Tough on children. Tough on the cause of children.

A record number of children were born in Scotland in 2008, the highest in fact since the turn of the century.  Yet, the parents of those 60, 041 babes might just be regretting their decision to start a family in that year.  Just as the parents of the near million children born in the last sixteen years might be gulping a little right now.  But they won’t be nearly as worried as the parents under 21 of at least 5,000 babies born in the last couple of years.

Unwittingly, they have all provided meek austerity fodder for the aspirations of both Labour and Conservative parties in their quest for wins in marginal seats to propel them into government at Westminster next year.

Step forward children of Scotland, for you, who have no votes and little voice are about to pay a high price for the profligacy of us all.

I thought I had heard and seen the worst of what New Labour had to offer when, fresh into government in 1997, it decided to remove the lone parent premium from child benefit.  That doyen of fairness and social justice – who preaches pooling and sharing and solidarity and unity now that it suits him – Gordon Brown was the one who decided to effectively freeze child benefit for lone parents for years.

But just when I thought the lesson had been learned – or at least, one of the lessons Margaret Curran keeps on assuring us Labour will get round to learning one day – up pops Ed Balls to promise that everyone has to pay the price of austerity. Trying to show that he is not just Balls by name, the Shadow Chancellor decided it was time to get down on the kids.  If Labour wins the UK election next year it will cut child benefit in real terms for all families by keeping increases to 1 per cent in the first two years of the next Parliament.  This, he decreed, was evidence that Labour won’t “duck the difficult decisions” saving £400 million from family finances in order to cut the deficit. Apparently, Labour won’t spend money it can’t afford – so it will make sure families find it harder to afford essentials like food, school uniforms and shoes too.

When the government deficit is in the trillions, when even the Scottish block grant amounts to tens of billions, £400 million over two years is chickenfeed.  Chickenfeed that is in government spending, but the universality of the cap means it will disproportionately hurt those families on the lowest incomes more.  Yep, in favour of universality when it suits them, when there is squeezing and saving to be achieved.

Still, Balls proved himself to be the equivalent of George Osborne’s warm up act.

The measures he and indeed, Iain Duncan Smith announced today at Conservative party conference are so abhorrent in terms of their potential for harm to children that you wonder if they employed Cruella de Vil, Snow White’s Wicked Stepmother and Rumpelstiltskin to concoct them.

Osborne saw Balls on his 1% cap on child benefit and raised him – a two year freeze on all working age benefits, including child benefit and working and child tax credit.  “We are going to finish what we have started. What I offer is a serious plan for a grown-up country. An economic plan for hardworking people.”  Clearly, families in work, on poverty pay, with dependent children do not qualify as hardworking. And neither do young people.

Overall, the measures will save £3 billion on the welfare bill.  But never fear, those big companies who avoid paying their fair share of tax?  A clampdown.  Again.  Which will bring in millions or even, hundreds of millions.  So big business goes on making big profits, cocking a snook at the idea of paying its share, while families with children suffer an unprecedented squeeze.

The Tories also announced “an ambitious package to end the fate of 18 to 21 year olds languishing on unemployment benefits“.  Six months to get a job or else.  An apprenticeship, a training scheme or community work, for an allowance, not a wage.  The Prime Minister refused to, or failed to clarify, whether young adults with children would be excluded.  Which means they probably won’t.  No benefits, a paltry allowance, sanctions if you don’t.  Welcome to the Tories’ idea of a grown up country which punishes children for daring to be born.

Some children deserve to be punished more.  Any child which dares to be born to feckless parents who have “fallen into a damaging spiral” – substance misuse or debt or one of the other myriad symptoms of poverty – they will have the dignity of money removed from them and get vouchers instead.  They might as well hang a bell round their neck while they’re at it. On one level, they have a point. It is important to ensure that children’s basic needs are met.  But you don’t do that by further diminishing their parents’ capacity: you help to create control over their lives and their circumstances, investing in their assets, in their capacity, competence and confidence.

And listening to it and trying to digest it all, the question keeps returning – what have innocent children – thousands, hundreds of thousands of children – done to deserve this?  Why are they the ones to pay the price of austerity?  Where is the compassion for our most vulnerable, voiceless citizens?  Where is the acknowledgement that for our economy and society to thrive in the years to come we will need the next generation to have been invested in, to have been given the best possible start in life so that they might go on to have decent life chances.

Every child should enjoy equality of opportunity, no matter their circumstances. The opportunity of a warm, dry home.  Of a childhood free from the stress and strain of financial worries and debt.  Of nourishing meals as a given, not an occasion. Of rights given freely by those with responsibility for their well-being.  Of being valued, cherished, nurtured. Of growing up safe and secure.

Instead, Labour and Tories are engaged in a race to the bottom, to determine which party can be toughest on children and toughest on the cause of children.

And we are powerless to prevent it going ahead.






Tories practising social eugenics with family policy

Sometimes it pays to lift our eyes and pay attention to politics south of the Border.  However much we’d like to pretend that what they get up to at Westminster is increasingly irrelevant to our lives and that all the important decisions and policies are taken and made at Holyrood, we’re kidding ourselves on.  What the Tories are up to on welfare and family policy affects us all.

No one harbours an irrational hatred for messy, complex family relationships like the Tories.  And fear and loathing on all things family which do not result in a neatly ordered two parent presence in children’s lives is pre-eminent in their approach to family matters.

Last week, the UK Government launched its Social Justice Outcomes Framework with indicators and measures for its five key themes on social justice.  First up is supporting families and the UK Government intends to measure the proportion of children who have a stable family free from breakdown, and the proportion of such families that report a good quality relationship.

The framework is silent on how less family breakdown will be achieved.  Previous social policy documents have made the links between poverty and its attendant symptoms of substance misuse, ill health, poor mental health, crime and violence and clearly, there is evidence that families are inherently unstable in such circumstances.  But the evidence also shows links between relationship breakdown and unemployment and money worries and there is little sign of this UK Government doing anything about either of these two latter issues.

So what else are the Tories up to on “families”?  Well, there is the bizarre intention to limit child benefit to two children(and for an outstanding and excoriating take on it, read Edinburgh Eye.)  We know they are trying to drive the welfare budget down, but the saving here is inconsequential.  And most of us suspect that hurting poor people to protect the rich is so woven into the Conservatives’ DNA as to make rational policy making impossible.  But still.  The numbers of families affected is so small as to be meaningless, so what could this be aiming to achieve?  Could it be part of the aim to create more stable family units by limiting the size of families in the first place?

Here’s another family-related policy, which for some reason, is the part of welfare reform slinking through under the radar with potentially devastating consequences for many families.  The Tories are dumping the child support policy its government created in the 1990s and relinquishing the state’s role in insisting that absent parents contribute financially to the upbringing of their children.  In future, parents will be expected to reach voluntary arrangements which is fine in principle, if it worked.  But it doesn’t.  Which is the reason the Tories created the Child Support Agency in the first place.

Worse, where voluntary arrangements cannot be arrived at, a parent with care who asks the government to intervene will have to pay an upfront fee.  Moreover, if the absent parent refuses to pay up and the government needs to get involved, 7% of every payment obtained will be deducted before it reaches the family. Bringing a whole new meaning to the concept of stealing bread from the mouths of babes.

There is no denying that the current system was broken:  few policies in recent times have proven so divisive nor kept MPs so busy.  But to take us full circle on a journey begun by the UK Labour Government with its measures to be “fairer” to absent parents, allowing them to deduct housing costs and pension contributions from their disposable income and fixing a maximum contribution to be paid from this limited pot per child, back to where parents can walk away from their continuing financial responsibility to their children is remarkable.  Particularly when the government doing this intends to measure the quality of ongoing relationship in families which have “broken down”.  Why when it intends to get so hands on in other areas of family policy, are the Tories going all laissez-faire on the key aspects of hostile relations, namely children and money?

Unless it is not just about removing a costly irritation from the UK’s balance sheet, but also about trying to prevent families breaking up in the first place.  How else to explain why the Tories think this is a good idea, when its own government agency fails year on year to collect billions from enterprising and devious absent parents who go to extraordinary lengths to avoid their responsibilities to their children?

Fanciful?  Perhaps, but ten years in the policy world, trying to ascertain the motivations of and understand the workings of politicians, tells me there are few coincidences in the timing of policy announcements and few measures stand in glorious isolation.  The obvious thread to recent proposals is the need to save money and reduce public spending, but this outcomes framework shows that the real intention behind it all is a desire to deliberately engineer and refashion family policy.

What else can we expect in the coming months?  An assault on divorce law in England is likely, which thankfully can be ignored up here.  It is a widely held, utterly misinformed belief in Tory circles that the ease with which divorce is come by is a key reason for relationship breakdown, making the fatal mistake of muddying cause and symptom.  Financial incentives are also being dangled to organisations which work to support and counsel families in difficulty to reduce the number which break up.  Save more families from themselves and earn:  now wonder Armando Iannucci has decided current politics is beyond satirising.

This back to basics approach on families ignores the elephants in the policy room.  There is precious little announced to date or on the horizon which will address the causes of poverty;  indeed, actual economic policy has resulted in the numbers of children growing up in poverty rising.  Expect these appalling family-oriented measures to add to the tally.

And the lack of an economic growth strategy and continuing high levels of unemployment mean more relationships, not fewer, will come under intolerable stress.  Relationship breakdown among “squeezed middle” couples coping with job losses, pay freezes, negative equity and personal debt is likely to rise not reduce if the UK Government continues to do nothing to ease such pressures.

