South of the River – Child Poverty

Today is Children In Need Day. Can I start by recognising all the efforts and the good motivation of everyone involved in raising money today. … But … I’m sorry, Children In Need makes me very angry. For me, it crystallises the arguments about charity versus state provision.

I remember sitting in the Adelphi pub on the first Children In Need night when some hapless well-intentioned collectors ran in to a bunch of socialists. We had a stand up row. We said that if they cared about children they should be fighting Thatcher’s impending cut in Child Benefit. They couldn’t see what they were doing wrong.

Thatcher started the cutting back of Child Benefit payments. The last government increased them a bit, but this government is doing the most damage by bringing in rules that stop higher rate tax payers getting Child Benefit. If it sounds like I’m supporting the rich, don’t worry I’m not.

Child Benefit is a brilliantly simple and effective way to tackle child poverty. It is universal, in other words everyone with children gets it – so there is no stigma attached to claiming it. It is easy to claim and once awarded you didn’t have to reclaim every year, or every time your circumstances change. It is paid to the mother by default, which meant it was more likely to get spent on the children than a tax allowance which might often end up in the fathers pay packet.

Why is this damaging? Because once you have rules, you have to ask claimants more questions, there are more decisions to be made (some will be wrong), more chances for people to not reply, or not reply in time and have their children’s benefit cut. All this has two consequences – firstly it’s more likely that people who are entitled won’t get it. Secondly, and you would have thought this would have been important for this government, it becomes much more expensive to administer.

Back to Children In Need. The staff and children at New Bewerley Community School, where I am a governor, will be raising funds today. You will be pleased to hear that I haven’t suggested the school ignores Children In Need Day or the other charities it supports, but it always brings a lump to my throat. Many of our children should be getting help from, rather than raising money for Children In Need. The same is true across many schools in south Leeds.

Of course it’s well documented that people on lower incomes give proportionately more to Charity than the well off. And we should celebrate that this generosity shows that people care about others, contrary to “common sense” view that we are all greedy.

But if the government are being so horrid to children, surely we need charities even more? This is a bit of circular argument. The bigger the role of charities the more the State can retreat from providing services. It reinforces the argument that there isn’t enough money in the system to pay for “luxuries” like Sure Start or social workers. I don’t buy that argument, apart from choices about whether to fight wars in Afghanistan or have a nuclear bomb, there’s the whole issue about the tax that isn’t being collected from Starbucks, Amazon, BHS and Topshop.

The rich are avoiding taxes and paying less to charity. There are a few notable exceptions, such as Jimi Heselden (of Hesco Bastion) but of course he grew up In Halton Moor and worked in the mines before he made his fortune.

The debate of state versus charity has echoes of another debate. What the Victorians called the deserving and undeserving poor. I think the Sun has updated this to “scroungers”. In fact the rich have held this view for a very long time as Professor Mary Beard pointed out on Radio 4 this week. The Roman elite got very upset about poor people lounging around under the awnings at theatres. These had been erected for the comfort of paying theatre-goers, for heaven’s sake. It didn’t occur to them that these people were only there because they didn’t have a home to live in.

The modern argument is that “scroungers” deliberately have children in order to get more benefit, or a Council house (remember those?). Under new rules they will now be penalised, or rather their children will be penalised. A more effective remedy to this problem (if it exists) would be more maths lessons because the pitiful amount of benefit does not cover the cost of bringing up a child.

Finally I must clarify that I don’t think we should get rid of all charities. There will always be a need for specialist provision meeting specific needs. But I think charities should be filling small cracks in the system of support, not taking the main role. At the moment it feels like we are on a very slippery slope.

Jeremy will be back with more views from South of the River next Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @Beeston Jeremy.

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One Reply to “South of the River – Child Poverty”

  1. Interesting and provocative article… The trouble with just relying on state provision is that it can’t meet all the specific and individual needs – even if properly funded it’s a pretty blunt tool. I think there’s a big distinction between the state providing services and the state paying for them. I think there are strong arguments for charities providing services which are funded by the state because the former have a better appreciation of local needs and are often cheaper and more cost effective.

    Charities also provide a way people can show they care about others either through providing funding or making practical contributions and these are important ways of building communities particularly in cases of local charities.

    I can understand the point of universal benefits but I think there is a strong argument for making child benefit taxable so that those who need it less contribute some of it back in tax.

    Finally, not all rich people are avoiding taxes which is in any case legal. Surely it is sensible to arrange matters so you pay the least tax you have to?! There is an argument that company directors have a legal duty to do so as they are charged to operate in the best interests of their company. Isn’t it up to government to set up rules that more strictly limit tax avoidance – which is legal – and make sure they are properly enforced?

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