I wonder what Nick Clegg was thinking when he agreed to do a weekly radio slot for LBC radio. He surely knew that he was going to be getting various people having a go at him for government policies they weren’t happy with. Maybe it was that old saying that all PR is good PR. Certainly it’s got him into the news a few times, but mainly for the wrong reasons. He received a particularly challenging reception on his first appearance when an ex-Lib Dem councillor called to say that he was ashamed of what the Lib Dems were doing. He’s had Boris Johnson complaining about ministers using expensive limousines instead of public transport and last week he had to deal with an angry stay-at-home mum who accused him and the Government of discriminating against traditional families. For how much longer will he choose to commit to this self-inflicted torture?
Of all the policies announced in last week’s budget, the plans to allow families where both parents work to claim up to £1,200 for each child under 5 to pay for childcare costs, seems to have upset the most people. There have been plenty of people complaining that this penalises stay-at-home mums, but at face value this seems rather odd. The new scheme will replace the current childcare voucher scheme that operates for working parents with children up to eleven, refunding the income tax on up to £243 per month. The system will be changing with the effect that some parents will find their childcare costs will reduce, whilst others, mainly with children at school, will have to pay more. I don’t remember there being an outcry when the childcare voucher scheme was introduced in 1989 and when Gordon Brown considered closing it in 2009, 93,000 people signed a petition calling on him to keep it. There is a fairly reasonable assumption that if one parent stays at home they will not require paid childcare services as they will be looking after their children themselves. Therefore they won’t be losing out by not accessing state subsidised childcare. Their incomes won’t be affected and they won’t be any worse off.
Of course in the world of politics and public perceptions things are rarely straightforward. On the day of the budget, James Kirkup, the Deputy Political Editor for the Daily Telegraph wrote an incredibly insightful article on the matter, which he linked to Capuchin monkeys. This may seem bizarre, but he used them to make a valid point. According to the results of a test at Emory University, these monkeys will quite happily eat cucumber, but if one is given a grape (which they prefer), the others will refuse to eat their cucumber. The conclusion was that if the monkeys thought they were being treated unfairly, they would reject what they had previously been given, even though the end result was that they went hungry. Tests with humans often reveal the same tendencies. We will react badly if we perceive that we have been treated less fairly than others even if our circumstances do not change. It becomes an issue of injustice that we naturally react against.
You can understand why the Government is keen to have as many parents working as possible. When both parents or a single parent works they pay tax, they often need to pay for childcare which employs others bringing in yet more tax. Their increased earning allows them to spend more, which also brings in more tax to the treasury. If a parent looks after their children at home, none of this happens and potentially it can cost the government more because of increased pay outs of benefits. But what is good for the taxman is not necessarily good for the family. It’s quite obvious that having a parent at home bringing up their young children is a sacrificial step. Potential income through work is rejected and the parent temporarily puts aside any career ambitions they may have. I’ve seen children at pre-school nurseries who stay from 7:30am to 6pm at night five days a week because their parents work fulltime whose behaviour suggests that they need to be spending much more time with a loving parent who can give them plenty of attention and care in a way that they will not receive in a nursery setting even if the establishment’s provision is excellent. It’s vitally important that children spend quality time with their parents in their early years to give them the best start in life possible.
However, expecting all families to have a parent looking after their young children fulltime is unrealistic and not always completely helpful. Children who have spent time with other children in their early years are likely to have more developed social skills by the time they start school than those who have been on their own at home. For some mothers being at home constantly looking after their children is not completely healthy and beneficial for them. There may be an ideal that the best mothers stay at home to look after their children, especially in religious circles, but that isn’t the case for everyone. In the last chapter of the book of Proverbs in the Bible it talks about the wife of noble character. This is a passage that many people including Christians consider to be outdated, but the wife along with looking after her house and family also runs her own business and earns an income.
The point is that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all ideal when it comes to parenting. Instead, parents need all the help they can get whether they chose to stay at home or go out to work. Most families with small children struggle with reduced incomes. The Government is therefore right to do what it can to ease the burden on working parents, but needs to value those who stay at home too. The problem is that the Government has said and done some unhelpful things and also failed to do what it said it would. Downing Street last week suggested that working parents had a “greater need” for subsidies than those who care for their children full-time, which is not true. Setting the income limit to receive the new childcare subsidy at £150,000 per parent, doesn’t give the impression that it is targeted at those who need it the most. Child Benefit increases will be capped at one per cent for three years and it has been reduced or removed from households where one earner pays the higher rate of tax. Tax credits have also been cut for many families on lower incomes. The Government has hit all parents hard but only given anything of value back to those where both parents work.
The last government did little to support the stability of families and some measures such as tax credits actually benefitted parents who weren’t living together. Addressing these failures before the General Election in 2010, David Cameron made a speech entitled ‘Mending our broken society’. This is part of what he said:
“Well just consider this; consider the signals that we send people in Britain today. Consider the fact that we send a signal to couples that you’re worse off if you stay together and you’re better off if you separate…
“And let me just say something about the organisation that I think is the most important of all in fighting for a, and delivering, a responsible society and that is the family. I want the next Government to be the most family friendly Government we’ve ever had in this country and that is about everything we do to support families and it’s about supporting every sort of family.”
He also goes on to say a great deal about the incredible value of stable families and why marriage should be encouraged and supported including through the tax system.
The speech at the time was optimistic and hopeful and was music to my ears. Here was a party leader who was fully committed to marriage and healthy families where children are put first. Three years on, I might not be angry, but I am hugely disappointed. These promises have by-and-large failed to materialise. It feels as if families are more under attack now than they have ever been and the Government is failing to give the impression it cares. Certainly the Government needs to reign in its spending, but while families take a battering wealthy pensioners still have their winter fuel allowances and free bus passes. There is a palpable sense of injustice amongst many parents of young families. It’s not surprising that Justin Welby and the bishops felt the need to go on the offensive and challenge the Government its Child Benefit cap. CARE and the Centre for Social Justice along with several Conservative MPs continue to call for transferable tax allowances for married couples knowing these will disproportionately benefit many of those families who are less well-off.
When Nick Clegg answers the calls during his radio phone in, you don’t often get the impression that he’s really listening to the callers. This is a common problem with government ministers and when it comes to families it appears that they’ve also stopped listening to themselves. Strong families are one of the foundations of a healthy and prosperous society; they are not just a source of tax income. Is it really surprising that the mother who phoned Nick Clegg said, “You probably think what I do is a worthless job”? There are plenty of parents both working and staying home who would be inclined to agree with her.