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.

Grown up politics

What a week.  Indeed, the sort of week in politics which requires everyone to go and lie in a darkened room for a while and recover.

If there is a discernible pattern, it is that everyone – to a greater or lesser degree – is “playing the man not the ball”.

Johann Lamont’s starting position for every First Minister’s Questions appears to be to snide and sneer at said First Minister – and if she can get a wee pop at his sidekick, the Depute First Minister, as she did this week, then that appears to count for double. It’s dispiriting and unedifying.

There was the expose of the cybernats by that bastion of taste and rectitude, the Daily Mail.  And a counterclaim by an SNP MSP of dirty tricks.  And ultimately the First Minister – who frankly has better things to be doing, like running a country and a referendum – having to come out and call for calm.  Play nicely was his plea, which was ignored, of course, by everyone engaging in the internet battle for hearts, minds and votes. 

Currency wars resulted in everyone rushing out to wave goodbye leaflets at commuters on Friday. Which must have puzzled them somewhat. But then engaging the voter wasn’t really the point.  The fun was in activists getting to fight a guerilla war with each other – and having done it myself, I know how fun it can be – but this is supposed to be about them not us.  And if all that sounds a little sanctimonious, I apologise.  The point is if this “biggest decision in a generation” debate has degenerated into a bunfight among ourselves, well, therein lies disaster.  A referendum is not an election after all.

And then we had that House of Lords’ debate on  the independence referendum. Of course, the headline-makers helped to obscure some thoughtful contributions but if you ever wanted to emphasise how anachronistic the concept of an unelected revising chamber can be, then you might want to put out an edited highlights on Youtube.  It wasn’t just Lord Lang insulting us , there were others at it too.  Mainly, these are yesterday’s men (and they are mostly men) who having made their way under the status quo are anxious to keep it that way. They are an argument for change all in themselves. 

So, having just played the men rather than the ball myself – we’re all at it and frankly, they’re an easy target – let’s turn to proper politics.  Grown up stuff which examines policy options.

As an academic institution, if both Yes and No claim that your research report helps their case, you’ve done your job well.  Thus, Stirling University’s report into tackling inequality found selective favour.  The whole thing is definitely worth a read, even if I was toiling with some of the economic constructs at times.  Making your brain hurt is good for you and we need more, not less of that in this debate.

What this report shows is that politics is actually very hard, if it is played as chess rather than tig. The research explored the effectiveness of a range of economic levers at tackling inequality.  They looked at the powers Scotland has, the powers coming to Holyrood through the Scotland Act 2012 and the powers Scotland would have if independent and modelled the impact of a range of options.  The conclusion is that no matter what fiscal and economic levers you have, tackling inequality  and closing the gap is a tough one, if you rely only on progressive, redistributive tax and benefit policies to do so. The report concludes that the reason Nordic countries – to which many aspire to emulate – has greater equality is because it has less inequality in earnings.  We need a more equitable starting point altogether, which make policies like the living wage almost irresistible.  

It’s all good, interesting stuff but the key aspect for me was the potential outcomes from either re-valuating the council tax or raising it in its current form.  A revaluation might address inequality but it would raise precious little income and a council tax rise actually increases inequality.  How?  Here’s the view of the report’s authors:

“The Council Tax revaluation specified here is virtually revenue neutral, raising an additional £8m in council tax revenues (relative to £2b total revenue from this source). This policy can achieve a high impact on inequality with minimal impact on overall government finances. However it can have large impacts at an individual level – there are a small number of households with low income but exposure to the top bands of council tax who are hit hard by this policy: compare the 5% loss in net household income for some households to the direct revenue raised of only £8m.

 The council tax rise scenario is unusual in that a tax increase actually increases the GINI. This result occurs because a rise in council tax disproportionately affects lower and middle income households: higher income households’ council tax liability is smaller as a proportion of their income than lower income households; so a flat percentage rise in the rate of council tax is more burdensome on the lower half of the income distribution.”

Which last point, Labour proponents of a rise – except when a by-election is on, of course – might want to ponder. 

The fact that this little nugget has been overlooked rather makes the case that we are all so obsessed with the future, we are ignoring the here and now.  Or maybe it’s been ignored because this analysis suggests that the only thing worth doing with the council tax is to abolish it and replace it with something more equitable and progressive.  What that might be is uncomfortable, difficult territory for all parties and requires grown up politics to even broach, never mind achieve.

