact of the economic crisis on welfare states does not vary solely according to the extent of economic collapse in countries but also according to how states ideologically perceive the crisis. Indeed, for some states the economic crisis has represented “a window of opportunity” through which to construct, rationalise and implement reform agendas.1 Recent work has examined the influence of labour market policy under austerity on jobseekers, revealing differences in how policy-makers throughout the EU have responded to the crisis.2

  • 3 Esping-Andersen, 1990; Lewis, 1992, 2001; Pfau-Effinger, 1998, 2006, 2012.
  • 4 Serrano Pascual, 2007.
  • 5 Whitworth and Carter, 2014; Milner, 2014.
  • 6 OECD, 2015a.
  • 7 Clegg, 2014; Milner, 2014.

2France and the UK have represented countries with divergent public economies and traditions of social assistance. The two countries have been classified differently both in welfare regime theory3 and in activation regime theory.4 In terms of active labour market policies, observers have revealed differences in the activation policies adopted by the UK and French governments over the past decade with the UK focusing to a greater extent on neo-liberal measures than France and France being slower to introduce short-term working.5 In 2011, (the latest year for which comparative figures are available), France spent 2.28% of its’ GDP on labour market policies, whilst the UK spent only 0.54%.6 However, recent research has suggested that some cross-national convergence has occurred between France and the UK in terms of how minimum income benefits are conceived and deregulation and bargained ‘flexicurity’ pursued.7 Nonetheless, such research has concentrated on macro-level policy analysis. There is therefore reason to question how macro-level policies are experienced at the micro level in France and the UK.

  • 8 For example, Norman et al, 2010.
  • 9 For example, Gregory, Milner and Windebank, 2013; O’Brien, 2013.

3This paper aims to respond to this gap in understanding by exploring how differences in active labour market policies under austerity are borne out in parental experiences within France and the UK. It concentrates on the experiences of out-of-work partnered parents in the two countries since the limited qualitative research that does exist into the micro-level impact of active labour market policies adopted during the age of fiscal consolidation has focused on the experiences of individuals.8 Nonetheless, family policy is an integral part of active labour market policy and workless families are the focus of increasing policy attention, particularly in the UK with the introduction of Universal Credit (as discussed below). Literature on work-life balance under austerity also provides little insight into the experiences of out-of-work couples, since it has primarily involved the study of policy targeting those in work.9 Warren (2017) places the spotlight on work-life balance issues among working class families but concentrates on in-work working class parents. Through focusing on out-of-work parents, this study will investigate whether the narrowing of how active labour market policies are perceived by policymakers in France and the UK is reflected in individual parental experiences, particularly the support couples receive in seeking to look for work whilst balancing their family responsibilities and ambitions. Greater awareness of how out-of-work couples across the European Union are experiencing active labour market policy during the age of austerity will add significantly to policy learning.

History of Active Labour Market and Family Policy in France and the UK

  • 10 For example, Clegg, 2014; Milner, 2014.

4The evolution of active labour market policies in France and the UK has been discussed elsewhere.10 It is not the aim of this paper to repeat these arguments. However, it is important to summarise the key differences between policies in the two countries to situate the parental experiences analysed below. Active labour market policies in the UK predate those in France. Activation policies have been present in the UK since the 1980s and early 1990s and were particularly expanded under New Labour who introduced the New Deal employment programme, a National Minimum Wage and working tax credits ‘to make work pay’, increased activation requirements and the use of sanctions, and enlarged the role of the private and voluntary sector in governing and expanding the activation system. ‘Creeping conditionality’ was introduced drawing in groups not previously expected to look for work such as lone parents (Dwyer, 2004, p. 265). Conversely, in France the embrace of activation policies has been less systematic. France continued to prioritise labour reduction and social inclusion policies such as the 35-hour working week and job creation programmes for young people in the 1990s. Activation policies only began to be introduced in the 2000s and even then, were slowed down by the complex relationship between the government and social partners, and resistance among the French Socialist Party. French policy to tackle unemployment was ‘innovative but inconsistent’ (Barbier and Kauffman, 2008, p. 70). Since the onset of the financial crisis, policy has increasingly targeted groups that were not previously expected to look for work (e.g. beneficiaries of income support schemes, lone mothers and older workers). Key policy developments include the introduction of the Revenu de solidarité active (the main minimum income programme for those who are aged 25 or over and either unemployed or on a low salary) in 2008 and the Prime Emploi (working tax credits for households with low incomes) in 2011.

