As George Osborne announces protecting pensioners’ income whilst seeking further cuts in welfare from those in work or of working age, the papers are full of debate. On one side are those who agree with the Chancellor that austerity must prevail until the deficit is paid off, and that ‘hard choices’ must be made; on the other, those who agree with Nick Clegg that £12 billion worth of cuts to welfare will be a ‘monumental mistake’, unfairly targeting the working poor and the young and vulnerable. Newspapers across the political spectrum note that Mr Osborne’s line is not unanimously supported in his own party, so this discussion around where cuts should fall seems likely to move beyond straightforward electioneering.
It is striking that Messrs Osborne and Cameron have justified their ‘triple lock’ on pensioners’ income as part of their true values – the belief that those who have worked hard all their lives are deserving of State support. No mention here that some pensioners may have been more hardworking than others; that some may simultaneously be comfortably off and entitled to State support. These ‘values’ concerning entitlement are absent or reversed when it comes to discussing welfare for the young and/or employed. Here, the rhetoric is about distinguishing between those under-25s who have independent housing and receive housing benefit, contrasted with the ‘hardworking’ others who have to live at home until they can afford their own home.
There is no discussion of the fact that these two groups may be far from interchangeable: young adults who live ‘at home’ often have parents who can subsidise their children in their early careers – they can afford a house with sufficient space for the young adult, and they get on well enough for such an arrangement to be successfully (or at least tolerably) negotiated. Those under-25s living in rented accommodation and receiving housing benefit, often have neither supportive parents nor a family home to rely on – and many of them will be struggling on low wages, rather than ‘shirking’ on benefits. Another possible cut envisaged by the Chancellor is on support for those on higher incomes who live in social housing – in high-rent, high-priced inner city areas, even those on decent incomes can struggle to afford their own homes, because of the prohibitively high deposits required in the current mortgage market. Making such tenants pay more could have major implications for their costs of living and working lives. If you are living in social housing with children, you may not be able to afford a rent rise; if you move to a cheaper area, any saving might be cancelled out by increased commuting costs and extra hours of childcare if you are a working parent.
Thinking about this differential treatment of the youthful and the elderly in terms of entitlement to government support, my eye was caught by an article in the Independent about Jo Swinson, the Equalities minister who has recently given birth. In it, she laments the long hours and lack of family-friendliness of the House of Commons. Rather wonderfully she sums the situation up with the observation that rules relating to the Commons voting lobby mean that ‘You can take a sword through there but you can’t a baby’. I have also been reading Lord Norton’s suggestions for how to solve the problem of the burgeoning numbers in the House of Lords. In the absence of reforms, and without any obligation to retire, their numbers have now swelled to a Chamber-busting 800+.
These parliamentary issues show that parents of young children (and especially mothers, given that only around a quarter of MPs are women) are largely invisible to those in power, whilst older people (again notably men) are well-represented in the corridors of power. The government might find it less easy to burden the young with cuts if more of them were around them every day. If parents were better accommodated in parliament, government might be more inclined to listen to their needs. The older population is entitled to its representation, and to be recognised as a powerful voting bloc – but we should be able to say the same about parents. The needs of young families and young adults should not be eclipsed by the legitimate concerns of the old. We must make the mother of parliaments listen to younger mothers and fathers too, and make better prospects possible for their children. They might even grow up to vote ….