The big mistake children make is that they do not have the vote. If they did, perhaps the insidious and influential campaign to cut or "reform" child benefit would not be gaining ground as the coalition government searches around for huge savings in order to satisfy George Osborne. Child benefit might then be as "safe as houses", or more to the point, as safe as all the additional universal benefits that the old, rich and poor, receive from a government that can do the electoral sums. Perhaps there would even be an end to smug well-off people telling TV interviewers that they hardly know what to do with their child benefit - an odd contrast to their attitude for example to free bus passes which they would never disavow.
The most shocking (to me) sign of the growing campaign to ditch child benefit came last week on The World at One when Eddie Mair described it as a "middle class benefit". The statement casts doubt on the presenter's intelligence; the point of child benefit is that it is a universal benefit that goes to poor, rich and "middle class" alike. But it also demonstrates how much traction the view that universal benefits (though not the NHS, a universal service) "waste" money by including the better off and should be concentrated on those who need them- i.e., they should be means-tested.
But a means-tested child benefit would lose the great practical advantage that universality brings. Child benefit is the social mainstay of family life in the UK and strengthens the ability of poorer families to survive and share, to some extent, in the life of the community. The take-up of means tested benefits is notoriously low and many people fall through the welfare net. And most families need child benefit, the poor who are most likely not to apply for a means-tested alternative, most of all. Further, as even ministers acknowledge, means-tested benefits reduce the incentive to go into work as the poverty trap bites. It was bad enough to freeze child beneft; making it means-tested, or otherwise restricting it, would represent a major blow to ordinary families. By all means introduce a claw back for wealthier families, if that can be done - otherwise hands off!
There is also the growing danger of a major structural shift in welfare that echoes the huge divide in education and may well come in housing provision as ideas to remove the security of people in social housing begin to take hold. We will not then be "all in this together" an empty promise anyway - and the UK will become a more fixed two class nation, not the One Nation that David Cameron's leadership promised.
I no longer wonder what the Lib Dems are doing in this divisive government. But I would like to know what Frank Field, Cameron's welfare tsar, makes of the moves against child benefit. It is primarily due to his campaigning skills at Child Poverty Action Group that we have child benefit at all. Would he be happy to see his baby killed off?
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