5Whilst current active labour market policies in France and the UK share many aims, they differ in terms of the means of delivery. As indicated in the activation regime typologies described above, especially since the onset of the financial crisis, the UK system has included greater use of sanctions and involvement of the private sector in supporting the unemployed to find employment. UK policy post-2010 such as Universal Credit (a benefit introduced gradually from 2014 which is replacing working age benefits, housing benefits and personal tax credits and was designed to simplify the benefits system and ‘make work pay’) and the Work Programme (activation programme for the long-term unemployed involving a payments-by-results model) has continued and intensified trends introduced by New Labour.

  • 11 OECD, 2017.

6Public unemployment spending is considerably higher in France (1.6% of GDP in 2013) than in the UK (0.3% of GDP).11

7It is also important to consider the sense of broader family policies introduced in France and the UK in recent years. France has a much longer-history than the UK of work-family reconciliation policy. Furthermore, policy in France is more generous and universalistic in nature, whereas in the UK there is greater use of means-testing. Policies such as extensive public childcare facilities to support working parents, in particular working mothers, have existed in France since the 1970s. Initially, such policies were motivated by demographic concerns but more recently tackling unemployment has also influenced policy direction. On the one hand, French family policy has comprised a ‘work-time reduction’ policy which through the Allocation Parentale d’Education introduced in 1985 and a strand of the Prestation d’accueil du jeune enfant introduced in 2004 has provided parental leave to parents. It has primarily been taken up by mothers. On the other hand, French policy has supported working parents through the existence of financial support with child-minder costs (le complément de libre choix d’activité), low public childcare costs and the fact that all children are entitled to a place at the école maternelle (primary school) once they reach the age of three. Work-family reconciliation policy in the UK was only introduced in the late 1990s and early 2000s under New Labour as part of their activation agenda for families in poverty. At the start of the 1990s, the UK government considered the family to be ‘the private sphere’ and outside the remit of the state (Lewis et al, 2008, p. 271). New Labour prioritised childcare provision, cash subsidies towards childcare costs, parental leave policies and the right to request but to not necessarily receive flexible working (Lewis et al, 2008 ; Daly, 2010). Sure Start Centres, offering support with childcare and promoting parental employment were established in areas with high levels of deprivation from 1997.

8Among the means-tested policies were Childcare Tax Credits introduced in 2003. Family policy under the 2010 and 2015 UK coalition governments continued to emphasise the importance of parental employment. In 2010 free nursery provision for three and four year olds was marginally increased to fifteen hours per week. The current Conservative government intends to double the number of hours of free nursery provision but this will only be available to working parents. Such a commitment to extend provision must be understood in the context of continued retrenchment within UK welfare policy as part of efforts to reduce the public-sector deficit and reduce public sector spending on welfare. In 2011, the UK government increased the percentage of childcare costs that low-income claimants of Working Tax Credits pay themselves. Sure Start services have also been severely cut. The general government deficit in the UK has been reduced from -10.2% in 2009 to -4.4% in 2015. The comparative figures for France are -7.2% and -3.5% demonstrating the differences between the hard approach to austerity adopted in the UK and the softer approach taken in France (OECD, 2015b).

Research Hypotheses and Methods

9On the basis of the macro-level differences in active labour market and childcare policy described above and indicated in existing policy and welfare regime and activation regime theory, it is possible to make assumptions regarding how support with job search and balancing work and care may be experienced at the micro-level during the age of austerity. First, the greater focus on conditionality, sanctions and involvement of the private sector in activation policy suggest that one might expect that out-of-work partnered parents in the UK rather than in France will report that they encountered greater difficulties accessing effective training schemes. Secondly, the greater focus on parental ‘free choice’ as well as the greater levels of financial support with work-family reconciliation issues within macro-level policy in France suggest that childcare issues would be a less important factor behind why the parents interviewed were out-of-work in France than the UK. Nonetheless, since the theories are based on macro-level analysis, it is possible to question the extent to which they are relevant in understanding experiences at the micro-level. In responding to this research puzzle, this article will provide greater understanding of how macro-level theories apply to particular micro-level groups.

