Cristina Odone: How to help poorer mothers – and become a family-friendly government by doing so

11 Mar

Cristina Odone is Head of Family Policy at the Centre for Social Justice.

“They shouldn’t have children if they can’t afford them.”

I heard this familiar refrain often, when I was growing up, directed at lone mothers raising a brood of kids on welfare. Why should hard-working tax-payers shell out so someone could slob about the house in pyjamas and curlers, children at their feet?

That was America, in the 1970s. But a spirit not dissimilar is at work in twenty-first century Britain. The state sees no reason to help mothers who don’t work.

Yes, the Government, which offers up to 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds to families, will extend this to mothers who have been furloughed.

The policy has packed a less than powerful punch for low income families: at a recent extraordinary witness session of the Early Years Commission run jointly by the Centre for Social Justice and the Fabian Society, participants reported that because there “is no norm of pre-school offer” and the offer is too complicated, the share of childcare spending on low-income families has fallen by close to half, from 45 per cent to 27 per cent.

The aim was to promote female participation in the labour market. Successive governments from New Labour on have regarded this as a priority: more taxes raised, less benefits paid. It makes financial sense when you calculate that £16.7 million is lost every year in potential tax gains and benefits paid to mums who have not returned to work.

A tax system that treats us as single units seems equally sensible. We may be parenting the same children, but we regard ourselves as autonomous individuals, judged on our own merit.

This mindset suits many women. High-profile and professional, they regularly take to social media and the airwaves to hail free childcare for liberating women, and limit their asks to equal pay for equal work, flexi-time at the office, more part time opportunities – and maybe a creche at work.

These women have a well-paid career – or a wealthy partner or spouse. They can afford to spend the first years of their children’s lives off work, or to hire a nanny or au pair. They will still multi-task crazily, taking on maternal and professional tasks. They will still bridle at the glass ceiling that persists across almost every industry. But they can afford a family.

Slide down the earnings ladder to the woman for whom work amounts to a job, not a high-flying career. How can she afford to raise a family? She would love to stay home to care for her children, provide a role model for them, share with them her own parents’ values and traditions. She senses what neuroscience confirms: that those first 1001 days from conception are key in a child’s development. And even later on, schools may offer a great deal – but until they are 14, a child spends 84 per cent of their time at home.

This working mother loses out on every front. After tax, her spouse’s income is not enough for the family to survive on, so she must work too. Neither partner can afford to work part time: anything less than what they earn now would spell penury. She can’t do overtime, though, without worrying about leaving her children vulnerable to gang-recruitment or child sexual exploitation.

The couple work all hours just to break even, and arrive home stressed and exhausted. Money worries and job uncertainty (McKinsey reports that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable during the pandemic than men’s) rock the relationship. The family risks breakdown – with all the damage that this entails.

It need not be this way.

The Treasury could transform this mother’s fate by adopting a simple, tried and tested, approach: tax parents on their combined income, and offer them tax credits for each child. With this one move, the Chancellor would recognise the value of the family, and the important role parents play in forming the next generation.

Championing this fiscal model is a high-profile mother – the Miriam Cates, the recently-elected MP for Penistone and Stockbridge. Cates is socialising the idea at Westminster – and getting traction among women both sides of the House.

The present system, Cates points out, ignores total household income and parental responsibilities. A woman on £30,000 a year will pay the same amount of tax and national insurance, regardless of whether she is living on her own, without children, or is a lone parent with three dependent children.

Cates was inspired by the way the German tax system takes into account the significant costs, in terms of time as well as money, of raising children. By taxing couples on their combined income, Germany promotes rather than penalises single earner families. In this country the opposite is true – so that a one earner couple with two children in the UK pays nine times the taxes that their counterpart in Germany will pay. The child tax credit – in Germany, this is £2500 – further contributes to a more family-friendly fiscal system.

For Cates, representing a Red Wall constituency, this is a key part of any levelling up agenda: why should raising children become an elitist pursuit? She has a point: a government willing to subsidise restaurants and pubs can surely subsidise children, too.

Being seen as a family-friendly government would prove popular – and not only among the socially conservative Red Wall voters. A recent CSJ survey found that 88 per cent of parents and 82 per cent of adults thought that more should be done to help parents who wish to stay at home and bring up their children in the early years.

