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Universal provision

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The following article was published on the website of Progress http://www.progressonline.org.uk/Magazine/article.asp?a=4166

Abolishing child tax credits in favour of a wider range of basic universal entitlements would re-balance support for children.

Members of the House of Commons Treasury Committee recently said they were ’alarmed’ at the lack of action in the Budget to reduce child poverty. They fear that the Government will fail to meet its 2010/11 target to halve child poverty by ’a significant margin’. The commitment by the Government to abolish child poverty was widely welcomed, but accompanied with nervousness given how difficult it would be to achieve. The current economic circumstances make attaining this goal much more difficult.

The case for taking children out of poverty remains sound. I hope the moral argument for improving the life-chances of children is shared by those who read this, so I won’t reprise it here. But there are also societal and economic cases. Growing up in poverty can mean a life in poverty little money often means poor nutrition, children having bad health leading to life long problems, bad attendance at school/work and low aspirations.

The Government can be applauded for lifting 600,000 children out of poverty (2005/6 figures). The focus has been on helping children regardless of family circumstances, with 9 out of 10 families with children currently get tax credits. This inevitably means a bureaucratic system administering the funds.

Much of Labour’s new financial architecture is clever. It attempts to direct help to those in most need, but it’s often too complicated for civil servants to easily administer. Families do not understand it, leading to confusion about what exactly they are entitled to receive. As we saw, public support and political credit was threatened because of the widespread failures in administration, particularly for child tax credits. 

I think we need to re-balance the system of supporting children by the abolition of child tax credits and child care tax credits. Instead the money would be channelled into providing a wider and increased range of basic universal entitlements for children. These would be similar to the provision of free education for all 5 to 18 years olds, and the guarantee for all 3 and 4 year olds of 12.5 hours of nursery provision every week (due to rise to 15 hours by 2010).

We could fund free school meals - a healthy breakfast at every school for those who need it, this in addition to a nutritious lunchtime meal for all pupils. Providing breakfast would help children from poorer backgrounds get a better start for the day, helping their health as well as their intellectual development.

With the Olympics in mind how about an entitlement to so many hours a week access to swimming or a sports club. This would build on the free swimming now been offered in many parts of the country. I know some professional sports teams have links with schools to encourage children to take part, perhaps with clever financing we could extend and deepen these so every school has a direct connection with sportspeople the children admire and will want to emulate.

Extending the provision of free child care in schools during the holidays would take away a big problem for parents. It would be particularly welcome in poorer areas where alternative child care can be hard to find, and often expensive when found. Having children in a secure environment would help working parents, removing the need for complex child care arrangements that might not be ideal for the child. Providers of this new child care in schools would have to show they were giving children projects, trips, sport and cultural activities that they would enjoy.   

Some will say it’s the nanny state gone wild. Don’t parents know best how to bring up their children? To which the answer is “Yes, most parents do know how best to bring up their children.” But the truth is that some parents have more resources to do so than others. At the moment attempts by the state to help remedy this are inevitably complex, bureaucratic and lack the virtue of simplicity and openness.

Re-channelling funds from the child tax credits and child care tax credits system would take us away from complex state bureaucracies toward easily understood universal entitlements. The current child benefit arrangements are a universal entitlement and well understood. No longer would there stigma attached to a free school meal; all children would have the opportunity to take part in and enjoy sport and leisure activities.

An important part of providing services in this way is that universal services always have the best take up. It also ensures that more of the money goes into providing the services, and less into the bureaucracy of form filling, processing applications and payments. The services will be everywhere because the services are local in each school, swimming pool and sports club. People will be able to see and understand what their money is being spent on.

At a time of straightened circumstances we need to focus on better ways of providing services. We should review the systems we currently use, changing those were we can see good practical and political reasons. Removing the over-bureaucratic child tax credit system for one that gives people the opportunity to see it working in their locality seems to me a way to go.

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