The business - Patrick Hosking coos over Brown's baby bonds
Politicians normally rob future generations to please existing voters. So there's something noble ab
They should be up there with motherhood and apple pie. Baby bonds - the Budget's big new promise - ought to be unexceptionable. Who could oppose giving children a modest financial leg-up as they reach the threshold of adulthood?
Yet Gordon Brown's cuddly new measure has not set the country goo-ing and arrr-ing. Sixty-three per cent of respondents in a Mail on Sunday poll by YouGov thought the measure was a "meaningless gimmick", against 31 per cent who thought it would give children a better start. The City is lukewarm. The major financial institutions, which will administer the scheme, say it may be more trouble than it is worth, unless it is spruced up with more tax perks than the Chancellor has yet revealed.
Full details are due in the summer. What we know so far is that the clunkingly named child trust funds will be set up for every child born from 1 September 2002. The government will chip in £250 for most babies and £500 for those from the poorest families. The money will be invested - in deposit accounts or stock-market-linked products - and topped up by the government, probably at ages five, seven and 11. Parents, grandparents and others will be able to make contributions of up to £1,000 a year. Children will gain access to the money on their 18th birthday and will be free to do whatever they like with it.
"Meaningless gimmick" is unfair. The fund was the biggest single item in the Budget, and will cost taxpayers £350m in the first year. Short of catastrophic mismanagement, it is hard to see how the handout can be worth less than £500 to any child by its 18th birthday. I don't know any teenagers who would regard that sum as meaningless.
Nor can "gimmicky" be applied to a measure of great significance in welfare terms. Although income redistribution has been on the left's agenda for a century or more, far less thought has been given to wealth redistribution. It is the lack of a tiny bit of capital at critical junctures which condemns many people to lives of missed opportunities.
The fund "symbolises the difference between those who believe in modernising the welfare state and those who wish it to wither away", the Chancellor told the Commons to loud cheers. David Blunkett, on the front bench behind him, looked close to ecstasy. Yet I can see why people are suspicious. This isn't just a worry about handing young adults the opportunity to develop a drug habit or take a long holiday in Ibiza. The explanation of the idea has been muddled. The Chancellor has tried to oversell the funds, claiming that they will help children develop a savings habit and help deliver better financial education. This looks fanciful.
Inculcating a savings habit is about persuading children to forgo jam today. Why - to a generation raised on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and the National Lottery - should the promise of a windfall in the future make any red-blooded teenager more thrifty? Children, knowing they are due for a sizeable bung on their 18th birthday, are surely just as likely to squander every penny they own, even get into debt. The modern-day equivalent of Billy Bunter's perennial squawk, "I'm expecting a postal order", could soon be on the lips of every 17-year-old. And if individual balances are discussed in school lessons, I can see all kinds of potential embarrassment and resentment.
So this measure comes down to redistribution, pure and simple. But if so, why not just target the most vulnerable children? Presumably because it will be much easier to sell a universal benefit to the voters. It will also be a sop to middle-class parents faced with university tuition fees.
And why not just pay a lump sum at 18? That would allow people to start benefiting at once at no extra cost and also prevent any investment mishaps. After pensions and endowment mis-selling, there is surely a danger that the less scrupulous players in the savings industry will somehow fleece the unsuspecting young.
Perhaps these are just the embittered musings of a father with three children all born the wrong side of 1 September 2002. For there is something curiously selfless, almost noble, about this measure. Politicians usually rob past and future generations to please existing voters. Privatisation was a vast redistribution of the wealth built up by our parents and grandparents. Government borrowing is a cheque written on our children and grandchildren.
Yet the child trust funds benefit a group that will go nowhere near a ballot box until 2020, by which time Brown will be nearly 70 and safely ensconced in the Lords - or possibly in a Home for Terminally Thwarted Wannabe Prime Ministers.
Patrick Hosking is deputy City editor of the London Evening Standard