For the purposes of my own amusement, I’m imagining that I have the chance actually to pose these questions to anyone who could or would answer them. I wrote extensively about the changes to Child Benefit which were introduced in 2013, unashamedly from a personal perspective.
Since then, I’ve tried to keep away from it, not least for fear of being accused of a narrow-minded jealousy rather than a genuine desire to understand what was happening to a fundamental part of our welfare system which has been central to the notion of social security from its inception. Increasingly, I no longer care how my motives are construed.
Today, No10 has confirmed that there will be no cut to Child Benefit, although there is still talk of restricting it to the first two children in each family. I welcome announcements that it is to be protected, but I would also like to ask: what is it paid for? I can’t find up-to-date figures for the overall cost of Child Benefit, but it appears to be around £12 billion per year. That’s a lot of money. Surely we deserve answers as to the grounds on which it is spent now that it is no longer universal?
It is impossible to argue that it is paid on the grounds of need. Presently, a family with an annual income of up to £120,000 could claim some amount of Child Benefit, provided that their earnings were split between them. A family with a single earner who made half that loses it all. Neither family could be claimed to be in any way to require financial support, given the extent to which both figures outstrip average incomes, but it seems peculiar that money is freely given out to groups who are by any measure considerably better off than those who don’t qualify. When it was a universal benefit, there was a principle behind paying Child Benefit with which many could disagree, but at least it was a use of public funds which could be justified by pointing to the reasons behind that principle. Now, it is little more than an expensive, arbitrary sop.
Is it, no matter how clumsily, a means of encouraging all parents into employment? Contrary to many reports, the changed regime doesn’t just penalise single income families (whether they have one or two parents). It also hits hard at those where one earner is above the threshold and the other earns a much smaller amount. A woman working at or near minimum wage level is considerably worse off in terms of childcare costs and take home wages than a colleague earning the same amount whose partner earned just enough to still entitle the family to retain Child Benefit. If anything, cutting Child Benefit from higher-earning employees makes it more difficult and less attractive for their partners to work in part-time, low-wage roles which are those which may be most family-friendly – particularly if the high earning partner has work commitments which make them less able to help out. Again, not the most pressing of social problems, but one which deserves an answer alongside the other, more serious, systematic injustices which squeeze parents between sanctions, benefits and work.
The cuts in 2013 were reported to have saved over £1 billion. Good, if that money is going to support children and families in need. It is hard to justify any money going “for nothing” to the well-off (see also childcare support for families earning up to £300,000) when people are reliant on food banks – although I don’t accept that one causes the other. But why are no journalists challenging politicians on the hard questions behind the current status quo?
It is hard to understand why hard-working taxpayers (to use the loathed and much misused phrase) are subsiding a system of benefits paid apparently on little more than a whim; more, are seeing benefits for which they are ineligible paid to those who are better off. It is hard to understand why, in this climate of “difficult decisions” and “hard choices” cuts are made to the incomes of those demonstrably in need while payments to those who are anything but are maintained.
Are journalists and media commentators afraid of being accused of sour grapes over their own lost Child Benefit, a cut which so many were so keen to welcome loudly in print presumably for fear of the same pointed fingers? They should find their courage. I understand the scant tears at the original cuts, but this isn’t about whining to get something back, it is about holding a government to account for awarding public money in a manner which, if applied to almost any other circumstances, would sound laughably absurd. Silence in the face of an ongoing random payment of benefits is dangerously close to complicity in its eventual dismantling.