The future of child benefit, an important payment to every family, is under threat.
Depending on the colour of the next Government, and approaching the issue with cynicism and a little imagination, the benefit could be either restricted to two children; or subsumed into universal credit; or incorporated into tax allowances where both parents are in paid work; before, eventually, poof, disappearing completely.
To understand how this could happen, allow me to take you on a short trip down the history of this important State payment.
Once upon a time, a remarkable woman fought for the right to vote and to stand as a Member of Parliament. One of her most significant campaigns was the right of mothers to receive a mother’s stipend or a family allowance – payable not to the wage earner but to the mother – in recognition of the value and importance of the unpaid work she performed in caring for her family, and to protect her from absolute vulnerability and economic dependence on a partner.
At the last minute, she threatened to refuse to vote on the passing of universal Family Allowances, her baby, unless the payment was specifically, in line with its entire rationale, paid to the mother.
She was a feminist. A child-free one at that. Yet Eleanor Rathbone had the decency, humanity and social conscience to recognise that mothers who were raising their own children deserved respect and protection from economic non-citizenship.
The history of the women’s movement was born in the fight for human rights and economic freedom. It was not simply a battle to seek equality in the workplace. This fact has been forgotten or conveniently suppressed.
How are we heading towards the end of child benefit? Little steps.
In the 1970s, the allowance became a benefit linked in name to the child rather than the mother. Then, the benefit was capped rather than being increased in line with inflation. Finally, the benefit became the focus of the recent Coalition’s most retrograde step of recent times – the removal from a mother of child benefit solely by virtue of her partner’s status as a higher rate taxpayer. Please stay with me – this is a wider issue than the loss to a presumed wealthy family of £20 per week. Please see the relevance of the first step in the demolition of child benefit, whether you agreed with it or not. It is relevant to why you will be at risk of losing yours. In the loss of universality – a payment to all with children – the benefit lost its secure base in the nation’s affection. It lost its protection from attack. Little steps. To resist the destruction of child benefit, we must resist each step leading to it.
The recent restriction was imposed on, for example, a woman who has no income of her own despite her sister, earning a wage of her own, continuing to receive it and becoming a beneficiary of politicians’ desperate bidding war to offer greater and greater subsidy for childcare. She has no income of her own, including other benefits, because the State assesses a family as a unit for the grant of benefits but as individuals for tax. With the exception of this one anomaly: child benefit. Suddenly, for the removal of a once-universal benefit (rather than its grant) you are assessed as a unit.
That, on any assessment, is nothing less than fiscal hypocrisy and financial exploitation of loving families.
Not only was it hypocritical, when it came to ‘higher earners’, it was economic nonsense: the mother who stays at home is not a higher earner, she is a non-earner. Single earning families lose child benefit if one parent earns over £60,000; yet dual income families keep it on joint incomes of about £100,000 so long as neither cross the £60,000 threshold individually. The dual income family has the benefit of two personal allowances, meaning the family pays less tax that the first family who had lost child benefit. To top it off, there is the political one-upmanship on childcare, for example, on joint incomes of up to £300,000.
The genius of the Coalition’s step was that, in invoking gender-neutral language, they concealed an attack on women. It was veiled by talk of ‘families’ and ‘benefits’, but, actually, the announcement was “we are going to remove from mothers a hard-won payment to recognise the unpaid work they do and the cost of raising a family, particularly if the mother is not in employment”. The pernicious nature of the step was that it relied on the politics of envy: the Government stood back and watched as women criticised other women; as the ‘poor’ bemoaned the universality of the benefit to include the ‘wealthy’; and child-free people bemoaned the existence of the benefit at all.
We witnessed the end of universal family allowance. We witnessed the betrayal of women. And not one ‘feminist’ politician stood up and raised the roof. Shameful.
Where were the politicians who are prepared to fight for mothers as mothers? Where were the politicians who knew their history, and realised what was being attacked?
They were nowhere to be found. They had either given up the fight, out of a disregard, or contempt, for mothers at home; or were ignorant of the history of family allowances and unwilling to open their ears to be educated by silly little women – irrelevant throwbacks who didn’t realise that the world had changed: women were not supposed to care for their own children; women were supposed to get back to work.
In Election Year 2015, the dominant brand of political feminism has no place for mothers doing mothering work; and the ‘women’s issues’ of Westminster are restricted to employment rights, flexible working, shared parental leave, childcare costs and, well, anything but the right of a mother to care for her children herself and policies which might ease the pressure on single income families or help a parent make the choice to stay at home.
The childcare debate risks becoming a sleight of hand – busy clocking up ‘free’ hours’ childcare – families and commentators risk missing the seeds of the dismantling of child benefit. And that affects all families, right?
There needs to be a discussion about the failure of the big three parties to pledge to reinstate universal child benefit or to pledge to protect it absolutely from further dismantling or cuts. I will say it again, it is an important payment for every family with children. Quite simply, the refusal of politicians – particularly feminist leaning ones – to back universal child benefit or at the very least to protect it in the future – as an election pledge – is a disgrace.
Please share this post, and press your candidates on this issue, before a Jewel of the Women’s Movement is squandered and your rightful inheritance, child benefit, is lost.