PARENTS who were this week expecting their third patter of tiny feet must surely have had one eye on the clock as their puffed their way through the contractions. As if the occasion wasn’t momentous enough already, there was an added cash-prize twist. Think Deal or No Deal but with George Osborne instead of Noel Edmonds.
If junior arrived before yesterday, with ten fingers, ten toes and no disability, a qualifying family would have been eligible for a child tax credit “child element” of £2780 per year at current rates. And not just for the next 16 years, either – potentially for the next 20.
But if he or she was just a little too comfy in there, and hung on even a few hours too long, the UK Government will have declared the newborn an unacceptable drain on the nation’s resources. Happy Birthday, baby: no child tax credits for you.
Of course, the safe delivery of a healthy new addition is any family’s main priority, but it’s hard not to imagine just a little bit of resentment about that lost cash. Here’s hoping most of these aries infants prove to be as energetic, impatient and spontaneous as the astrologers would expect, and no harassed parent is ever moved to blurt out “you’ve already cost me £45k with your dilly-dallying, and now we’re going to be late for school too!”
It’s hard not to imagine just a little bit of resentment about that lost cash
Of course, the “family cap” isn’t being suddenly introduced without warning: it was included in Osborne’s Budget back in 2015, and politicians have had two years to mull over its practical and ideological implications. In that time one very specific dimension of it – the so-called “rape clause” – has attracted by far the most column inches, thanks largely to the efforts of the SNP’s Alison Thewliss. A casual observer would be forgiven for thinking the clause itself, and the impact of it on rape survivors, was the main problem here.
But this narrow focus has distracted from a much bigger question: is the family cap unjust because of how it will affect the tiny proportion of women who a) become pregnant as a result of rape, b) opt to continue with those pregnancies, and c) already have two children, or is it unjust full stop?
One would expect any party of the left to argue the latter. The cap is a crude attempt at social engineering that will undoubtedly push more families into poverty. It’s about as emblematic of the “nasty party” as a policy can get, and yet the basic principle behind it – that capping payments for children is fair – has gone largely unchallenged. And the “Scrap the Clause” campaign, while well-meaning, has served to reinforce troubling ideological views about deserving and undeserving benefit claimants.
The ‘Scrap the Clause’ campaign, while well-meaning, has served to reinforce troubling ideological views about deserving and undeserving benefit claimants
It’s easy to understand why opposition parties cite the most extreme, most obviously unfair examples when attacking Tory policies. The disabled person who needs overnight care but risks being hit by the bedroom tax. The single mother accused of cohabiting with RS McColl. The terminal cancer patient declared fit for work and the widowed parent losing bereavement support. These examples highlight not only a lack of compassion on the part of the UK Government but also incompetence. Even those who support the broad aims of these so-called welfare reforms must question the wit of those responsible for implementing them.
But what if the broad aims are indefensible? In his Budget speech, Osborne said “it’s important to support families, but it’s also important to be fair to the many working families who don’t see their budgets rise by anything like [£2780 a year] when they have more children”. These were weasel words, designed to paint claimants of child tax credits as unemployed and undeserving. By pitting claimant and non-claimant parents against each other, the Chancellor dodged the crucial question of why mothers and fathers might be working full-time and still not earning enough money to adequately feed, clothe, educate and entertain their children.
So who are the undeserving child tax credit claimants? Which are the case studies the opposition parties, anti-poverty charities and women’s groups would rather keep quiet about, for fear of alienating those voters who are fortunate enough to earn decent salaries? We’ve heard little about immigrant families: the ones helping to keep the UK’s birth rate at a healthy level when people are living longer than ever. There’s been barely a peep about Catholic families, or others who – for whatever reason – may not consider abortion an option.
Unplanned pregnancies happen, and they often happen in the most mundane of circumstances
Unplanned pregnancies happen, and they often happen in the most mundane of circumstances. But in George Osborne’s world of pounds, pence and rational economic actors, there are only two categories of parents: responsible ones who pay their own way, and irresponsible ones who take advantage. Those in the former category presumably have crystal balls, for how else can they be sure the will keep their jobs, and their spouses, for the next 18 years?
Children do not ask to be born, and the options of their parents will always be constrained. It is claimed we’re all in this together but we live in a society that promotes individualism over collectivism, demonisation over compassion and suspicion over support. Those who missed this week’s cap cut-off will have less money in their pockets for the next two decades, but in the longer term, if this cap remains in place, we will all be poorer as a result.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.