Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/641/10359
Tories turn clock back
Defend child benefit
National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) lobby of TUC conference 2010, photo Paul Mattsson (Click to enlarge)
The Tory and Lib-Dem coalition government has struck at the very heart of the welfare state. The Conservatives' conference has issued a battle cry that will send shivers down the spines of working class people.
Paula Mitchell, London Socialist Party
Chancellor George Osborne announced he will scrap child benefit payments to parents earning more than £44,000 a year. He claims that this is only fair - after all, why should the poor pay taxes to give benefits to the rich? Surely, the Tories argue, this cut in benefits shows that we really are 'all in this together'.
Not so. This claim is a smoke-screen for the vicious reality of the public spending cuts. Millionaire Osborne's plans will save £1 billion - hardly making a dent in the government plans to cut £83 billion! If the Tories really want to stop poorer workers paying taxes to give money to the better off, they could start by scrapping tax for people on low incomes altogether.
The fact is that the poorest in society are paying the highest price for the government cuts. The child benefit threshold has been announced, alongside a cap of £500 a week on the total benefits a family can receive, and a proposal to scrap all benefits and replace them with just one credit. This will further impoverish many families. Meanwhile greedy city bankers are getting £7 billion in bonuses!
And something much more important than £1 billion is at stake. The principle of universal benefits is at the heart of the welfare state, one of the most important gains achieved by working class people after World War Two. The forerunner of child benefit was the family allowance introduced in 1945.
The introduction of universal benefits got rid of the humiliating means-testing for poor relief, which provoked mass protests in the 1930s. Family allowance put a safety net under all families, no matter how their circumstances may change, and was recognition that the cost of raising a child was the responsibility of society as a whole.
It established an important principle of mutual cooperation. Universal benefits ensured that those who needed them, got them. But they also ensured middle class support for a redistributive tax system - they paid taxes to relieve poverty and provide services for the working class, and got a safety net and access to services themselves in return.
In the late 1970s the system was renamed 'child benefit' and was paid direct to the mother, rather than to the father through the tax system. This was an important achievement for working class women, some of whom had no other income.
Child benefit has never covered the actual cost of raising children, and socialists campaign for it to be increased to reflect the real costs. But it has worked as a benefit, with a 99% take-up rate, because it is simple, there is no stigma and no poverty trap.
As soon as there is any form of means-testing, fewer people claim benefits. £200- £300 million goes unclaimed in means-tested benefits every day because of the complexity of claiming, or people do not know what they're entitled to, or feel ashamed to claim "hand-outs".
The reality is that this attack, which the government hopes will seem reasonable and be popular, is the thin end of a very big wedge. It is inevitable that, once established, the threshold will get lower and lower.
And if it is OK to scrap the universal character of child benefit, why stop there? Why have a free NHS? Why have free education?
This attack marks a stepping up of the war on our welfare and must be vigorously opposed.
In The Socialist 6 October 2010:
Defend Child Benefits
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party workplace news
Health and Safety
Europe: fighting the cuts
International socialist analysis
Socialist Party review