Universal rights and support for children

10 Dec

Zoe Williams has written a powerful piece in the Guardian about possible failures of our government to meet its obligations in terms of protecting children’s rights, enshrined in the UN convention on the rights of the child.

As she observes,  contraventions of these rights would tarnish our international reputation, as well as being a shameful indictment of a situation where vulnerable children in the criminal justice system have killed themselves, and where increasing numbers of low-income families turn to foodbanks to stave off children’s hunger. At a minimum, one of the richest countries in the world should be able to feed its young. I agree with the premise that it ought to be the State which provides a buffer between children and hunger, ill-treatment and destitution, and which acts as the upholder of the rights of children under its jurisdiction.

But the missing piece of the jigsaw here is that the universal rights for children should be reflected in universal support; Zoe Williams is right to say that the discourse around rights has been framed as rights for ‘vulnerable’ or somehow ‘failed’ children and families, rather than belonging to all of us under the umbrella of humanity. But at a national level this has been allowed to happen in a context where State benefits for children have lost their universal coverage. If, as this Government has done, you say that Child Benefit is to be removed from the best-off, you absolve the State of responsibility for all children and allow the ‘strivers’ and ‘shirkers’ stereotypes to tighten their grip. Child Benefit becomes something for children whose parents are ‘lesser’ providers. The counterargument is that in times of austerity we should not be spending Government money on those who can afford a decent standard of living for their own families.

But the role of such universal benefits is not simply economic: it is to bind society in recognition of the costs to parents of raising children and the social benefit to all of us of creating another generation. We can only have an ‘us’ of taxpayers and a ‘them’ of benefits recipients if universality is removed. Universal entitlement costs something: an acceptance that a minority will have some money from the State they don’t ‘need’ – but that is a better price to pay, in my view, than a means-tested approach which says that rights and benefits are there for certain people only, that they are grudgingly given and can be withdrawn. And the means-testing itself costs money of course.

No-one wants children to go hungry, but neither should we create a world where some children are deemed outside of the State’s remit. It is not only poor parents who neglect, abuse or fail their children, but the current regime encourages this view by focussing support on the neediest. We all lose something through this approach. Today is Human Rights Day, with a strapline ‘Human Rights 365’, to ‘encompass the idea that every day is Human Rights Day’. Of course, we only need reminding because of our collective failure to uphold rights for everyone every day. All children deserve State recognition and are entitled to turn to the State for support; those most in need deserve – and are entitled to – a lot more.

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