Which is ironic really, given that the measures announced to date appear to be aimed at forcing poorer families to stay together.  The indicators might be able to point to a reduction, through enforced necessity, of more children being raised in the flawed idyll of a two parent family at the lower end of the income scale at exactly the same time, Tory economic policies are contributing to a rise in family breakdown further up the scale.

And goes to show that any attempt by government to implement social eugenics is not only misguided and dangerous, but is also doomed to fail.




Budget 2012: Tories show their true colours

So that was the budget.

The Lib Dems can swarm the bars of Westminster tonight happy in the delusion that their influence forced the Chancellor’s hand in pushing forward their much-vaunted plan to lift more people out of tax.  It’s a decent enough measure – 2 million low paid workers will be lifted out of tax altogether and everyone will be £170 (after inflation) better off from April next year.

But it will scarcely put back into hardworking families’ pockets the money that is being removed from them THIS April through the squeeze on tax credits.

And in terms of representing the beginning of a wholesale redistributive shift from rich to poor, that was wir lot.  In the main, the direction of travel was in the opposite direction.

Yes, the Lib Dems got what they wanted on this but that was it.  Oh they’ll claim – particularly in their once rock-solid Heilan heartlands – that the freezing of fuel duty and inflation-only increase in excise duty benefits motorists at the petrol pumps.  But given the sleight of hand the oil companies performed by increasing the price of a litre of fuel just before the fair fuel regulator was introduced, thereby enabling them to reduce the cost to the level it had always been, I really wouldn’t count on the price of petrol staying frozen.  They’ll find an excuse to raise it:  they always do.

These measures aside there really was very little for families in the low to middle income range to cheer about.  And not an awful lot else for Scotland – enterprise zone status for Irvine, Nigg and Dundee;  reinstatement of the tax exemption for the computer games industry;  some level of restitution of tax breaks for the oil and gas industry.  Every little helps, as the saying goes.  But a lot would have gone much further.

The central goal of this budget might have been to support working families, as George Osborne claimed, but really it is the better off ones who will benefit.

Who gains the most?  Big business and rich folk.  Who pays as a result?  The poorest pensioners.

Big business will be celebrating with a magnum or two – duty frozen after all – for the Chancellor’s attempts to create economic growth by giving them a tax cut, though bankers might want to put one of those magnums back on the self, for the increase in their levy effectively means banks will not benefit from this measure.  Corporation tax is coming down by 1 per cent immediately and two further 1 per cent cuts in 2013 and 2014.  The aim is to get it down to 20p in the pound.  This has been heralded as a major breakthrough, but isn’t this a retread on a previously made commitment?

No matter, it ignores the reality that most businesses are too small to pay any corporation tax (though some will benefit from the promise to simplify tax for those generating income less than £77,000 per year).  It is the big companies, the multi-nationals, the ones with shareholders largely who gain the most from this.  Will they pass the cut on to their customers, clients and staff?  Probably not.  Most likely, it will pass straight into the already bulging bank accounts of employees at the top in the form of bonuses and also to shareholders in the form of dividends.  The rich, you see, are good at keeping wealth for themselves.

The Chancellor is keen to do his best to help them.  Thus, the supposedly controversial cut-off for child benefit – not in this eyrie – has been raised.  The cliff edge has been transformed into a raised beach:  folk earning £40k a year will still get their wine and gym ration, those earning £50k will start to get a cut which will only taper out completely at £60k.

As if this wasn’t enough, these same families will also benefit from a reduction in higher rate tax to 45p.  Oh and they get to keep the higher rate pension relief too.

For long enough, pensioners have been the great economic untouchables.  Because they vote, successive governments have been chary of annoying them.  While other demographic groups have been targeted by changes in the past, their benefits have been improved.  And rightly so.  Pensioner poverty has long been a disgrace in this country:  one of the few things the last UK Labour Government got right was to try and create a little dignity in old age for the many, not the few.

No longer.  The freezing of age-related allowances from April 2013 will pull in the £3.3 billion needed to meet the acceleration in the personal tax allowance rise for others.  In cash terms, it means the oldest people in our society will be worse off by as much as £83 per year, though the effect of rising costs for heating, lighting and food might result in even greater hardship.

The shift to a flat rate pension of £140 for new pensioners – also linked to contributions – will also result in hardship for some.  Instinct tells me – and yes, it would, wouldn’t it – that women might be hardest hit by this move, especially when combined with the pensionable age rising for this group.  Many women still retire without having maxed their contributions due to years lost to child rearing and lower pay generally.  Admittedly, the contribution link is not clear – the devil is always in the detail with the budget – so there is hope that women and low paid workers will not be penalised, but it is a faint one.

At heart, this is a budget that rewards the rich and penalises the poor.  And now that they have shown their true colours, no doubt they’ll be giving them a further airing in future budgets.