Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

£700m to spend? Some better ideas than a marriage tax allowance

December 3, 2013

Cross-posted from my Huffington Post blog:

£700million to spend? Some ideas which might be better than a marriage tax allowance

This Thursday the Chancellor gives his Autumn Statement. With the economic upturn shaky at best we can expect little in the way of good news and plenty more squeezing of budgets. Except, that is, for one thing. It appears that the Chancellor has £700m to spare on a measure that even its supporters claim won’t any difference. So what’s the truth? Are we in the grip of a near permanent austerity? Or do we have some cash to burn? Things are certainly a little confusing.

And I think we can be forgiven for being a little confused. After all, a marriage tax allowance really doesn’t make much sense. It is not as if it will lead to anyone getting, or staying, married. Most married couples, including those who are both working, don’t have the ‘right kind of marriage’ to qualify as they don’t have a breadwinner and a homemaker. They therefore won’t get anything. And neither will widows, widowers, single parents or cohabiting couples. Only 18% of families with children will benefit from marriage tax breaks.

At Don’t Judge My Family, the campaign against the marriage tax allowance, we don’t believe that Government should be spending public money promoting their ideal ‘fantasy 1950s family‘. In these tough times, the government should be helping people not judging them. So we asked for suggestions for better ideas. How might the Government better use £700m a year to support families, sustain relationships or give children the best start in life? We received hundreds of well thought through and passionate responses and yesterday we launched a report detailing some of these.

So what might be better than a marriage tax allowance? For a start, what about increased access to relationship counselling? Something which might actually help save a struggling relationship. Unlike the proposed marriage tax break which even David Cameron acknowledges won’t stop anyone from getting a divorce.

Alternatively perhaps the Government could cancel its proposed cuts to benefits for widowed parents? It is estimated that 90% of new claimants will be worse off under the new Bereavement Support Payments with those with younger children particularly adversely affected. Many predict this will mean widowed parents having to work full-time instead of spending time with their bereaved children.

Or what about scrapping the Bedroom Tax? Something which is causing stress and misery for hundreds of thousands of individuals and families yet is predicted to save only £470m a year. Far less than the amount the Chancellor has put aside to ‘send a signal’ about marriage.

The Government may believe that sending a signal about marriage is worth £700m a year. But it is not likely that marriage tax breaks will encourage people to get married or stay married. Even if they did, there is no evidence that encouraging people to marry is a useful outcome. Although marriage is often cited as leading to stability and better outcomes, supporters of marriage tax breaks confuse correlation with cause. People with higher educational qualifications and incomes are more likely to marry and it’s those attributes, rather than a marriage certificate, that leads to them being more stable and their children doing better.

We believe that great families come in all shapes and sizes and that the Government’s job is to help families, not judge them. This December we’re showcasing twenty four great ideas, all of which are loads better than a marriage tax allowance, in our Help Don’t Judge advent calendar. Why not take a look and find out how £700m could be better spent supporting families, sustaining relationships or giving children the best start in life.

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Here’s to all our babies born in and out of ‘wedlock’

July 11, 2013

Today we had a prediction and a promise. Firstly the prediction. Figures out today predict that a majority of children born in 2016 will be to unmarried parents. It’s 47% at the moment. And the promise is from George Osbourne – he promises to announce a marriage tax allowance in the autumn.

I’ve set out my opposition to the allowance at length so I won’t repeat myself. I’ll just point out that arguments about the benefits of marriage often confuse correlation with causality. In general wealthier and more highly educated people get married. Is it any wonder their kids do better?

Marriage is no longer the norm for new parents. Families come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. I think this is great. I’ve no problem with people choosing to get married. And I’ve no problem with people who don’t, won’t or can’t do it either.

My partner and I are unmarried. We have two kids. We’ve been together many, many years. I don’t think being married would make us better parents. Or increase our likelihood of staying together. At present we are already disadvantaged by the tax and benefit system by cohabiting but not marrying (Capital Gains Tax, Inheritance Tax, bereavement benefits etc.) This hasn’t encouraged us to walk up the aisle and so I doubt £150 transferable tax allowance would either.

