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Good news for families? The costs of the Conservatives are higher than you think

Children have been the biggest losers over the last five years - and as a new report shows, there is more to come.

“Good news for family budgets” is how the Chancellor welcomed this week’s (negative) inflation figures, but the pinch parents have been feeling in the pocket can’t just be put down to rising prices. It’s also about how we’ve been short-changing our children.

In recent years, the support that families receive to help cover the extra costs of children (the cost of meeting the basic needs of a child are £164 a week) has diminished in value. For some, it has evaporated altogether: higher earning parents lost their child benefit in 2012. For the remaining 4.1 million families who are eligible, the value of children’s benefits has been slowly but surely eroded by year after year of freezes (child benefit) and under-inflation uprating (child tax credit).

Losing a pound here and a penny there is something most of us don’t immediately notice, but over time, it does add up. Remember the year-on-year damage wreaked on the basic state pension when the link with earnings was broken in 1980?

New research published today ‘Short-changed: The true cost of cuts to children’s benefits’ by Child Poverty Action Group and other members of the End Child Poverty coalition shows that a typical working family will lose £513 this year alone as a result of the decisions made in the last parliament to uprate children’s benefits below inflation. For many, this can make a genuine difference: being able to send your child on a school trip, for example, heat your home and even eat properly. The research found that over 2 million children live in families who have had to cut back on food or heating their home as a result of the falling value of children’s benefits.

The way that children’s benefits have been uprated stands in stark contrast to the treatment that pensioners have received in recent years. The Coalition Government didn’t just restore the link with earnings, it gave the basic state pension ‘triple lock’ protection (pensions would be uprated by prices, earnings or 2.5%, whichever is higher)  in a move attracting widespread support and seen by many as an important way to maintain income and reduce pensioner poverty over time.

 With children twice as likely to be poor as pensioners, why is there no triple lock for children? The glib answer is that children don’t vote, but it’s more than that.

Anyone familiar with online comment threads will be aware that a small minority of people see children as a private luxury rather than a public good: “If you can’t feed ‘em, don’t breed ‘em” may be an unpalatable way of putting it, but deep down some seem to share the view that if you have children you should carry all the costs yourself. By that measure, having  children would soon become the preserve of only the rich.  Surely no one wants that.

It can’t just be cost either – the Chancellor has spent billions on raising the personal tax allowance, with most of the money going to people higher up in the income distribution. (Surprised? Thought this policy is all about lifting the low paid out of tax? Read page 13 of this IFS note – the low paid either don’t benefit at all or benefit least because the benefit system claws back much of the gain.)

Thankfully, most of us recognise that we have both individual and collective responsibility for children. Most people consider it important to reduce child poverty, with eight in ten seeing this as very much a responsibility of the state.  Likewise, recent polling as shown that only one in ten parents in the UK thinks that children’s benefits should continue to be increased below inflation. Investing in children makes sense to most, appealing as it does to the head (children are Britain’s future workers and tax-payers) and the heart (children are not responsible for their own economic well-being).

Last year, Iain Duncan Smith claimed he was on track to end child poverty by 2020, but most see the target getting ever further out of reach.  Our analysis is that a triple lock for children’s benefits would result in more than a quarter of a million fewer children living in poverty by 2020. That’s more children lifted out of poverty than the Government claims its flagship Universal Credit policy will eventually deliver.

It’s time we stopped short-changing our children.  

 

Lindsay Judge works for the Child Poverty Action Group. Short Changed: The True Cost of Cuts to Children’s Benefits can be read here.

Lindsay Judge is senior policy and research officer for the Child Poverty Action Group.

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.