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Caroline Farrow: IDS is wrong to limit child benefit to two kids. Transferable tax allowances are the answer


Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has hinted that the Tories are intending to resurrect their plan to limit child benefit payments to the first two children only, an idea first floated in 2012, before Nick Clegg quashed it.

Speaking about the potential cap on BBC1’s Sunday Politics show, Mr Duncan Smith said: “I think it’s well worth looking at, It’s something if we decide to do it, we’ll announce out. But it does save significant money and also it helps behavioural change”.

It’s not clear what Iain Duncan Smith really means when he talks about behavioural change. Is he implying that he wants to stop families from determining their own ideal family size (a very un-Conservative notion), or is it that the Government wishes to deter people from factoring in substantial state subsidies when deciding whether or not to have large families?

In many respects IDS is right – no-one should expect the State to finance their individual lifestyle choices. If you want to have multiple children, then yes, you ought to ensure that you are in a position to support them financially without having to rely on the Government to make ends meet.

The problem is that employing the language of behaviour change implies that anyone who does have more than two children is somehow behaving irresponsibly. We all know that with the best will in the world, if you’re in a sexually active relationship, no matter how careful you are, accidents happen. If you’re going to have sex, you could well end up with an unplanned pregnancy and then what? Is IDS seriously suggesting that every fertile couple with two children ought to be doubling-up with two methods of contraception, or abstaining from sex?

While no sensible couple ought be actively trying to conceive a child without having at least one main earner in full-time employment, and certainly the extra £13.55 wouldn’t be a make or break factor for some families, for others it could really make the difference. Should the Catholic IDS really be committing himself to a policy which has a distinct whiff of eugenics and could well be a determining factor in the decision as to whether or not to abort an unplanned pregnancy? Should the Government really be sending out signals in terms of how many children the average family ought to have? Enough prejudice already exists against large families, without the Government institutionalising it.

Should David Cameron, who has fathered four children, really be committing his party to a policy that would ensure that multiple children and large families should be the preserve of the super-rich? Remember, this is is not a policy that would hit the middle classes; they’ve already had all child benefit removed, regardless of how many children they have if their family income exceeds £60,000, a policy which has unfairly penalised women who stay at home to raise their children.

Like many countries, the UK is faced with an aging population; more than 10 million people are aged 65 and above – a number predicted to double in the next thirty years. In purely economic terms, the State is going to need as many future taxpayers as possible, and therefore ought to be encouraging stable families to have lots of children.

And, of course, it is stable families who are at the heart of the issue here. No one would have any problem with a low-income family, consisting of one or two blue-collar workers, receiving some additional state support should they have a third of fourth child. It’s in nobody’s interests that children go without their basic needs and the State does undoubtedly have a stake in the young.

IDS is leveraging the discontent felt by most of the country, when cases emerge of individuals who appear to be making no discernible effort to find work and yet have more disposable income, thanks to benefits, than those in modestly paid jobs. But child benefit is too broad an instrument to tackle the problem, which will unfairly affect anyone who finds themselves unexpectedly pregnant, especially those in low-income families, or those who circumstances suddenly change. It is a profoundly anti-family measure. But then low-income families don’t vote Conservative, unlike the high-income pensioners and baby-boomers who find that their non means-tested benefits are not under threat.

It won’t appease the progressives, but the answer lies in abolishing child benefit and returning to a system of fully transferable tax allowances based on household size, which would end discrimination against single-earner couples and go a considerable way to counteract the  discrimination that currently exists against couples who are already in the benefits system.

Gordon Brown embedded a system which made even working families reliant on the State to top up their income. A transferable tax allowance would have the important effect of making these families feel that they are no longer reliant on the State to be able to meet the basic cost of living.  The principle need not only be applied to the number of children within a family, but also to those caring for a dependent elderly relative. If the State wishes to make savings on welfare bills for both the young and elderly, then instead of simply slashing benefits, it should also reduce a family’s tax burden, as dependents will affect a family’s ability to pay.

Child benefit was introduced as a replacement for a child tax credit as part of the feminist movement to make women independent of men and thus the notion of family redundant. When every single piece of research is demonstrating that children do better in long-term committed (i.e. married) relationships with both of their biological parents, where at least one is working – it is high time that this liberal old dogma is put out to pasture and families are put back where they belong, at the very heart of society.

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Caroline Farrow
Caroline Farrow
Columnist for the Catholic Universe

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