Tough and not fair

10Oct10

Well, just under six months into their government, and the Conservatives have managed to offend just about every middle class parent in the country.

Everyone knew cuts in public spending were coming, and everyone knew it was going to be harsh and that there would be losers in the process. But I think most people hoped that the cuts, when they came, would be ‘tough but fair’, as had been promised.

That the government announced they were planning to cut child benefit to high earners didn’t come as much of a surprise to most people … after all, there’s little logic in paying a blanket benefit to the entire population – and it’s entirely correct that benefits are not an automatic right, but a safety net provided by the state to ensure against extreme poverty or hardship. It’s also true that cutting child benefit for high earners was a pretty soft target – it wasn’t ever likely to generate a huge political furore, and those effected were likely to be in the bracket where the benefit didn’t mean much and wouldn’t be missed, or would be in that sector given to a fair amount of discontented grumbling about the state of things, but without much political clout or a history of radical protest against government policy.

So, if the planned cut had actually been FAIR, it would all have been perfectly fine.

Where this cut is grossly unfair is the way the assessment is made.

If one of the parents (or carers) earns over £44k p.a.

Just one.

That means, theoretically, that a couple could BOTH be working, and BOTH earning a salary of, say, £43k per annum, giving a joint household income of £86k per annum (before tax), but because they are BOTH under the limit, they will STILL GET CHILD BENEFIT. Even though, arguably, they have vastly less need of that benefit than a family with one parent (or carer) earning, say, £45k per annum.

None of the arguments put forward by the Conservatives have convinced me that this is in any way fair. The Working Family/Child Tax Credit system is administered (in their own inimitable way) by the Inland Revenue, so it would be perfectly possible to administer the child benefit in the same way, and assess the income by HOUSEHOLD rather than by individual, and VASTLY more fair than the proposed change.

As it stands, the proposal looks disciminatory against those parents (mostly women) who have chosen either to set aside a career or for whom childcare costs outweight the income earned from working, and become stay-at-home mothers/parents – because those single-income households are more likely to lose out on the benefit, and to suffer more from that loss.

And coming from a political party that purports to uphold family values, it’s downright disgusting and hypocritical to boot … and it’s a move that’s likely to alienate them from some of their core support.

At the time of the poll tax, it was said that people could accept taxes, provided that they were seen as fair – and the poll tax was so unpopular precisely because it was so unfair. I think that the same could be said of the cuts we are currently facing. Provided they are seen to be fair, they will be accepted.

So, in those lights, ending final-salary pension schemes for public sector workers won’t cause much public heartbreak (unions aside) – after all, just about everyone in the private sector lost final-salary schemes in the last decade. Likewise, setting a ceiling for maximum benefit payments will be seen as a fair call by most people. It would have been encouraging to see a more of a move towards greater efficiency and savings in public sector spending – and by that I don’t mean cutting school or hospital funding – more towards bringing some private sector discipline towards spending money. For example … those employed by the foreign office and posted abroad receive an apartment in the country in which they are posted for which they do not need to pay AND have the costs of their residence in the UK covered as part of their standard expenses. That is not something you see in the private sector – you might get one or the other, but certainly not both. Mind you, how you incentivise efficiency and cost-savings in a sector that is neither accountable nor profit-motivated is a question that has tormented better minds than mine for a very long time now – the introduction of a fake market last time the Conservatives were in power was a signal failure … but I digress.

The cuts, when they come, need to be seen as fair.

The clear signal, off the back of this completely UNFAIR cut, is that this government is looking for as many soft targets as it possibly can, rather than looking to bring change on any sort of fundamental level to the massive bureacracy that has a stranglehold on this country.

And it will be the people in the middle who are hurt the most by it, and have been most betrayed by a party that they thought shared the same values as they did.

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