David Cameron’s speech yesterday has largely been viewed through the prism of the coming Budget and spending round. Reporting has thus been focused on the coming retrenchment in tax credits – or what the Prime Minister the called “ridiculous merry-go-round” of first taxing low earners and giving them welfare payments.
There is little new ground to break in considering what he said and signposted. On the one hand, Gordon Brown’s benefit system (which is what tax credits really are) subsidise bad employers, weaken incentives to earn more, and are designed to float poorer people just above the poverty line. So there is a good case for seeking gradually to unpick the whole discredited system. On the other, taking away money from poorer working people while giving more to richer retired ones – a fair summary of the position of both the major parties – is economically wasteful, a rotten deal for the taxpayer and spitting in the face of social justice.
But the Prime Minister is signed up to doing exactly that, and now has an electoral mandate for it – that’s to say, for protecting the free TV licence, free bus travel, winter fuel allowances, triple-locked state pension payments and the rest of the, er, ridiculous merry-go-round of support received by older millionaires. So there is little more to be said unless or until the Government sets up an Affordability Commission, or sloughs off these payments to local authorities as part of future City and County Deals, or economic disaster strikes and government has no alternative but to cut them back.
No, the more interesting part of Cameron’s remarks was to be found elsewhere. The “drivers of opportunity”, he said are “strong families that give children the best start in life” and “a great education system that help everyone to get on” (as well as “a welfare system that encourages work”). Amen to that: it is very much the ConservativeHome view. And a long section of the speech was concentrated on family policy: the marriage allowance, shared parental leave, “free” childcare, relationship support, adoption reform, child protection, help for troubled families.
“All the evidence shows if you focus on the early years you have the best chance of transforming a child’s life,” he said. This is also the view expressed on this site last week by David Burrowes, Samantha Callan, Graham Allen, and Christian Guy in our Family Series. From this point of view, the most striking section of the Prime Minister’s speech was the part that followed, in which he said that “we will look at how we can create a much more coherent offer to support children and parents in the early years, bringing together all those services targeted at getting children school-ready by age four”.
Or in other words, Family Hubs – that’s to say, centres which don’t simply aim to support children (the goal of Labour’s SureStart programme), but the families of which they are a part: which bring together birth registration, ante and post-natal care, relationship support, marriage preparation, strengthening father involvement if parents are separated, supporting families as carers for elderly relatives, and other help that families need through the life cycle. There are models to draw on here in Britain, for example on the Isle of Wight, and abroad – in, for example, Australia’s Family Relationship Centres.
Creating Family Hubs is clearly one of the “suite of policies” that Oliver Letwin has been mulling and which Cameron is now pushing. In principle, this is excellent news: the financial cost of family breakdown could be as high as £100 billion, and no sum of money can convey its human cost. In practice, the demons will be in the detail. It would be no use rounding up a mass of different services, shoving them under one roof, and proclaiming – “Look this way! Here’s a Family Hub!” The support on offer must be value for money for the taxpayer, not to mention valuable for the people actually using it.
The back-and-forth over whether the Government’s Troubled Families programme is worth having (we strongly believe that it is) is a reminder of the point. The Quality Care Commission and local authorities and Ofsted will thus need to be on the case. Elsewhere and more broadly, the ducks of family policy need to be lined up a row. No department is identifiably in the lead. Support available for single earner couples, through transferable tax allowances, is less generous than that open to double earner ones through “free” childcare – which, like all things government badges as “free”, isn’t really free at all.
Furthermore, it is available to people earning at the higher rate, while child benefit is not. And as the Prime Minister himself pointed out, adoption is blighted by “ridiculous rules that stop children being placed in a loving home”: current legislation aims to curb them, as Edward Timpson explained recently on this site. If Cameron follows his words through, he will put Iain Duncan Smith, who is in responsible for the Family Stability Review, in charge of family policy altogether. This part of his speech was a throwback to the “change, optimism and hope” of his early leadership – and none the worse for that.