Beverley Hughes on the dire and multiple effects of government policies towards families, women and children
Despite the Coalition’s claim to be pro-family, commentators across the political spectrum, from the Telegraph to the Guardian, agree that women, children and families are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the government’s decisions on how it will reduce the deficit.
And not just low income and poor families, though they are particularly hard hit. Middle income families too are feeling the effect of cuts in universal benefits and local authority services at the same time as rising food and fuel costs.
Paradoxically, as more and more families struggle to make ends meet, the fall in families’ incomes and the challenging employment conditions mean that it is more difficult for women to enter and stay in the labour market. Squaring the circle of making work pay, finding and affording childcare and juggling the family budget looks well nigh impossible to an increasing number of families.
But cuts to welfare and in-work benefits are hitting far more than just the poorest families.
Families on low and middle incomes have already lost out from freezes to Child Benefit and Working Tax Credit over the last three years. The Uprating Bill will cap increases on these measures to 1% when inflation over the same period is predicted to be 2-3%, and make a massive difference to these same families. The Treasury itself has admitted that families with one parent working full time on the minimum wage would lose £660 as a result of these measures. And changes to Housing Benefit and the introduction of the notorious bedroom tax will mean many people having to move home, with the consequent disruption to family support, children’s education and employment prospects for their parents.
Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that the cumulative effect of the Coalition’s policies will be to push more children and working adults into poverty by 2014, driving a coach and horses through its legal obligation to reduce child poverty by 10% by 2020.
Women and children have also lost out through cuts to maternity grants, childcare schemes and after school clubs; and also the closure of many Sure Start Children’s Centres and the reduction in services in those still open. The Department for Education (Michael Gove jettisoned the reference to ‘Children’ in the Department’s previous title) has cut funds for early intervention, tackling NEETs and teenage pregnancy. School budgets meanwhile, are such that they are increasingly unable to provide the range of before- and after- school enrichment activities that both enhance children’s development and enable parents to work.
It is into this depressing spiral of decline that the Coalition recently announced its approach to childcare with a relaxation of the child-staff ratios for childminders and nurseries. Arguing that this would reduce the cost of childcare to providers, Minister Lyn Truss failed to explain how this would translate into a reduction in cost to parents. Even if they apply the new ratios, and many providers have said they will not do so for fear of jeopardising safety and quality for children, there is nothing to prevent providers pocketing any savings themselves.
Furthermore, Truss couldn’t say how a single childminder could possibly cope with six children including two babies, give all of them the attention they need, take them out to the park or read them stories. With many parents understandably concerned, Ministers just don’t get it.
The government has this week published its Children and Families Bill, which will remove the duty on local authorities to ensure sufficient childcare places locally. It will also jeopardise support for many young people with Special Educational Needs and does nothing to help foster parents, many of whom have been as equally hard hit as other families by the compounding effect of welfare and service cuts. We will use the passage of this Bill to raise these issues and to press the Coalition to live up to its promises.
Baroness Beverley Hughes is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords
Published 6th February 2013