  • 12 Lincoln and Guba, p.316 and p. 328.
  • 13 See Hantrais and Mangen, 1996, p.4.

10This article is based on the results of a larger study involving semi-structured interviews carried out with out-of-work partnered parents in Sheffield, Northern England and Lille, Northern France in 2013 funded by a University Prize (doctoral) Scholarship at the University of Sheffield. First, 19 out-of-work couples were interviewed in a disadvantaged neighbourhood of Sheffield. Secondly, 19 out-of-work couples were interviewed in a neighbourhood with similar socio-economic characteristics in Lille. The study defined ‘out-of-work’ broadly incorporating both those who were unemployed and those who were economically inactive. The interviews were conducted prior to the introduction of Universal Credit. In France, participants were in receipt of a variety of benefits such as le RSA and les allocations de chômage. In the UK, benefits included : the Jobseeker’s Allowance, the Employment Support Allowance and the Disability Living Allowance. Interviews were chosen over other possible methods such as focus groups since focus groups may influence the views expressed by participants and may not allow the sequence of parental experiences to be explored as well as in individual interviews. Semi-structured interviews were used to allow participants the opportunity to bring up and discuss issues that were important in their work-care experiences. In line with Mabry’s analysis (2008), semi-structured interviews provided the flexibility to adjust the interview schedule to the experiences of individual participants whilst maintaining the overall structure required for comparative analysis. In the UK, both parents were interviewed in 17 of the couples (2 interviews were conducted with mothers only). In France, interviews were carried out with both parents in 13 families and with just the mother in 5 cases and solely the father in 1 case. One mother interviewed in France (A1Fr) had found employment shortly before the interview took place. Conversely, one father (J1UK) interviewed in the UK had secured employment shortly before the study began. Previously, both parents in both couples were out of work. In terms of the representivity of the sample, as a small-scale qualitative study, this study did not seek to be representative in a quantitative sense. Nonetheless, it can be evaluated in terms of ‘dependability’ in relation to Lincoln and Guba’s criteria for assessing qualitative research (1985, p. 328). ‘Dependability’ in the study stems from the way in which a multi-layered approach to recruiting participants was used. The study deliberately recruited participants through flyering as well as approaching community locations and snowballing in a variety of locations across each neighbourhood to access participants from a variety of backgrounds who both participated in community activities and those who were involved to a lesser extent. As regards internal dependability, the rigorous manner in which the interviews were transcribed and analysed thematically using NVivo indicates the results are dependable. Sheffield and Lille were chosen as the respective sites of this research, due to their similar socio-economic profile. In terms of the ‘transferability’ of the results, Lincoln and Guba contend that “transferability” can be established through “thick description” of the cases to enable another person who is interested in applying the findings in a different context to decide if such a context is possible.12 This article realises “transferability” through providing contextual information with each quote (e.g. number of children). It is acknowledged that some of the experiences encountered (e.g. regarding transport) may be experienced differently in other localities. To ensure the anonymity of participants in the study, each couple taking part were allocated a letter (A-R). This was followed by ‘1’ for the mother and ‘2’ for the father. The initials of the country the parents lived in were added to the end of the code. For example, ‘C1UK’ refers to the mother in the third couple interviewed in the UK. The study involved comparative case studies of the national situation in France and the UK using the Safari method of comparative analysis.13 The interviews were transcribed then analysed thematically using the NVivo software package. Quotes from the French interviews have been translated into English for this paper. Ethical approval for carrying out the interviews was obtained from the University of Sheffield School of Languages and Cultures Ethics Review Committee. The research was undertaken in line with the British Sociological Association and University of Sheffield ethics guidelines.

Empirical Findings

11The experiences of the parents interviewed reveal strengths and weaknesses of active labour market policy in both France and the UK. However, taken together the parents’ experiences indicate that policy during austerity has remained more substantive in practice in France, and that policy in the UK is often too procedural and short-term. Consequently, it can be maintained that despite austerity, activation policy provides greater levels of support to parents to move towards achieving their ideal work-care scenarios and contributing to the labour market in France.

