11 October 2010

Let them drink gin

The rumpus over Child Benefit that threatened to wake up the dozing pensioners at last week’s Conservative Party conference has proved what a tricky subject the issue of cuts can be. Far from dividing along the line of traditional political allegiance, Chancellor Gideon “George” Osborne found himself at odds with the Daily Mail, which lined up with the Labour party. The phrase "curious bedfellows" has not been applied so truly since Lyle Lovett married Julia Roberts.

At first glance it is easy to see why there was agitation in the ranks. A primary school class of children could point out the iniquities in a proposal that posited a household with one income of £44,000 might merit no support, whilst another couple earning £86k could claim full benefit entitlement.

An interesting debate raged across the various media platforms that was far more complex than the usual name calling; many recognise the daftness of paying child benefit to someone earning, say, £100,000 a year, but how far down the cutoff point should be largely depends on how far south you live, how much your mortgage payments are, and whether you judge a foreign holiday to be a luxury or human right. Still more, the culture secretary, of all people, perhaps unwisely mused that there should be a cap on benefits paid to large families who continue to reproduce, though no mention of how this would be enforced. In turn, childless couples would then vent that, in fact, they were the biggest victims of a taxation system that seeks to rob them in order to pay to raise the offspring of the sexually incontinent.

Given that only 15% of the country pays the top rate of tax (the point at which Giddy proposes to cut off the award), it is possible that the issue excites more attention from journalists personally affected, rather than an accurate spread of their constituency. Nevertheless, speaking as a parent, I would say the government should look on child benefit as an expression of good manners. A tip, or the equivalent of taking a bottle around to someone’s house for dinner. It’s not something that would cover the costs of child rearing and nor is it intended to be. Consider, for example, if I were to abandon my children, throw them upon the mercy of the state. No matter the punishment levied upon me for doing so, the cost burden would fall squarely on the shoulders of the taxpayer, and for a lot more than 20 quid a week. Child benefit is like the state shoving a score in my top pocket and saying “go on, get yourself something nice in town, you deserve it”. It is tacit recognition that, as lovely as children often are, they are also a responsibility paid for, in large part, by the parents for the ultimate fiscal reward of the state – as they grow into tax-paying citizens (we hope).

It is surely no coincidence that the amount of Child Benefit has always roughly been the monetary equivalent of a bottle of gin (I’d argue it should be index linked to it). Because after a trying weekend of childcare, it’s surely every parent’s right to a gin and tonic on the government. Cheap at half the price.

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