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 SATs strike: why parents are taking their children out of school to protest against exams

Parents are keeping their children away from school to highlight the dangers of “over testing” young pupils.

My heart is beating fast and I feel sick. I force myself to eat some chocolate because someone said it might help. I take a deep breath and open the door…

The hall is silent except for the occasional cough and the shuffling of chairs. The stench of nervous sweat lingers in the air.

“Turn over your papers, you may begin.”

I look at the clock and I am filled with panic. I feel like I might pass out. I pick up my pen but my palms are so sweaty it is hard to grip it properly. I want to cry. I want to scream, and I really need the toilet.

This was how I felt before every GCSE exam I took. I was 16. This was also how I felt before taking my driving test, aged 22, and my journalism training (NCTJ) exams when I was 24.

Being tested makes most of us feel anxious. After all, we have just one chance to get stuff right. To remember everything we have learned in a short space of time. To recall facts and figures under pressure; to avoid failure.

Even the most academic of adults can find being in an exam situation stressful, so it’s not hard to imagine how a young child about to sit their Year 2 SATs must feel.

Today thousands of parents are keeping their kids off school in protest at these tough new national tests. They are risking fines, prosecution and possible jail time for breach of government rules. By yesterday morning, more than 37,000 people had signed a petition backing the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign and I was one of them.

I have a daughter in reception class who will be just six years old when she sits her SATs. These little ones are barely out of pull-up pants and now they are expected to take formal exams! What next? Babies taught while they are in the womb? Toddlers sitting spelling tests?

Infants have fragile self-esteem. A blow to their confidence at such an impressionable age can affect them way into adulthood. We need to build them up not tear them down. We need to ensure they enjoy school, not dread it. Anxiety and fear are not conducive to learning. It is like throwing books at their heads as a way of teaching them to read. It will not work. They are not machines. They need to want to learn.

When did we stop treating children like children? Maybe David Cameron would be happier if we just stopped reproducing all together. After all, what use to the economy are these pesky kids with their tiny brains and individual emotional needs? Running around all happy and carefree, selfishly enjoying their childhood without any regard to government statistics or national targets.

Year 2 SATs, along with proposals for a longer school day and calls for baseline reception assessments (thankfully now dropped) are just further proof that the government do not have our children’s best interests at heart. It also shows a distinct lack of common sense. It doesn’t take a PhD in education to comprehend that a child is far more likely to thrive in a calm, supportive and enjoyable environment. Learning should be fun. The value in learning through play seems to be largely underestimated.

The UK already has a far lower school starting age than many other countries, and in my opinion, we are already forcing them into a formal learning environment way too soon.

With mental health illness rates among British children already on the rise, it is about time our kids were put first. The government needs to stop “throwing books at heads” and start listening to teachers and parents about what is best for the children.

Emily-Jane Clark is a freelance journalist, mother-of-two and creator of stolensleep.com, a humorous antithesis to baby advice.