Topical issue, week ending 3 May 2002

Conditional Child Benefit:
Wrong, Unnecessary and Unworkable


From its inception, child benefit has always been universal and unconditional. It was introduced to ensure that there is at least some reliable financial support for the cost of feeding and clothing all children.

I am dismayed that a Labour Government is discussing a proposal to abandon this principle by withdrawing child benefit from parents whose children persistently commit crimes or play truant. Like many knee-jerk reactions to complex problems, this proposal is seductive: threaten ‘failing’ parents with financial sanctions and suddenly they will address their behaviour and become capable of controlling their children. However, deducting benefits will not solve truancy or youth crime. It will have the opposite effect. It will compound poverty and deprivation, the root causes of the behaviour of the parents in question. It is less politically saleable but the only way that excluded and marginalised parents who are not trying to control their children are going to change is if their living circumstances and opportunities improve.

As well as being wrong, the proposal is also unnecessary, not because there isn’t a problem to address but because it ignores powers that already exist. The 1996 Education Act provides courts with the power to impose fines on parents who fail to send their children to school. In addition the 1999 Children Act gives Local Education Authorities powers to apply for an education supervision order and courts can also impose parenting orders under which parents have to attend classes in managing their children.

The proposal is also unworkable. Child benefit is very simply and cheaply administered. Any procedure to remove it would have to be based on fair process, including the collection and presentation of evidence, comment from the ‘accused’ parents and an appeals procedure. According to reports, apparently the proposal includes exceptions for parents who make genuine efforts to get their children to school. Who would make this judgement?

The Prime Minister might want to consider some further administrative complexities. If a reduction in Child Benefit is proposed as a sanction, this would amount to one Government department paying the fines imposed by another, as Child Benefit counts against Income Support and income based Job Seekers Allowance. This means that if you were on one of these benefits (which the majority of the people affected by this proposal would be) and you had your child benefit reduced, this loss of income would be made up pound for pound by your means tested benefit, until you reached the subsistence income the Government think people should live on. Far more worryingly, if the Government is proposing the complete withdrawal of Child Benefit, this begs the question as to whether income based benefits dependent on the receipt of child benefit would be forfeited, thus removing all the money paid to people on such benefits for the subsistence of their children. This is equivalent to withholding food from children as a punishment and it is totally unacceptable.

There are parents who behave irresponsibly and we cannot ignore this. There are no quick or cheap fixes but the only place to start is to invest in the sort of intensive family support services that overstretched police and social services departments are not currently able to provide to the extent needed. We must work to ensure that there are facilities for disengaged young people so that they can make a positive contribution to society. We must work to provide good counselling and support services for parents of children with substance misuse and other psychological problems. We must work to ensure that people do not have to live next to boarded up properties, in streets littered with rubbish and lined with burnt out cars. The huge administrative cost of the proposal under discussion would be put to far better effect if it were ploughed into the creation of strong communities. This is, after all, what the Government is continuously telling us they want.

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