Greater procedural and reactive support with job search and training in France during austerity

12Personalised and human support with job search and training is arguably a crucial enabling factor in supporting couples who are both looking for employment. On paper, both Jobcentre Plus/Work Programme and the Pôle Emploi/référent RSA would seem to offer personalised support, in the sense of procedural and reactive support tailored to individual needs. Overall, the parents interviewed in France (including those not looking for work immediately) described benefitting from more reactive support and stronger relationships with work assistance organisations than parents interviewed in the UK. Although, such support was not universal across the experiences of all parents in France, it was more common than in the UK interviews. The following quotes demonstrate this difference in the relationship with work-support organisations. C2UK, who was in his early thirties at the time of interview and had previously worked in a manual job, suggested the Jobcentre is helpful. However, in practice it seems he received little support to find suitable work:

“AT: What have your experiences of the JobCentre been?

C2UK : Er good experiences, they are alright, they are helpful but they don’t display as many jobs as what they used to do. Now that it’s all on, you know a computer and if you’re not computer literate. Before you used to just read them off the walls. And it’s a bit harder now.

AT: Yeah. Do they give you help to use the computers?

C2UK: Er no, no. It’s just the security guards that are there”.

13Similarly, D1UK whose youngest child was at primary school suggested she did not have a personal relationship with staff on the Work Programme and did not gain useful advice with finding work:

“They just send you to like this this like centre to look for a job online really. But you can do that at home so I can’t understand why they send you there really”.

  • 14 Bloch et al. 2013, p.110.

14This fits with the Bloch et al.’s review of Jobcentre Plus support which established a relationship between claimants finding work, intensive support from advisers with finding suitable employment to apply for and gaining work experience.14

15By contrast, K2Fr described a much more personal relationship with his advisor which seemed important in him trusting her and asking for help:

“Whenever I want something, whatever it is, she is there […]. Keeping things in, keeping things in, keeping things in isn’t good. […]. I get things off my chest […]. We explain things, we talk, we laugh […]. If I need to do a CV or whatever it is, I go to see her and she knows how to do it”.

16The RSA référent system is operated by the Mairie (local authorities) who are responsible for arranging whether support is provided by themselves or public employment services. In Lille, the system is devolved to the local level of the Mairie de Quartier (neighbourhood councils). They offer support around three axes: social support, support with finding work and work-care support. This multipronged approach is important in building relationships with clients and supporting them on the journey to employment. Whereas support experienced by parents in the UK was very procedural and concentrated strictly on employment and training, support was broader and involved more of a human element in France. This wide-ranging approach can be considered to enable the référents to engage more positively with parents who are actively seeking work but encountering difficulties than Jobcentre Plus and the Work Programme.

17Furthermore, the support offered by advisors in France seems more reactive and personalised compared to in the UK. The French system appears to offer longer term, more comprehensive, more innovative training courses than those described by parents interviewed in the UK. The case of two fathers M2UK and M2Fr exemplify the differences in approach taken by the two systems. M2Fr and M2UK desired similar work-care scenarios. They both wished to work full-time and had faced similar barriers to employment, namely a lack of qualifications. In addition, M2Fr thought not having a driving licence was causing problems for him when looking for work. Whilst the barriers they faced were similar, the policy support they had received from work-support organisations in the two countries was significantly different and thus their prospects for employment looked notably different. M2Fr was about to start an innovative training programme that combined one of M2’s interests – sport- with learning how to look for work effectively, confidence building and obtaining a driving licence. The scheme seemed to interest him as well as to provide genuine prospects of employment. He had been offered a job by a company if he could pass his driving licence. By contrast M2UK’s experiences were characterised by much less reactive support. Most importantly, his experiences underline how training support in the UK is limited for job seekers aged over 25. He was ineligible for apprenticeships as he was over the age of 25. He was also unable to progress with his idea of setting up a gardening company as he did not have a driving licence and Jobcentre Plus did not offer him funding. The hills in Sheffield together with his lack of private transport further complicated his job search. As such, he seemed to be trapped without any options to improve his situation.

Challenges with support offered by the Pôle Emploi

18Nonetheless, the policy support offered to those in the unemployment insurance system and under the responsibility of the nationally-run Pôle Emploi (Employment Board) can be criticised for being less comprehensive than that provided by the référents RSA. Parents who did not have a référent RSA, particularly those supported through the unemployment insurance system appeared to be making less progress towards employment. They seemed to face little pressure to and little support with looking for work and moving towards their ideal work-care scenarios that in the case of fathers involved full-time employment. For example, D2Fr gave the impression that attending meetings with the Pôle Emploi was optional. Whilst the study indicated that extensive conditionality as evident in the UK can be counterproductive and contribute to tension between job seekers and work support organisations, the very loose mandation requirements for those in the unemployment insurance system in France would seem to leave some parents isolated.

