For whose benefit?

24 Feb

The current scuffle over Child Benefit reform does more than most issues to expose a lack of family policy thinking at the heart of government in the UK.

Families have been ‘put at the centre’ of Government thinking many times over recent years. And yet we are still here – no ‘joined up’ interdepartmental thinking; no family impact statements; a Childhood and Families Taskforce that rarely meets.  The consequence?  Child Benefit reform that takes from a single parent-headed household where the parent has achieved a salary of over £42,475 – but carries on giving to a couple where both earn £42,000 for a total income of £84,000; that takes from a couple where one partner earns £43,000 and the other earns nothing but does all the childcare.   And no-one in government seems to have listened to the voices pointing out these anomalies from day one.

Meanwhile the rhetoric around ‘family-friendliness’, and standing up for ‘hard-working’ families has continued.  These aspirations can not easily be held up alongside a policy which penalises lone parents for earning well; penalises breadwinners on £42,000 for taking up a modest pay rise, and rewards dual earning couples, but only in rather arbitrary circumstances.  And no-one in government wishes to point out that replacing a universal benefit with one which requires means-testing incurs a bureaucratic cost.  Now every time a parent’s salary rises above £42,475 – or falls back there from a higher point –  will have to be recorded and Child Benefit altered accordingly.  How costly is that going to be to get right?

There was a time when children were seen as a social good and the ‘injustice’ of wealthy families getting Child Benefit was a price worth paying for raising the next generation – a job which has to be done in all socio-economic groups and is often unpaid.  Now there’s a risk we will end up paying more for a reform which says that the State is only interested in paying for children whose parents individually earn up to a certain point.  The fact that they live in families is apparently irrelevant.

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