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.

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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.

Ten (other) good reasons to vote yes to independence

1.  Poverty.  Child poverty in particular, is a stain on our society: it cannot be right that 1 in 5 children grow up with poverty pervading their childhoods, following them into adulthood and old age.   And that we live with an economic and social framework which not only reinforces conditions for poverty but enables them.  With independence, we can prioritise the need to tackle poverty and put our wealth as a nation to its best use.

2.  Inequality.  Despite being 50% of the population (slightly more actually), women are still under-represented in all spheres, especially at the top of those spheres. Worst of all, women in Scotland still earn nearly 12% less than men.  Yes, things are changing but the pace is too slow. We could address some of the inherent inequalities in our society through a written constitution and create the conditions in which equality for all might be achievable.

3.  Economy.  We are failing to harness all of our natural resources and skills to our best advantage.  We are over-reliant on several key industries and while the re-industrialisation of Scotland by investing in renewables is welcome, we can do much more by thinking radically differently about how to power our economy.  We are still not investing in future-proofing our economy;  we don’t spend enough on children’s earliest years and consequently, are spending too much on young people’s tertiary education;  we don’t spend nearly enough of our GDP on research and development.  Independence can offer a climate and culture in which we turn prevailing economic and investment wisdoms upside down.  Finland managed it – so can we.

4.  Fuel poverty.  More than 1 in 3 households in Scotland are considered to be in fuel poverty, yet we are an energy rich nation with the resources available to make us much more energy-efficient than we are.  People in this country die every winter from living in damp, cold homes.  We could change this by a better-regulated energy market, raising the standards of new-build projects and focusing on improving energy-efficiency.

5. Housing.  There are over 50,000 households who are homeless, containing 22,000 children;  3% of households live in overcrowded conditions;  there are 298,000 houses affected by dampness or condensation and 62% of houses do not meet the current quality standard.  Having somewhere adequate to live is a right, not a privilege:  what kind of a society are we when we cannot adequately house our population?  And how hard can it be to provide people with decent homes to live in?

6.  Tax.  Despite efforts to simplify income tax in the UK, it is still cumbersome and complex.  And that complexity creates loopholes enabling avoidance.  The core characteristic of the UK approach to tax is unfairness – the greater your wealth from a greater number of sources, the less you pay.  With independence, we can create a fair and progressive tax system which ensures that as a country we gather what we need to pay for services we want to receive, from all our and our people’s resources and wealth.

7.  Mortality.  In Scotland today, thousands of men and women die before they reach pensionable age.  They do not get the chance to grow old, either gracefully or disgracefully.  Each year, we spend billions on our health service and on care provision, yet the gains made in improved health and lower incidence of killer diseases and conditions are incremental.  Privatisation and marketisation are not the answer but surely there is a better way, which allows more people to enjoy better health and live longer.  We can take a long, hard look at all that we spend currently and determine to do things differently from now.

8.  Infrastructure.  We do not have the infrastructure to support the needs of our nation nor its aspirations.  Our transport network regularly grinds to a halt, no matter which form you use and the roll-out of fast broadband has been painfully slow – whether you are doing it virtually or for real, getting from A to B can be gruelling.  Yet, efficient and effective infrastructure is vital to our wealth and well-being as a nation and individuals.  A different mindset which embraces our rurality and sparsity, rather than trying to pretend they do not exist, would revolutionise our approach to investing in our infrastructure.

9.  Resources. Our culture, heritage and environment make us uniquely admired and envied all over the world.  Yet, we are careless with it all.   Many leave, never to return;  much is razed and lost, never to be replaced;  most is taken for granted and treated disrespectfully.  Valuing resources like these through proper tax, policy and investment approaches would maximise the benefit and enjoyment for everyone in Scotland and elsewhere.

10.  Welfare state.  The UK Government is in the process of dismantling the welfare state as we know it, demonstrating that this is indeed an administration – which enjoys considerable support in other parts of the UK but not here – which knows the cost of everything and the value for nothing.  Yet, there is no doubt that the welfare system was creaking under its own weight of bureaucracy and broken in many places.  The system we would inherit on independence will be a mess but independence will give us the opportunity to start again and create the kind of welfare state we want and which meets our population;s needs.

The astute among you will have noticed that much of what I reckon are good reasons for independence are largely things and areas we could influence now.  We have at least some of the powers over some of these matters.  And yes, we could make some of this happen.

But we don’t.  We haven’t.  Not in 300 years of Union, not in sixty plus post-war years, not in thirteen years of devolution.

And poverty, inequality and social injustice are growing.   Because we lack the will, determination and resolve to change things.

With independence, we could change Scotland, change how we are, how we think, what we do and prioritise, the ways we act, respond and engage.  As a nation and as families and individuals.  Or, of course, we could choose not to and largely continue with what we have now.  But why would we want to?  The liberation of standing on our two feet, of having to make all the choices and decisions for ourselves, will encourage us to be brave enough to change.

For, independence is about the art of the possible, about deconstructing the obstacles and barriers that hold us back, that prevent better and it’s about taking responsibility for who we are, what we do and how we might be.

I do not want my children to reach my age and be living in Scotland as it is now.  I want them to live in a different Scotland.

A Scotland which isn’t Norway, Finland, Denmark, Ireland nor Iceland.  Nor wants to be exactly the same as these other small nations.  While we can learn from what other countries do well and adapt their successes to suit our own needs, independence will afford us the opportunity to determine for ourselves what we want Scotland to be like.  Independence offers challenge, but above all, it offers opportunity.

With independence, we can be a nation which chooses to be better, which puts need before want, which works for the benefit of all rather than the gain of the few.  And which determines to become equitable, fair and socially just.