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.