Miriam Cates: The uncomfortable truth is that we’re failing many families – but have a post-pandemic chance to put that right.

30 Mar

Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge 

Britain’s vaccination programme and the Chancellor’s recent Budget will bring fresh opportunities to reimagine the policies and processes that govern us. So many of us have become remote workers, home-schoolers and serial Zoomers and, and while much of this will revert back to normal, I suspect some of our new patterns of behaviour will stick.

We know that by-and-large the pandemic has not been a ‘great leveller’. While some of my constituents have enjoyed their new-found flexibility, others have found balancing work and home commitments nothing less than impossible. Flexibility is great if you can get it, but not all people have the kind of jobs that allow them to juggle their caring responsibilities for children and elderly relatives. Many parents of young children live with the constant struggle of trying to make ends meet whilst longing to spend more quality time with their kids.

A re-emphasis on the value of family life could be the most exciting product of the changes brought about by the pandemic. We must ensure our tax system acknowledges people as mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who form a household, not just individual units who are worth more to the economy the more they work. After all, this is a false economy.

I was recently privileged to host the launch of a new CARE Tax and the Family report, Taxation of UK families 2019, which helps to highlight some of the challenges families face and how we might chart a way forward towards a fairer future.

As a result of Gordon Brown’s decision to abolish the Married Couple Allowance and Additional Person’s Allowance in 2000, someone who earns let;s say £40,000 a year, will pay the same amount of income tax and national insurance regardless of whether they are a single adult with no dependants, or a lone parent supporting three children.

For a one-earner household with four children to have the same standard of living as a single person earning £26 500, the working parent has to earn nearly £80,000, a salary over three times the median income. According to the  new report, single parents with two children on the average OECD wage for the UK of £40,803 face an ‘overall tax burden’ (that is income tax and national insurance, less benefits) that is 26 per cent higher than the OECD average.  For a one-earner married couple with two children on the same wage, the tax burden is 25 per cent higher. Meanwhile, singles in the UK without children on the same wage pay on average ten per cent less tax than they do across the OECD on average.

This problem is further compounded by the way that benefits are clawed back as parents try to work more hours. This gives UK families one of the highest effective marginal tax rates in the world, with some families losing 75p of every additional £1 they earn. It is the impact of this double whammy of the high tax rate and high benefit withdrawal that makes the British effective marginal tax rate so problematic.

How our tax system treats families is an indicator of how much society values children; the uncomfortable truth is that we are failing many families in this regard.

For years, the UK response to the problems faced by working families has been to strive for more and more cheap childcare, but I don’t think this is the answer and, in many ways, it has devalued the role of parents.

It was never any Government’s intention to create a tax system that is so individualistic, but tax policies reflect – and often drive – the behaviour we value as a society. Our current system encourages as many people as possible into paid work to drive up GDP, but fails to recognise any wider contribution made by individuals such as providing unpaid care.

I believe that at the heart of this unfairness lies a lost understanding of the value of parenting. Of course parents have a responsibility to provide materially for their children; but this is not their only important role. We don’t just have children to put food in their mouths and clothes on their backs, but also to pass on our values and to prepare them for adult life. Parenting takes time, effort and a huge amount of emotional resilience; resources that are in short supply when stressed parents are working long hours and have little energy to spare.

When parents can’t cope and families break down this is at great cost to the taxpayer. While reforming our tax system to recognise family responsibility would – in the immediate term – be costly, surely it is far better to invest in preventing families from collapsing than to spend money picking up the pieces.

There is another way. Almost all other developed countries have tax systems that recognise family responsibility and the significant costs of raising children. In Germany, families receive effective tax allowances that acknowledge the importance of parenting, encouraging parents to invest time and energy in raising their children. We could do a lot worse than learning from our friends and allies and the approaches they take.

Any review of the income tax system in the UK will take time, but it will be worth it. Supporting families should not be politically controversial; as Conservatives, we have always held families and the role of parents in high esteem. And as Conservatives we also know that we can’t afford not to.