One of the few things that might have persuaded me to marry was whether I thought my boys would face shame or stigma because their parents weren’t married. I believe that thirty years ago they probably would have. Given the figures above I really hope that this is no longer the case. Certainly I’ve never felt embarrassed about it and never got the sense others were particularly bothered. Of course people often call me Mrs so-and-so which can be a little awkward. But thankfully us unmarried mums are increasingly common and I’m glad of it.

So here’s to all the little ones, whether in the 47 or 53%. Let them be happy and loved and prosper and let their parents’ marital status be nothing but their own business.

If you want to show your opposition to a marriage tax allowance you can do so here.

Don’t waste £500m judging our families!

July 1, 2013

David Cameron is set to make a statement today promising that the Coalition will one day ‘soon’ introduce a Marriage Tax Allowance. He is responding to pressure from his back benches who threatened a vote on it today.

The proposals as they stand are to enable married couples or those in civil partnerships to save £150 a year in tax. But this is only if one member of the couple doesn’t work (or doesn’t work enough to have used their full tax free allowance.) Part of this allowance can then be passed to their partner to give a saving on their tax bill of up to £150 a year. Single parents, widows and widowers, cohabiting couples, and married couples where both work need not apply!

I’ve written about the Marriage Tax Allowance before and explained why I oppose it.

There are two main reasons.

Firstly, I’m not married but am in a long term relationship with children. So I instantly feel judged by those arguing for this change. We don’t conform to some 1950s stereotype. I resent the implication that my family is some how less valid than another because I have chosen not to get married.

But secondly, and more importantly, this feels like a spectacular waste of public money. It is estimated that the current proposals would cost around half a billion pounds a year. Half a BILLION QUID! At time when families are being made homeless by the Bedroom Tax, which seeks to save less than this, it’s an utter scandal. Surely there are better ways to spend £500m to support children, families and relationships?

If you would like to find out more or express your opposition to these proposals then you can do so at the Don’t Judge My Family website.

New childcare help not very helpful

March 19, 2013

When is help with childcare costs not helpful? When you have a stay at home parent, it would appear.

I have posted before about the high cost of childcare and the difficulties inherent in the current system of support. I think it’s one of the key issues of our time, with big impacts on economic growth and equality. I’ve long said the Government should be tackling it as a top priority.

So imagine how disappointed I am today to see that our family and many others are likely to be WORSE off under today’s proposals.

The new childcare support will only kick in when both parents are in work. And the old system of childcare vouchers will be abolished. So the system we currently use to save around £100 a month in childcare costs is going. And we’re ineligible for the new system. Hmmm, not good.

The small print does say that the vouchers will remain for ongoing claimants. But this means I risk this help should I move employer. And also closes the door to any new parents not yet claiming vouchers.

We are very fortunate that we can afford for my partner to be a stay at home dad. This isn’t an option for many I know. We’re also lucky we can afford a small amount of nursery care for Bub too. This isn’t much, just two half day sessions at nursery a week. And that is only affordable because of the childcare voucher savings.

We very much value this nursery time – both for Bub’s development and socialisation and to give his dad a bit of a break. And now we have a second child we have the extra reason of being able to spend dedicated time one on one with Baby. These positive benefits will be lost to parents missing out in the new approach.

Well done to the Daycare Trust for flagging this issue in their response. I hope the Government listens.

Support for childcare

March 12, 2013

Just spent a pleasant quarter hour putting Bub’s new nursery dates into my diary. This is because from early April he’s entitled to some free nursery care. And because, boy, it’s complex.

We can only afford a couple of ‘full price’ half day nursery sessions for him a week. But with the free provision we can double this number for the same cost. But only in term time. Hence the complexity. Luckily Bub’s nursery is flexible and is letting us have different arrangements in and outside of term time. Many wouldn’t allow this.

