Children play outside an estate in Govan, Glasgow.Photo: Getty Images
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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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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”