Why family norms result in inequity and inequality for children

What constitutes a family these days?  We know from our own acquaintance, that they come in all shapes, sizes and combinations.  Limiting this post’s interest to the demographics of child-full ones, the 2012 Scottish Household survey finds that 12% of children live in small families, 6% in large ones and 5% in lone parent households.

Given that there are myriad combinations of adults/children in families, how is it that policymakers and providers of goods and services persist in assuming a norm of couples with two children?  And does it matter?

Well, yes on a host of levels.

This week, there will be one last heave to remove pernicious charges from the new child maintenance collection scheme.  The regulations which will introduce a 4% fee on collection reach the House of Lords on Tuesday and anachronistic though they are, I have blogged previously on  my admiration for the Lords and Ladies on this issue when they batted down the original welfare reform proposals.  They represent the last great hope of preventing a calumny on children who already often live in the poorest households in the land.

Gingerbread is running an excellent campaign to “stop the CSA charges” – please do take a moment to sign the petition – and has produced a great graphic to explain what is happening.

If you cannot agree a sum with your partner, you can ask the UK Government to work out what should be paid.  That service will cost the parent with care an upfront fee of £20 – significantly better than the £100 originally proposed but still an upfront charge on the person with the children.

Then if you cannot get the sum calculated paid voluntarily, you can ask the Child Maintenance Service (which used to be the Child Support Agency) to collect it for you.  They will do so but deduct 4% of what is collected as their fee.  They won’t add on the 4% collection fee to what they are collecting from the absent parent but from the parent receiving the maintenance, meaning that children will effectively lose out.

All new cases since November 2013 have been dealt with under this regime but the Lords will also consider regulations to transition existing cases – some stretching back all the way to 1993 – onto the new rules.  The process will involve ending all existing liability and inviting those who cannot make voluntary arrangements to make new applications for maintenance calculation under the new rules.  Given that many of the cases that ended up at the Child Support Agency did so because parents could not agree on maintenance, you can see how this might work out.  The UK Government is alive to the potential for disaster for some families and will transition the toughest cases, those subject to enforcement action of some sort, last.

But the old sums agreed will be swept away and presumably, if the new amount is less than currently paid, tough. Children will go without. Again.

So, potentially less maintenance, an upfront fee for the privilege of having this calculated and a possible 4% deduction to collect it all and some of the country’s most vulnerable children, in terms of their income levels, are going to be hardest hit. It amounts to discrimination against children in particular circumstances that they didn’t ask for. 

It’s not just government which is intent on treating children living in single adult households differently.  For years, lone parent families have been subject to unfair treatment in fees and charges for services compared to couple ones, and not just by the private sector.

Take the National Museums of Scotland membership scheme. The old and new National Museums are wonderful places, oases for parents on rain-soaked Sundays and miserable weekends.  The fact that entry is free ensures they are high on holidaymakers’ must see list and the membership scheme is a great way of creating a supporter base and generating income, while working out at great value for those who like to take in all the special exhibitions.  Unless you are a child, for there is no special membership rate for children.

There is an “individual” rate of £35 annually, which reduces to £28 for students or £23 per person for a joint membership.  Then there is the family membership for two adults and up to two children, with under 5s going free, which works out at a bargain £14.50 per person in the family.  But what about lone parents?  If you are a lone parent with one child you can either opt for the joint membership of £46 per year or the family at £57 (which presumably would allow you to take a pal and a child’s pal at times).  Clearly the family option works out better value if you are a lone parent with two children but what to do if you have three?  And what if you are a couple with more than the norm of two children?  If you buy a family ticket, what do you do about the spare child?

Whichever way you slice it, children in non-norm family situations are worse off.  And in effect, that means poorer families, for they are more likely to constitute lone parent and large family households.  The National Museums are not alone in this inequitable treatment of poor children and families.  Visit any leisure centre, cinema, holiday broker or visitor attraction and you will find, largely, that family prices are predicated on the supposed norm of two adults, two children.  Some have improved their practice in recent times – many holidays offering child go free discounts now apply to a single adult as to two adults – and those whose practice is poor are guilty of thoughtlessness rather than deliberate attempts to discriminate.

But discriminate they do and what it means is that children, often from poorer backgrounds, do not enjoy equal access to a host of activities which are exciting, enabling and educational.  Throw this into the big picture of a wide and widening educational gap and then it really starts to matter.

While Scotland had the second highest acceptance rate of university places last year in the UK, it has the lowest level of applications from young people from disadvantaged areas (see figure 53 in the linked report).  While there has been significant improvement in the numbers in Scotland applying to university from the most disadvantaged areas, the current rate of around 15% is less than the proportion applying from similar areas in, not just England but also Northern Ireland and Wales.

When the universities are encouraged to do more, they reply that they alone cannot fix the problem and that the issue is one of attainment which needs to be addressed further down the education chain.  Clearly, schools have a key role to play in this, but so do other parts of our society. And if children are being made to be poor or poorer by dint of UK government policy and then being priced out of the market of valuable cultural and educational opportunities by providers failing to take account of the complexity, and indeed, flexibility of family situations in 21st Century Scotland, then it is clear to see that we have a big problem.

The solution is not to address each issue, sector and policy in turn but to commit to taking a child-centred approach to all policy-making and service provision.  And the way to do that is to protect all children from discrimination and to put the  best interests of children at the heart of everything we do: incorporating articles 2 and 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law would remove at a sweep the concept of family norms, which as well as resulting in unequal treatment, also reinforces unnecessary and unfair cultural stigmatising of children whose family status is not the norm.

Such an approach is a pre-requisite for a transformational shift in our attitudes to and treatment of children.  It would enable us to start creating a more equitable future for Scotland’s children.  All of them, but most particularly the ones who currently have the least.