I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Getting this free provision is fab. But the system really couldn’t be more badly designed if they tried.

You get 15 hours free, but only in solid three hour blocks. And Bub’s sessions are five hours long. So to use the whole allowance he’d have to do five half day sessions (a total of twenty five hours.) And it’s term time only so there are 14 weeks of the year you don’t get it. If our nursery were less flexible we’d be looking at a huge weekly fee every time the holidays came around. And of course we’re fortunate Bub has a stay at home parent and can therefore vary his childcare hours on a weekly basis. Many won’t have this luxury.

It’s great that there is financial support for childcare. There should be more. But it feels like this has been designed to be as unhelpful and hard to take up as possible. I imagine many parents, who might perhaps use the hours to take up work, aren’t able to because of the limitations on how it’s structured.

Mind you on this issue I’m glad I don’t live in Wales. My mummy friends there say it’s so complex and restrictive they can’t access it at all.

Don’t judge my family

February 13, 2013

I’m pleased to see the Don’t Judge My Family campaign has restarted in response to renewed government interest in a marriage tax allowance.
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These proposals would see married couples or those in civil partnerships save £150 a year in tax. But this is only if one member of the couple doesn’t work (or doesn’t work enough to have used their full tax free allowance.) Part of this allowance can then be passed to their partner to give a saving on their tax bill of up to £150 a year.

This irritates the hell out of me. I’m not married but am in a long term relationship with children. So I instantly feel judged by those arguing for this change. I resent the implication that my family is some how less valid than another because I have chosen not to get married.

I also find the idea that £3 a week might persuade me to marry quite insulting. There are already plenty of ways the tax system recognises marriage, take inheritance tax and capital gains tax for a start. I’m not best pleased by these either but at least they have some kind of rationale and weren’t introduced purely to send a pro-marriage message to Tory loyalists concerned about gay marriage.

This proposal will favour those who are on above average wages and therefore able to live on one income. Single parents, those on benefits and households where both partners work won’t gain at all. And those in the higher tax bracket won’t benefit either so it’s not even working as a sop to those losing child benefit.

This feels like the worst kind of gesture politics but the cost will be over £500m a year which is obscene in the current climate.

The campaign website includes a petition and lots more information. There is also an amusing valentine’s quiz. They are also on twitter and Facebook.

More great childcare? Probably not…

February 6, 2013

Bub has just moved to a new ‘room’ at nursery. This is because he’s three so he is now in the three to five year olds section.

It’s given me an interesting perspective on the recent Government proposals to relax the staff to child ratios in childcare provision.

The room Bub is in now has eight kids to every adult. In his previous room (two to three year olds) it was four to one. As parents we’ve noticed a big difference straight away. Bub only does afternoons so he arrives midway through the day. In the old setting staff would greet him, settle him in and encourage him to get into some play. If he was clingy they’d carry him to the window to wave goodbye to us. Now he gets barely any acknowledgement and we as parents get even less. A group of little girls said something nasty to Bub on drop off the other day and there was no-one to speak to or help support him into the session. Bub’s daddy had to help integrate a rather down hearted little boy into a game himself.

I know that the older kids require less help and support, in general, but Bub has only just switched rooms. He’s generally very happy about being with the big kids. But the problem with strict ratios is that there’s no slack to provide extra attention if it’s needed. And this is with the current staffing ratios. Increase them further and this can only get worse.

Bub’s language skills are so much better than they were. But he just can’t keep up with the super fluent four year olds he’s now mixing with. It’s a bit sad to see them chatting away like mad with each other. He can understand but not join in. I’m sure that, alongside just general change, this is why he’s a bit unsettled by the move to another section. And probably why some of the bigger kids just see him as a baby who they don’t want to play with.

Am sure he’ll be fine soon but at the moment I do feel for the poor boy. He’s desperately keen to be friends, especially with bigger kids, but needs a bit of help sometimes to do so. And it’s sad the nursery doesn’t quite have the staff in place to help it happen.

