Welfare Reform

I wrote the following article for Socialist Campaign Group News August  2007

Tory proposals on family and taxation

The Tories’ latest ideas on welfare (not yet policies) are outlined in a report by short-lived Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith.  The report attacks lone parents, with conditions on benefits starting when the youngest child is five; threatens child benefit and claims married people should get a tax break.

In the Daily Mail, David Cameron said conditions on lone parent benefits are needed because of fraud.  However, the percentage of Income Support paid fraudulently to lone parents has gone down from 360m (9.3%) in 97/98 to 130m (3.3%) in 05/06[1].

Sadly, the predictable Tory attack on lone parents echoes the Government’s policy which is to end entitlement to income support to lone parents with a youngest child aged 7.  Yet, in the Green Paper proposing this change as of 2010, it is pointed out that since 1997 more lone parents are working than ever before[2].  The voluntary approach, under the New Deal for Lone Parents, is working and should be improved, not abandoned.  Support for parents should be tailored to individual needs particularly to deal with the breakdown of work placements, a common occurrence when parents are juggling with work and looking after children.  We know most lone parents want to work and availability of good quality affordable childcare is the key to helping them do so, not imposing unnecessary conditions.  Also sometimes it is the right choice to decide to be a full-time parent, for example if a child has a disability or the family is going through emotional stress.  So why waste scarce resources adjudicating on such matters when the money could be productively spent on childcare?

The Tories’ idea for a transferable married couples tax allowance, worth around 20 a week, which they cost at 3.2bn a year, would penalise children whose parents choose not to marry.  They argue increasing marriage rates leads to better outcomes for children.  However, most couples who go on to have a successful marriage are self selecting and have already lived together in a stable relationship.  The Tories acknowledge a ‘selection effect’ but rely on longitudinal studies conducted amongst US population samples, to insist marriage is a cause of better relationships.  As for UK evidence, they refer to one study from 2003 ‘showing how the risk of family breakdown amongst low-income families is increased significantly where couples were unmarried’[3].  Yet this does not provide an argument to show that those who married within this low-income cohort weren’t already the most stable of this group.

At least the Green Paper does not contain such a proposal.  It does state we need to take more account of the parenting responsibilities of all families on benefit and elements of the New Deal for Lone Parents are being expanded to couple parents in pilot areas and in London.  This is welcome.   Mandatory work-focused interviews every six months for partners of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants with children are also being introduced.   As long as those who choose not to work because they decide it is in the best interests of their children are not penalised, interviews could be a positive way of engaging women who want to work but in some cases face barriers from home.

The Tory report also recommends ‘front-loading’ child benefit with more given to parents for children 3 or under but reduced when the same child is older.  The idea is to help parents stay at home with their children in the early years.  However, under a system of inspections by health visitors, those judged as failing parents would lose the ‘front-loading’ entitlement[4].  This is a bureaucratic, unworkable attack on child benefit, which has always been unconditional and was introduced to ensure at least some reliable financial support for feeding and clothing all children.  Older children still need this. 

I support giving parents with young children more money but not at the expense of children when they are older.   The Tory report does flirt with the idea of ‘Home Care Allowances’ as used in Norway and Finland but they express concern that this could ‘more easily facilitate un-partnered child bearing’.[5]

Aside from whether trying to tell people what relationships they should form works, the welfare state is not there to judge people but to provide assistance fairly and according to need.  The suggestion by both the Government and the Tories that people struggle as lone parents because of the benefit system is an insult to those who manage without a partner in extremely difficult circumstances.  How we help prevent avoidable relationship breakdown does need to be addressed.  Spending money on developing counselling, mediation, and legal services to help those experiencing the pain of family break-up would be a better start – and it wouldn’t cost 3.2billion!


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