Last week Tory MSP Michelle Ballantyne sparked a furore – and a rather magnificent speech from Tom Arthur MSP – by expressing support in the Scottish Parliament for the two child benefit cap, saying that “It is fair that people on benefit cannot have as many children as they like while people who work and pay their way and don’t claim benefits have to make decisions about the number of children they can have.”
There is a lot to unpack here – not least in view of the fact that it later emerged Michelle Ballantyne has six children and has confirmed claiming tax credits for them. Under the policy she supports, she would only have been able to draw on tax credits for her first two children.
So let’s lay it all out.
Firstly, she claims “It is fair that people on benefit cannot have as many children as they like…”
But in fact, the two child benefit cap doesn’t decide how many children women can have. It decides how much financial support the state will provide to help those children. I haven’t seen many people predicting that the birth rate will reduce because of this policy. But everyone expects child poverty to rise.
Secondly, she contrasts people on benefit with “people who work and pay their way and don’t claim benefit….”
But in fact, most people who claim benefits like tax credits are in work. The majority of children in poverty live in families where at least one adult is working, so the suggestion made by Michelle Ballantyne that people either work or claim benefits is just wrong. It is genuinely shocking that an MSP appears not to know this. It paints a picture of someone who is completely distanced from how the other half lives.
Arguably, tax credits have worked as a subsidy for employers paying low wages over the decades, creating a trap that has now been sprung, leaving low paid families with a reduced safety net. But the debate is not about parents who are working or not working. It is about parents who are poor or not poor, with a pretty explicit assumption that it would be best if poorer people had fewer children. Intentionally or not, Michelle Ballantyne is straying into appallingly dodgy territory with that one, as is everyone who supports her.
Finally, for me, the heart of debate is the assumption that having children should be seen as something people do if they can afford it, in the same way as buying a new car or kitchen. A lifestyle choice, essentially. I have always found this a very strange point of view. Women who have children are, in fact, perpetuating the human species. That is pretty important and something society should actively support them to do, given that society has a strong interest in continuing to exist.
From this perspective, children growing up in poverty isn’t just a problem for those children or their parents, it’s a problem for us all. It is in all of our interests that children grow up healthy, well nourished, nurtured, educated and loved and able to realise their full potential and contribute to the society we all share. This just seems like basic common sense to me, I find it absolutely bizarre that it is debatable.
Maybe it is partly because I don’t have children myself that I feel this way. I guess I will be dependent on other people’s children to continue to contribute to a welfare state that will help to provide me with support and dignity in my old age. That’s probably part of why I have always been more than happy to support the next generation through my taxes. It’s an investment in my own future as well as in theirs.
But, more than that, I think I just believe that adults in general are responsible for children in general. If children are going without, that is something that should concern us all, not simply the families of those children. To actively support a policy that will inevitably result in children going without is not only wrong, it is essentially dysfunctional. We know the negative impacts of poverty can last a lifetime and ruin young people’s chances of reaching their full potential and contributing to society. The corollary is also true. Investing in a good start in life for our children is an investment society should make in its own interests, as well as the interests of the families concerned.
But then the Tories still revere a leader who said there is no such thing as society and evidently many of them still believe that to be true. It is a narrow, shrivelled and sad philosophy and our children deserve so much better.