This is why the proposed changes worry me. The government suggests that greater ratios will not reduce quality but I fail to see how this follows. I also doubt childcare costs will reduce much either. Most local nurseries are already filled to their physical capacity. There won’t be new spaces popping up. Instead it’ll just mean that childcare jobs go, nursery margins increase slightly from rock bottom, and kids get a rawer deal. I really can’t see prices dropping by more than a small fraction and if anything they’ll increase for parents willing to pay over the odds for a ‘premium’ service with reasonable ratios.

Something does need to be done about the high cost of childcare. But I don’t think this is it. More state assistance with childcare costs seems to me to be the best and only way to retain quality but reduce fees. Spread the load a bit amongst all taxpayers so that parents themselves pay less during those early years. This way parents can then make decisions about staying in work, or not, based on factors other than the ferociously high cost of care. I’m sure over time the increased income (and therefore taxes) of parents who choose to work would go some way to helping fund this. And over years parents do of course pay a very large amount of tax which would mean they ultimately meet the cost of this short term assistance with care costs.

Equalising parental leave – yes please!

October 12, 2012

Finally a Government announcement I actually welcome. I guess after two years there was bound to be at least one along sometime.

I’m talking about recent announcements on equalising the approach to maternity and paternity leave. After a compulsory two weeks off for the mum post-birth parents can decide for themselves how to split up to one year of m/paternity leave between them.

This seems to me to be the only way to begin to chip away at the pay and career differentials that beset women once they start to consider having children. As long as there is a massive potential difference between women and men’s post-baby work life there will be discrimination*.

There are also self-imposed barriers too. As someone who has had one child and is well into pregnancy number two I know this has impacted on my approach to my career. I’ve seen men at similar life stages switch jobs, take promotions and put work first in a way I never felt I could.

For me all potential job moves have had to be scrutinised for the maternity package. Any change in role had to be weighed up against the delay this would have put onto my plans for a second baby. I’m not saying any of this was or is wrong. But it’s not something that at present is ever a factor for men. And this inevitably leads to men leaping further ahead.

There are still some issues with the policy I think. No mention is given about pay. It’s vital men have equal access to m/paternity pay on the same grounds as women. Otherwise the same old patterns will remain and true choice won’t be given. And men who’s partners aren’t in work should also be eligible to take leave.

I am annoyed at the voices saying that this will have a massive impact on business. There is no more leave per baby available. It’s just going to be available on a more equal footing. I think what these people are really acknowledging is that men get recruited to roles that wouldn’t be given to women. Or at least not those women likely to have kids. So all of a sudden what a shock we’ll face if those men start to take a share of post-baby leave. These men are clearly so vital to our economy, in a way that women aren’t, that the impact would be apocalyptic. What nonsense! And what a great reason in itself to remove this additional hurdle to women’s career progression.

* I realise that there are many other barriers to women’s progression at work and that this is one issue in many. But as a pregnant woman this is very much on my mind so forgive the neglect of the other issues just now.

Housing for the under 25s now clearly seen as a luxury!

June 25, 2012

Scary stuff in the news today about the government looking to remove almost all access to housing benefit for under 25s.

This isn’t the first time the idea has been floated. So I don’t think it can be brushed aside as being too stupid for then to possibly bring in. Sadly despite this being exactly what such an idea deserves I fear this one might have legs…

So why am I so appalled? In my pre-parenting life I was chair of a youth homelessness charity. We saw first hand the young people who were facing homelessness, choosing homelessness sometimes, rather than stay with their parents. The impact of homelessness was great and had a highly detrimental impact on their life chances. It was definitely not easy. But fortunately in our area there were a number of hostels and schemes specifically for young homeless people, offering a roof over their head but so much more. With the support and assistance available some young people were able to reconcile with their families. Others were supported into independent accommodation and given ongoing help to sustain this. These services are provided by charities and voluntary sector bodies but the accommodation is almost all funded by Housing Benefit. Remove this and these services will close. Almost all accommodation services will be off-limits for young people in housing need.