In the current febrile atmosphere, don’t expect an outbreak of maturity anytime soon.

One rule for the rich, another for the poor

I like to think of myself as a sceptical idealist.  Which may surprise some of you.

I’m not nearly as cynical as I make out, and on occasion, am wont to daft naivete.  Especially where politicians are concerned.

Deep down, I look for the redeeming qualities:  everyone has some surely.  And I like to think that all politicians will come good in the end, once the folly of their ways has been shown to them.  I may hae ma doots, but more often than not, I’m keen to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

That was before.  This is now.  And I have come to realise that this Conservative-Liberal Democrat lot in government are the worst I have ever known.

It only takes a modicum of research to find them out.  Five minutes in fact, was all I needed, lurking on the House of Lords’ webpages to discover that it really is one rule for the one per cent and a whole different set of mores for the 99%.

Last year in the budget, the Chancellor announced that private jets would be subject to air passenger duty.  I commented on it at the time, in a budget review for Newsnet Scotland before its spat and its split, along the lines of not having realised that private jets were exempt from the tax the hoi polloi had to pay (something that the last UK Labour government either allowed or tolerated or both).

Thanks to the Lords – my new heroes after their good work in demolishing some of the worst excesses of the welfare reform bill in the last two weeks – we now know that those poor wee souls who fly privately are getting a long lead-in time before being hit by this new tax.  Lord Palmer asked on Wednesday why air passenger duty on private jets would not be implemented until 2013.  This was the reply from one of the UK Government’s front bench team, Lord de Mauley (no sniggering in the cheap seats please):

My Lords, from April 2013 air passenger duty will for the first time cover passengers travelling aboard private or business jet flights. The changes will bring a substantial number of new operators into the regime and will require the introduction of special rules, tailored to business aviation. Given that the sector comprises many small operators, the Government decided to implement the change from 2013 in order to ensure that burdens both for HMRC and industry were minimised and that the system functions effectively.”

How thoughtful, giving folk time to prepare for the change.  Shame they refuse to do the same for the lesser mortals, whose burdens will be increasing hugely from this April, thanks to changes to the tax credit regime and other sundry attempts to reduce the UK’s public expenditure deficit.  All those pop stars, oliogarchs, footballers and global business people who fly hither and thon on their very important business need time to ensure they can meet the burden of paying tax every time they and their entourages visit Blighty.  Because when you are very rich and can afford to own or charter a private jet, you might just not manage to pay the additional whack that air passenger duty is going to put on the cost.

Worst of all, this same courtesy has not been afforded to people on benefits.  The welfare reform bill has not yet passed.  Given the views and votes of their Lordships, there might be a bit of ping pong to happen still, at least until someone blinks or the Parliament Act is invoked.  In any event, the earliest we are likely to see the act passed and on the statute books is Easter.  It might even take until the summer, yet the bulk of the changes come into effect by April 2013.  There has been a nod to the complexity or impact of some measures which have been given longer roll-out periods but mostly, the single biggest upheaval to welfare benefits in a generation will come all at once.

With little consideration of the burden it’s going to place on some of the poorest and most vulnerable individuals and families all across the UK.  Worse, many of the systems have yet to be developed, let alone tested for effective functionality – as the Scottish Government has been finding out every time it asks to see the modelling done to gauge the impact of many of the changes.  One of the reasons for the Scottish Parliament’s reluctance to pass a legislative consent motion allowing Westminster carte blanche over measures that affected devolved areas was because of its inability to make an informed decision on the impact, thanks to the tardiness of the Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC to provide the necessary information.

But whatever the consequences, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats do not want to hang around and find out.  They’re bashing on, ignoring the gloom and doom-mongers that make up the voluntary sector (mostly) and who know the potential effects of some of these measures because they work with those most affected by the reforms day in and day out.  Organisations’ calls for caution have been brushed aside.

This reform is necessary, they say, on so many levels.  We haven’t got time to work out the consequences of all the measures, they reckon.  Time is of the essence.

But only when it’s about sweeping away some of the founding values and principles of the welfare state and pushing potentially hundreds of thousands of people into deep and abiding poverty.  When it comes to rich people, then time is yet another luxury afforded to them.

Sceptical idealist?  Make that a complete cynic where the ConDem government is concerned.  There is not a single redeeming quality to be found.