Insufficient support in France and the UK for parents with complex needs

19Furthermore, active labour market policies in both France and the UK during austerity would appear to offer insufficient support to out-of-work partnered parents with complex needs such as having a criminal record. In both countries, this group of parents seemed to face discrimination among employers. K2Fr who had been released following five years in prison for drugs offences described how employers were looking for “people without a record” and considered people who had been in prison as “dishonest”. Parents with criminal records described struggling to access specialist support from state services to find suitable employment. In France, this included being referred from organisation to organisation, whilst in the UK one parent described having to wait two years after being released from prison to attend a training programme. The lack of support from work assistance organisations, contributed to this group of parents being considerably isolated in both countries and struggling to obtain their ideal work-care scenarios. In addition, the couples seemed to struggle particularly due to having low skills levels, low confidence and holding traditional views regarding gender roles which meant that when the fathers were encountering significant obstacles, the mothers in the couples did not pursue employment despite them on paper having stronger labour market potential. This draws attention to how policy may wish to take a longer-term approach, supporting the whole family to consider the mothers becoming the main breadwinner. Despite the financial pressures of austerity, early referrals for support before people leave prison as well as intensive support on leaving prison, including work experience and volunteering options are important, having the potential to reduce long-term costs.

Childcare as a barrier to employment in the UK

  • 15 Vincent, 2007.
  • 16 Holloway and Pimlott-Wilson, 2016.

20The study also underlined differences in how the childcare side of active labour market policies has been experienced during the age of fiscal consolidation in the two countries. Despite the investment in childcare in the UK under New Labour, the coalition government and the current Conservative government, many parents interviewed in the UK described encountering difficulties finding suitable childcare. The limited number of free nursery hours provided by the state, the short length of the school day and the perceived high cost of pre-school age and school age before- and after- school care were described by some parents as factors limiting their ability to look for and find employment. For example, E1UK, a mother of one, stated her son was only provided free nursery care from 12 :30pm to 4 :30pm each day “and there is no job offering me those times”. She considered that additional childcare was “really expensive”. In addition, a significant finding of the study is that practical barriers accessing childcare were exacerbated by negative normative values about formal childcare. A considerable proportion of parents held normative values which meant they were reluctant to use formal childcare and as such, the mothers were only looking to find work around school hours. A1UK who was the mother of a primary-age daughter revealed that despite actively desiring employment, she had struggled to find work in practice since she was only prepared to work around school hours and there was a lack of jobs within what she considered to be a reasonable travelling distance around school hours. This resistance to using formal childcare is in line with the conclusions of Vincent15 and Holloway and Pimlott-Wilson16 (2016) who underlined how the childcare market in the UK varies considerably according to social class, with mothers of primary school-age children in households where no parent was in-work showing a strong preference for home-based childcare. This indicates that parents’ normative values regarding childcare considerably impact on their lived experiences.

Childcare provision during the age of austerity in France: a better regarded system but access difficulties in practice

  • 17 Windebank 1999 and 2001.

21By contrast, the study revealed a childcare system in France that was generally well-regarded but which at times, was difficult for out-of-work parents to access. In line with Windebank’s findings that mothers viewed formal childcare as “normal” more often in France than the UK,17 parents were more willing to use formal childcare in France than the UK. In addition, using crèches was suggested to be affordable. For example, couple A linked receiving the Prestation d’accueil du jeune enfant to cover their crèche costs with the mother being able to return to work. The longer school day in France also made it easier for parents who were reluctant to use formal childcare to look for work as it meant they could look for longer hours of work, thus seemingly increasing their chances of finding employment. Some of the parents interviewed suggested that out-of-work parents were not a priority for the collective childcare places. Issues of access have been highlighted previously and the French government has prioritised increasing the number of places in particular, in disadvantaged areas such as the zones urbaines sensibles. However, this study underlines the urgency of increasing access to collective childcare facilities for out-of-work parents. Until provision is expanded to meet demand, it is likely that many parents, in particular mothers of children under the age of three, will struggle to fulfil their employment ambitions due to a lack of suitable childcare.

