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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Today's immigration figures show why the net migration target should be scrapped

We should measure different types of migration separately and set targets that reflect their true impact.

Today’s net migration figures show, once again, that the government has raised expectations of tackling migration and failed to deliver. This is a recipe for disaster. Today’s numbers run far in excess of 300,000 – three times over what was pledged. These figures don’t yet reflect the fallout from Brexit. But they do show the government needs to change from business as usual.

It has been the current strategy, after all, that led the British public to reject the European Union regardless of the economic risks. And in the process, it is leading the government to do things which err on the side of madness. Like kicking out international students with degrees in IT, engineering or as soon as they finish their degrees. Or doubling the threshold for investor visas, and in the process bringing down the number of people willing to come to Britain to set up business and create jobs by 82 per cent. Moreover, it has hampered the UK’s ability to step up during last year’s refugee crisis - last year Britain received 60 asylum applications per 1,000 people in contrast to Sweden’s 1,667, Germany’s 587 and an EU average of 260.

The EU referendum should mark the end for business as usual. The aim should be to transition to a system whose success is gauged not on the crude basis of whether overall migration comes down, irrespective of the repercussions, but on the basis of whether those who are coming are helping Britain achieve its strategic objectives. So if there is evidence that certain forms of migration are impacting on the wages of the low paid then it is perfectly legitimate for government to put in place controls. Conversely, where flows help build prosperity, then seeing greater numbers should surely be an option.

Approaching immigration policy in this way would go with the grain of public opinion. The evidence clearly tells us that the public holds diverse views on different types of migration. Very few people are concerned about investors coming from abroad to set up companies, create jobs and growth. Few are worried about students paying to study at British universities. On the other hand, low-skilled migration causes concerns of under-cutting among the low paid and pressure on public services in parts of the country that are already struggling.

The first step in a new approach to managing migration has to be to abolish the net migration target. Rather than looking at migration in the aggregate, the aim should be to measure different types of migration separately and set targets that reflect their true impact. In the first instance, this could be as simple as separating low and high skilled migration but in the long term it could involve looking at all different forms of migration. A more ambitious strategy would be to separate the different types of migration - not just those coming to work but also those arriving as refugees, to study or be reunited with their families.

Dividing different flows would not only create space for an immigration policy which was strategic. It would also enable a better national conversation, one which could take full account of the complex trade-offs involved in immigration policy: How do we attract talent to the UK without also letting conditions for British workers suffer? Should the right to a family life override concerns about poor integration? How do we avoiding choking off employers who struggle to recruit nationally? Ultimately, are we prepared to pay those costs?

Immigration is a tough issue for politicians. It involves huge trade-offs. But the net migration target obscures this fact. Separating out different types of immigration allows the government to sell the benefits of welcoming students, the highly skilled and those who wish to invest without having to tell those concerned about low skilled immigration that they are wrong.

Getting rid of the net migration target is politically possible but only if it is done alongside new and better targets for different areas of inward migration – particularly the low-skilled. If it is, then not only does it allow for better targeted policy that will help appease those most vocally against immigration, it also allows for a better national conversation. Now is the time for a new, honest and better approach to how we reduce immigration.

Phoebe Griffith is Associate Director for Migration, Integration and Communities at IPPR