The benefits of incentivising one-earner families extend well beyond the home. The present system, which steers everyone into paid work, undermines the other kind of work – the unpaid, altruistic volunteering that has proved key to the country’s resilience during the pandemic. Mothers are not the only ones who have, or should, volunteer; but again and again, they ran the PTA, helped with the church bazaar, offered to shop for the octogenarian neighbour. Help them to be in a position to raise their children and they will be in a position to help the rest of us too.

The Chancellor should stop treating us as atomised individuals, freed of any relational moorings. Families cannot be ignored, nor should they be punished. They could even, dare I say it, be encouraged.

Cristina Odone: Domestic Abuse isn’t a ‘women’s issue’: it affects far more children than women

7 Nov

Cristina Odone is Head of Family Policy at the Centre for Social Justice

Domestic abuse affects almost twice as many women as men – 7.9 per cent of women survived domestic abuse in 2018, while 4.2 per cent of men did – but in terms of numbers and proportions, the single biggest group affected by domestic abuse is children: one in five will experience it in the home. Last year, half of the children who were assessed as in need of being looked after by their local authority had experienced domestic abuse. More than 60 per cent of women in refuge in 2017 had a child under 18.

This crime has spiralled during the pandemic and attendant lockdowns. Helplines recorded huge spikes in calls – in June alone, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline recorded a 77 per cent surge. SafeLives, the national charity, surveyed front line workers who said their caseload had increased by more than a quarter. Between April and September calls to the NSPCC almost doubled, reflecting the huge increase in the number of children impacted.

Covid-19 also has made supporting victims more difficult: domestic abuse services are struggling under the increased caseloads; refuges no longer feel like safe havens because of fear of infection; schools’ closure during lockdown deprived many children of much-needed support from teachers and counsellors; and some of the domestic abuse charities in the Centre for Social Justice’s nationwide charity Alliance have found that Covid has compounded mental health issues among parents: staff at Cheshire Without Abuse, a small charity in Crewe, have experienced two victims’ suicides and many more attempted suicides since lockdown began.

These developments will have a significant impact, over many generations. Psychologists and educationalists are beginning to adopt adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) as a framework for identifying those children most vulnerable to recruitment by gangs and county lines, and to ending up in care or as NEET. Domestic violence is one of these ACEs, and risks compromising a child’s future – from their cognitive development to their substance abuse. Research shows that living with domestic abuse between parents is as psychologically harmful to children as when they are direct victims of physical abuse themselves. Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, has found an overlap between children’s experience of domestic abuse and their offending behaviour.

The trauma continues beyond the “domestic” and into the courtroom, where the child may become the bone of contention between the perpetrator, who demands access, and the victim, who fears for their child’s welfare and longs to sever all connection with their tormentor. In many cases, domestic abuse may cause a child to lose their home and contact with grandparents and other relatives; it may also mean starting a new life in a refuge and a new school.

The new Domestic Abuse Bill, now in the Lords for its third reading, acknowledges the horrific trauma that this crime causes in children. For the first time the legislation explicitly refers to children as victims, not just witnesses, of domestic violence.

This is welcome, as are the establishment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Office, and the recognition that abuse takes many forms, including economic, emotional, manipulative, and controlling behaviour.

More can be done, however. We would urge the Government to adopt the whole-family approach to address domestic abuse that is being delivered by Safe Lives charity with its One Front Door programme. This brings together multi-agency specialist teams of statutory and voluntary sector partners to identify the needs of every family member at the same time. “Every” family member means engaging with the perpetrators as well as the adult and child victims. For too long many organisations have argued that funding should not be taken from supporting the victim for the purpose of engaging with the perpetrator.

For this reason, interventions that deal with the perpetrator have received a minimal proportion of government funding. Fewer than one per cent of perpetrators, including repeat offenders, receive any kind of specialist intervention. Survivors overwhelmingly agree that there can be no solution to abuse without engaging with perpetrators, yet those working in the sector continue to balk at focusing efforts on offenders.

This has proved short-sighted. The level of re-offending is high – a quarter of high-harm perpetrators are repeat offenders, and some have at least six different victims. Yet the evidence is mounting to show that those interventions working with perpetrators significantly reduce the risk of re-offending.

A study by the University of Northumbria found that these sorts of interventions resulted in a 65 per cent reduction in future offences with a huge social return on investment of £14 for every £1 spent.

A new, family-centred approach would recognise the relational context in which abuse takes place, engaging with perpetrators and children as well as victims. Domestic abuse is not a gender issue. It is a social reform issue – one that the pandemic and its aftermath have made more urgent than ever. Addressing it offers a route out of disadvantage – for children as well as their parents.