Miriam Cates: Re-opening our schools to all children is vital for their emotional, social and academic development

24 Feb

Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone & Stocksbridge.

I wholeheartedly welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that our schools will re-open to all children on March 8. As a former teacher and a mother of three, I know just how important it is to get our young people back in the classroom, and it’s absolutely right that the Government is prioritising the welfare of our children in the roadmap out of Covid restrictions.

When coronavirus first hit our shores a year ago, we knew little about its impact on young people and as a precaution, schools were closed to all children except those who are vulnerable or have key worker parents. In January, the infectiousness of the new variant and intense pressure on our hospitals sadly meant that schools were shut again to most children.

However, the situation has now changed substantially. Firstly, unlike last year we know that Covid poses almost no risk to children’s health. Secondly we have now vaccinated 20 million of those most vulnerable to serious illness, greatly reducing the risks of the disease to the population as a whole. Infection rates continue to fall, and so the potential benefits of keeping schools closed are now outweighed by the serious negative impacts on our children.

We are becoming increasingly aware of the many different ways in which children have been affected by school closures. Despite enormous efforts by schools to adapt to online leaning, and over 1.3 million devices supplied by the Government, virtual lessons are no long-term substitute for being in school. Primary school children have struggled to access classwork unsupervised (I know this from experience) and even for secondary school children, it is very challenging to make meaningful academic progress online.

Lost time in the classroom has had an impact on children’s attainment. There has been a lot of focus on the effects of school closures on students in examination years, and the pandemic has brought uncertainty and anxiety to both this and last year’s GCSE and A Level cohorts. But academic disruption also has a serious impact on younger children; any delays in learning to read, write and add up can have knock-on effects for a child’s whole school career.

That’s why I’m delighted that Sir Kevan Collins has been appointed by the Prime Minister and Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, to work on our national catch-up programme, and I welcome the significant commitments already announced last year, including a £1.3bn catch up support fund, and that today the Government has set out a further £400m plan to help young people catch up on lost learning due to the pandemic.

This builds on £300m announced in January for existing tutoring and catch-up plans to help all our children get back on track with a boost to their learning. Importantly, this will include opportunities for music, sport and outdoor activities, in recognition that our children have missed out on so much more than the ‘three Rs’.

It is becoming increasingly evident that school closures have not just affected children’s learning, being away from the school environment has also had a big impact on wellbeing.

Our schools offer vastly more than just academic education; it’s the holistic experience of school, especially interacting with others, that gives children motivation and a sense of purpose, and prepares them for successful adult life. As a mother, it has been painful to see my children missing out on their education, but what has been far more heart-breaking is to watch them becoming demotivated, less active and lonely.

My kids have had it easy compared to many, and the damaging effects of lockdown on children are emerging every day with reports of increases in eating disorders, mental health problems and self-harm. This is why I welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to prioritise the return to school ahead of all other measures in the roadmap he announced on Monday. As he rightly said, all the evidence shows that the best place for our young people to be is in the classroom.

I know there will be some who are concerned about how re-opening schools may affect Covid transmission rates, and it is right to take necessary precautions to make sure we don’t see a return to the rapid rises in cases that led to the current lockdown.

As children return to school from March 8, secondary school and college students will take three lateral flow Covid tests, with primary school teachers continuing to take two tests a week. Secondary school and college pupils will be provided with two home tests every week.

Testing regimes have already been set up across all education settings. A few weeks ago, I visited Ecclesfield School in my constituency, where soldiers from 21 Engineer Regiment were training teachers and support staff to deliver rapid testing in the school’s sports hall. Across the country over four million tests have already been conducted in schools, colleges, and universities. These measures will reduce the risks of transmission between teachers and pupils within schools and in the wider community, maximising the safety of all educational settings.

Re-opening our schools to all children could not be more vital for their emotional, social and academic development. We must now focus all our efforts on recovery with a catch-up programme that gives every young person the opportunity to succeed.