Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Whose benefit?

CHOCOLATE. Someone to do the ironing. A vat of Infacol. Just a few of the things I'd have been better spending my child benefit on than the stuff I anxiously bought my perfect firstborn (baby massage sessions to cure the colic, which he greeted with outrage; a stupidly complicated stairgate that never got built because we lost the instructions). But spend it on someone else's children? That sure divides the sheep from the goats.
This week the Liberal Democrats voted pointedly at their conference to keep child benefit universal - paid to anyone regardless of income. Their leader, on the other hand, said he and his lawyer wife Miriam don't really need it. Which suggests the Treasury is still considering whether (and how) to slash the child benefit bill for the Bugaboo-pushing classes.
One sees their point. I can't pretend I need £80 a month as much as single mothers facing swingeing welfare cuts or families clinging on with their fingernails. Why not tax it, or take it away from me?
The trouble is it's not so easy. Child benefit goes to mothers, and in Britain, couples are assessed separately for tax. So scrap it for higher rate taxpaying mothers, and the non-working Wag of a squillionaire footballer keeps it while a nursing sister whose husband is out of work could lose out.
You could find a way round that. But it might mean breaching the principle that the money always goes to mothers - repeatedly proven to be the best way of it reaching children, particularly in families where an abusive man holds the purse strings.
Or you could stop child benefit for over-16s still in education, which is largely a middle class perk (the poorest children tend to leave straight after GCSEs, so don't get child benefit any more). But for those kids from deprived backgrounds who do consider sixthform, it could be a powerful deterrent.
The Labour MP-turned-welfare-czar Frank Field's idea is interesting: scrap child benefit for older kids and pay a big lump sum in the preschool years, enough to make a serious dent in childcare costs or subsidise working mothers going part time. But it doesn't really save money upfront, so it probably won't happen.
We'll see what the Treasury does next month. But if it ducks reform, were I a coalition of children's charities I'd be tempted to exploit that liberal guilt and politely invite wealthier parents (starting, perhaps, with the Clegg-Gonzalezes?) to donate what they might have been taxed to a fund supporting poorer families through the recession. How terribly Big Society.


  1. I've no problem with chiild benefit. However I do think under Labour single people got short shrift. All that rhetoric about hard working families got up my nose. Not all of us are so lucky and it is not a good idea to alienate a rather large group of the electorate. Even if we're just talking words words matter so it would be nice to have some mention of single people.

  2. On paper it could be said that we don't 'need' our child benefit, but with 3 daughters (including identical twins to silence any comments on why have 3 if you can't afford it)our child benefit enables them to do sport outside of school we could not otherwise have afforded. I am aware that some need the CB for food and acknowledge that we are not in that group, however, it would alter our daughters' quality of life and indeed health if we lost it.

  3. Maybe there could be a voluntary opt-out which could be done through PAYE or self assessment tax returns, along the lines of covenanting money to charity from your salary? It would probably have to be very clear though that the money would then be given to needier people and not just absorbed into the country's deficit. I agree with the principle of paying it to mothers.

  4. interesting point, Beatrice - always struck at how often when discussing 'women's vote' politicians automatically start talking about mothers and policies for mothers, as if women without kids/with grownupkids/with kids but with any other sort of interest in their lives didn't count. the 'hard working families' thing is definitely exclusive to some.
    studentmum i do sympathise: i don't think child benefit should be restricted just to people on the breadline and i think there are a hell of a lot of families for whom it makes a big difference in quality of life terms that shoudln't be underestimated. i agree with rockinloubylou actually - if people on the kind of six figure salaries both Nick Clegg and his wife earn feel they can do without it, why not a voluntary optout with a guarantee it would go towards children's welfare? interestingly you can at the moment actually opt to pay extra tax if you wish through PAYE, although i don't know whether anyone actually does.

  5. Well Gaby they've found another way to do it, and the screams of protest have begun. I'll have to do without it under these rules because even though I don't work my other half earns over the threshold. We'll find a way to live without it I suppose. It'll wipe out his next few pay rises I should think. No one likes losing money and I can't pretend I do, but we'll manage, we'll have to. Shame it's not going on something positive, at least Labour's extra National Insurance was destined entirely towards reducing NHS waiting lists. Those who will really suffer are the single earners and single parents just over the threshold, it won't be easy. I think the Tories have massively miscalculated here (their 10% tax saga) because they had to go for a not-perfect solution. Anything else e.g. means testing, is too complicated and therefore too expensive. If this doesn't make sense I should just say I've been interrupted three times in the writing of it, by my five year old, sorry, aargh!