Importance of public transport subsidies in France

22A final reason why policy can be considered more reactive in France than the UK follows from comments made by the couples interviewed regarding transport costs. Parents in France described having access to greater state public transport subsidies than parents in the UK and underlined how this helped them to move towards their ideal work-care scenarios.

“A2Fr : It gives you the right to take metro, bus or tram throughout the Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing area. Any day of the week, at any time of day or night. Any time.

AT: That’s very interesting. And what’s the impact on you? And how you can look for work?

A2Fr : Euh well you can easily go from one area to another if you have a meeting in another area, you don’t need to buy a ticket each time […] it’s very practical”.

23Conversely, parents in the UK stressed how the limited nature of help with transport costs in the UK was an important obstacle in terms of travelling to different neighbourhoods to look for work and attend interviews:

“It were alright when they just dropped fares but they’ve put them back up again haven’t they which is alright but obviously when you are on benefits, it’s like for me and him to go town, it’s like a tenner, it’s like a tenner ain’t it, just underneath £ 10 and it is a lot. And the Jobcentre expect you to go to all these appointments. […]. So they want you to go to all these appointments and it’s like you tell them […] it’s costing me like nearly a fiver every time they want me to come and we can’t afford it” (A1UK).

24In France two forms of support exist, a free public transport pass (la Formule Iris in Lille) for those on the highest level of benefit, and a reduced costs transport pass (la Formule Mirabelle). Both appear to be widely appreciated by those who receive them as these quotes indicate.

Discussion: the Direction of Recent Active Labour Market Policy

25Since 2013 when the fieldwork this paper is based on was carried out, several active labour market policies have been introduced in France and the UK as the two countries have continued to confront the challenges of the era of austerity. These policies can be considered to intensify the differences between the level of support offered to of out-of-work partnered parents in France and the UK outlined in this article. Whereas policy announcements in France have increased the level of support on offer, policy in the UK has become more stringent.

26First, in terms of childcare, divergent policies have been announced. Whereas very significantly the French government in 2015 announced plans to improve access to childcare facilities for unemployed parents (in particular, during interviews, meetings with le Pôle Emploi, training and job trials), the UK has prioritised childcare support for working parents. The UK Conservative government was elected in 2015 with a manifesto promising to double free nursery provision for three and four year olds if their parents are in work. The resistance to formal childcare identified in this study raises questions about whether the UK government plans to increase support for working parents will further isolate out-of-work couples who are resistant to using formal childcare.

27Secondly, in relation to benefit support, the UK has increased requirements on both parents in out-of-work couples to look for employment. Under Universal Credit, parents who are part of a couple and who are responsible for a child will need to decide and inform Jobcentre Plus which parent will be responsible for the child. The obligations regarding looking for work for the parent prioritising care vary with the age of the youngest child. In couples with children aged three or four, the parent assuming the role of the main carer will nonetheless be expected to prepare for work including undertaking training or work placements. Parents of children over the age of four are likely to be placed in the ‘all work-related activity group’ and thus will be considered available to begin work immediately.


28This article has examined active labour market policies towards workless parents in France and the UK during the age of fiscal consolidation by comparing the experiences of out-of-work partnered parents in Lille and Sheffield in 2013. In doing so, it has responded to the gap in understanding of how macro-level active labour market policies have been experienced at the micro-level during austerity and provided analysis for policy makers in both countries. Importantly, it has demonstrated how despite evidence that the goals of macro-level active labour market policies are converging in France and the UK since the economic crisis, the policies are experienced differently at the micro-level in the two countries since the means of delivery continue to differ. Overall, active labour market policies can be considered to be broader, longer-term and more reactive in how they support out-of-work couples to move towards employment in France than the UK. Despite the challenges of austerity, policy in France has remained more substantive in practice. First, support with job search and training has been shown to be more personalised, innovative and reactive in France than in the UK. Training opportunities for job seekers aged over 25 in the UK are particularly limited. Secondly, it has been argued that childcare provision is more affordable and more trusted among out-of-work parents in France than the UK. Thirdly, the importance of free and subsidised public transport for out-of-work couples was underlined with emphasis placed on the greater level of public provision available in France compared to the UK.

