So much for the importance of the family...

Cuts to child benefit undermine the family as well as the universal welfare state.

Rushed policy is often bad policy, but the Child Benefit fiasco is not simply about obvious flaws. It raises longer term questions about where the welfare state might be heading under the Coalition.

In the immediate aftermath of George Osborne's announcement, defects and unfairnesses came quickly to light. The sharp cliff edge whereby any salary just above or below £43,875 creates perverse incentives. And how to explain to a one-salary family on, say, £50,000, that they should lose their benefit while the two-earner family with a joint £80,000 keeps it? So much for parents making their own choices about work/family balances and so much, too, for Conservative Party notions about the importance of the traditional family.

Difficulties will multiply as administrators seek to turn plans into practice, not least because HMRC was not consulted in advance about the idea. What happens, for example, if a higher taxpayer becomes unemployed - or if a couple separate? Will Child Benefit immediately be restored to the mother? I doubt that the tax system is that fast-footed.

Any proposal to introduce a Married Couples Tax Allowance to rescue the policy would be an expensive operation. It would also be very poorly targeted because the vast majority of married couples do not have dependent children. All in all, a mixture of marriage, family and taxation creating a heady Tory brew.

So much for the immediate furore, but what does this episode tell us about the direction of our welfare state in Coalition hands? Their thinking is based on an ideological assumption that social security benefits should only be reserved for those on low incomes. That is essentially a nineteenth century view, one that spawned the workhouse in the 1830s and the household means test in the 1930s.

That approach was challenged rigorously in the twentieth century by an emerging progressive consensus behind universalism. It was based on concepts of citizenship, with attendant rights and duties. The early running was made by the Liberal Party of Asquith and Lloyd George which enacted National Insurance measures. The key document remains the 1942 Beveridge Report, the work of that far-sighted Liberal reformer. There followed the Attlee Government's great social provisions - comprehensive national insurance and a universal NHS. The argument was about universal needs and social cohesion: in a democracy, all citizens experience financial needs and risks, whether sickness, unemployment, child-bearing or old age. Dignified provision had to draw in all classes. It was an 'all in this together' collectivism that gave birth to a modern welfare state.

This democratic universalism was epitomised in family policy by family allowances, introduced by the Coalition Government in 1945. They merged with child tax allowances in the mid-'70s to form Child Benefit. The introduction of family allowances owed much to the writings and campaigns of Eleanor Rathbone. Her arguments were powerful and persistent:
"Children are not simply a private luxury. They are an asset to the community, and the community can no longer afford to leave the provision of their welfare solely to the accident of individual income".

That is the crucial point and it underlines why Child Benefit should be maintained as a universal provision. It recognises that at all income levels those with children have financial obligations above and beyond those without children. Now, that may seem a theoretical point at millionaire levels, but it is a pressing, practical and expensive point for many of those who now stand to lose out. Children are expensive and increasingly so, as parents have to pay for a multitude of items and probably child care costs and, later, university education. Since Beveridge's day most children no longer become economic assets in their mid-teens. Children may ape the adult at younger and younger ages but in terms of financial dependency many still rely on their parents into their twenties. Liverpool Victoria have estimated the average lifetime costs of raising a child, from birth until 21, at £201,000. Their estimates exclude one of the biggest costs of all, namely the earnings foregone by mothers when they stay at home for at least a few years to tend to their children. It is surely no coincidence that the birth rate, at just below two children on average, is less than the replacement level.

Social policy should not just be about vertical equity, distributions from the rich to the poor, but also horizontal equity. For the self-styled 'Party of the family' to effectively raise taxation for families with children and not to do so for the single or the childless is bizarre at best and damaging at worst.

Defending Child benefit for better-off families may seem an unusual early Labour battle with the Coalition. But it puts down an important political marker for where the Party needs to be and how universal services and benefits must remain at the heart of the new and reformed welfare state.

Malcolm Wicks is the Labour MP for Croydon North and a former DWP Minister. Prior to his election 1992 he was the Director of the Family Policy Studies Centre.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder