The government says it is stupid to take tax off higher earners on the one hand while giving it back through a universal benefit on the other. This argument falls down because the aim is to cut a billion a year of public spending, not as a way of reducing tax. There is an unholy alliance of Red Ed Labour and the likes of the Daily Mail saying it is yet another burden for the middle class to carry.
I don’t want to get into a political debate about the pros and cons of universal child benefit payments, although it always struck me that it would do more good being spent on the families that really needed it, even when my kids were growing up.
The question I haven’t seen answered anywhere in the coverage about child benefit is a simple one. Why? What is the country meant to get out of it? And if we knew what that was, maybe we could think up a better way of doing it.
Is it meant to be an incentive to have children? If memory serves, France was the first country to try this after the carnage of the Franco-Prussian War. The authorities wanted the nation’s men and women to provide replacement future cannon fodder as quickly as possible before the Germans set about them again and offered a bounty for every baby produced.
The campaign for an untaxed family allowance paid directly to the mother was pioneered after World War One by Eleanor Rathbone. She wasn’t interested in patriotic breeding, but wanted to give money directly to mothers for the care of their broods on the grounds that dad would drink it down the pub or waste it at the bookies.
Family allowance didn’t make it onto the statute books until 1945 as part of the expansion of the welfare system. In an echo of today, it was taxable, one hand of state giving and another taking, and was replaced with child benefit in 1977.
History lesson over. Back to the original question: what is the purpose of family allowance and child benefit? Presumably to help mothers to give their children a start in life. Has it worked? Well there are still plenty of children who are neglected or are living in relative poverty.
Perhaps there would be more of them if it didn’t exist, but I’ve seen no evidence to support that view and even if it were true it is a sad argument to say that ten children are safe in the lifeboat if ninety are left to drown.
And if people earning more than £44,000 a year are upset, do they even need a lifeboat when they own a pleasure yacht?
Raising children isn’t cheap — just look at how much foster parents are paid — and the amount paid in child benefit doesn’t come close. If this government were truly radical, they would scrap it altogether, not to save money, but to redirect it to make a real difference in children’s lives.