29Nonetheless, this article has identified several areas in which micro-level support for out of-work partnered parents in both France and the UK is weaker: personalised support for those under the unemployment insurance system; support for out-of-work couples with complex needs such as criminal convictions; and childcare. Whereas in the UK childcare difficulties stemmed from the perceived high cost of childcare and suspicions of using formal childcare, issues in France were connected to a lack of spaces in collective childcare facilities for out-of-work parents.

30This article underlines several avenues for future research. First, the introduction of Universal Credit is increasing the requirements on out-of-work partnered parents to look for work without addressing questions over the types of work and childcare that parents are seeking (e.g. part-time work around school hours). Therefore it would seem pertinent to examine the extent to which a potential mismatch exists under austerity between macro-level activation policy goals towards out-of-work partnered parents and social reality. Secondly, this article has sought to contribute to policy learning through examining experiences in practice of benefit claimants. This is through only one form of policy learning. Therefore a pertinent next step would be to investigate the political and administrative feasibility of addressing the barriers within active labour market policies towards out-of-work partnered parents discussed in this article. One way of assessing this would be to interview senior and frontline policy makers in France and the UK regarding the main issues they consider to be affecting out-of-work partnered parents as well as the pressures on policy makers. Thirdly, in order to better understand the relationship between macro-level active labour market policies and micro-level experiences better, a longer-term study of the experiences of out-of-work partnered parents would be valuable. It would enable insight into questions such as the effectiveness of the broader, more personalised, more reactive support towards out-of-work partnered parents identified in France in the long-term. Finally, this study has focused on the experiences of out-of-work partnered parents in a single neighbourhood in France and the UK. It therefore seems important to conduct additional research in other neighbourhoods and cities to enable further analysis of how active labour market policies are experienced by families at the city level. In the UK, research could explore the extent to which Local Enterprise Partnerships are seeking to address issues of work-life balance. In France, research could investigate how support from the RSA référent system differs according to locality and institutional set-up (i.e. whether support is provided by Mairies or public-employment services.

  • 18 OECD, 2016.

31Even with austerity, political priorities over what remains of public sector spending have clearly influenced the direction of active labour market policies towards out-of-work partnered parents in the UK and France. In the UK, successive governments have aimed to reduce welfare spending with a particular priority being placed on safeguarding spending on the NHS and education. In France, governments have pursued a softer approach to austerity. This contributes to explaining why spending on labour market programmes differs considerably within France and the UK. In 2011, the latest year for which comparative figures are available, France spent considerably more on both active and passive measures than the UK (representing 0.23% and 0.31% of GDP in the UK and 0.91% and 1.36% in France).18 This article has demonstrated the particular significance of the greater spending on active labour market policies in France.

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1 Windebank and Whitworth, 2014, p.99.

2 See for example the 2012 review of social policy under austerity edited by Farnsworth and Irving, and the 2014 issue of the Journal of Contemporary European Studies edited by Windebank and Whitworth.

3 Esping-Andersen, 1990; Lewis, 1992, 2001; Pfau-Effinger, 1998, 2006, 2012.

4 Serrano Pascual, 2007.

5 Whitworth and Carter, 2014; Milner, 2014.

6 OECD, 2015a.

7 Clegg, 2014; Milner, 2014.

8 For example, Norman et al, 2010.

9 For example, Gregory, Milner and Windebank, 2013; O’Brien, 2013.

10 For example, Clegg, 2014; Milner, 2014.

11 OECD, 2017.

12 Lincoln and Guba, p.316 and p. 328.

13 See Hantrais and Mangen, 1996, p.4.

14 Bloch et al. 2013, p.110.

15 Vincent, 2007.

16 Holloway and Pimlott-Wilson, 2016.

17 Windebank 1999 and 2001.

18 OECD, 2016.

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Abigail Taylor, « Active Labour Market Policies towards Out-of-Work Partnered Parents in France and the UK during austerity », Observatoire de la société britannique, 19 | 2017, 247-265.

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Abigail Taylor, « Active Labour Market Policies towards Out-of-Work Partnered Parents in France and the UK during austerity », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 19 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2018, consulté le 13 novembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1960

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Abigail Taylor

Teaching associate à l'Université d'Aston

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