And let’s remember that there are many reasons a young person might not be able to remain with their parents. Only domestic violence has been given as a possible exception. There were many, complex reasons why the young people we saw were facing homelessness. Many cases were further complicated by substance misuse. These issues can’t just be wished away.

And this isn’t only going to affect those at the sharp end of youth homelessness. Even those who’s parent’s might wish to house them could face great hardship. What about those nearing 25 who’ve successfully lived independently for several years but lose their job? What if they have a partner? What if they have children? What if they are in part-time or low paid work but still rely on Housing Benefit to pay the rent? Should all these people be forced to up root and move back in with the parents who happily waved them off several years before?

When I was 25 I’d been living independently, several hundred miles from my parents, since I was eighteen. I had a long term partner. I wasn’t reliant on Housing Benefit but had been on a series of short term work contracts and there had been a few times when I came close to needing some temporary support. To be forced to lose my flat and my independence for the sake of a few months rent would have put enormous pressure on my relationship and my fledgling career. I also know many others for whom Housing Benefit was a temporary, but vital, lifeline which ultimately helped them secure their independent future. Removing access to this safety net will cost far, far more in the long run.

I could say more but I see many commentators have already beaten me too it and far more eloquently too! Check out here and here.

Breastfeeding – backlashes and anti-backlashes

May 27, 2012

From the vantage point of having a 28 month old, and having stopped breastfeeding when he was 9 months old, I guess I am probably a bit forgetful about the experience. I do know that I am very positive about breastfeeding, if it works for you. But I also saw many friends, committed mothers all, struggle with it. The anguish they suffered at not being able to do something they really, really wanted to was very moving. Much of what they felt was guilt. And it’s this guilt inducing aspect that puts me off much of the pro-breastfeeding messages I hear.

I completely appreciate that breastfeeding is good for babies. And can be cuddly, gorgeous and convenient (when working well) for mums too. I also know that so much of our cultural and societal pressures are against breastfeeding. It’s important that there is a positive pro-breastfeeding voice. But this does sometimes feel quite zealous and unbending and not very practical for the pressures mums face.

Would I breastfeed again should I have another little one? Almost definitely I intend to try. Would I breastfeed exclusively for six months and continue to do almost all other feeds, including all night feeds, for three months beyond that? Probably not. I found the first year with Bub delightful in many ways (including the joys of breastfeeding him.) But I also exhausted myself in a way I’d never have imagined beforehand. I found it almost impossible to ask for or accept help. And part (only part) of this was down to my zeal about exclusively breastfeeding him. I am not sure I can, or want, to put myself through that again. And this probably means being ok with a mixed feeding approach much earlier. And ok with myself for doing so.

This post was inspired by this article on breastfeeding by Zoe Williams in the Guardian. I used to love to read her tales of life with her baby whilst I was TTC. I find it refreshing to read something that tries to step above the ‘definitely, unbendingly pro’ or ‘definitely, unbendingly anti’ viewpoints.

A number of commentators have said that, in fact, the right to breastfeed was a victory for feminism, in wresting the care of their babies from a professional, medicalised elite. Others have conceded that the struggle for perfection and unanimity in any direction – towards breastfeeding or away from it – is necessarily bad for women, removing their personal agency.

This is the nub of the issue for me I think. It’s great that breastfeeding has been championed and is a real choice for many women. But the perfectionism that is present in some (only some) attachment parenting approaches can make already challenging situations impossible and lead to inevitable feelings of guilt.

In terms of the perceived benefits for the child I found it very interesting that Zoe Williams highlights meta studies on breastfeeding that show that:

“Breastfeeding cannot be distinguished from the decision to breastfeed, which could represent a more comprehensive commitment to healthy living.” It’s a self-selecting sample, a phrase that is a foreign language in the world of early-years intervention.

What do you think about the nature of the debate on breastfeeding? Do issues of guilt about our choices or perceived failings affect our ability to consider the issue? Or do we need a strong and unbendingly pro breastfeeding message to break through societal pressures against?


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