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.

Jonathan Gullis: The blight of Covid gives us new reason to cut back school holidays

16 Nov

Jonathan Gullis is MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, and a member of the Education Select Committee. He was previously a secondary school teacher.

The Government has rightly decided to extend free school meals for the holidays, and give hard-pressed families reassurance that their kids will be fed this winter. But at a time when many kids are falling behind due to the pandemic and many families are struggling, we should go further.

It is time to cut school holidays, to give disadvantaged students time to catch up with their peers after long gaps in learning due to covid and to further ease the pressure on family finances. We could cut two weeks from the long summer break, and even shave a few days off at Christmas and Easter, to help children reclaim their futures.

As a former teacher, I know the problems that long holidays create for poorer families. Holiday learning loss contributes to widening attainment gaps between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students. Evidence gathered during the lockdown in April shows that pupils were doing on average two and a half hours of school work per day.

When broken down based on eligibility for free school meals a shocking gap can be observed. Around a quarter of pupils eligible for free school meals spent on average no time or under an hour on schooling compared with 18 per cent of those students not eligible.

The same survey found that roughly a fifth of free school meal pupils had no access to a computer at home, compared to seven per cent for other students. Another survey found that some pupils could return to school having made only 70 per cent progress compared to a normal year in reading and only 50 per cent in maths.

Another factor contributing to the attainment gap is the home environment, and specifically the involvement (or lack of) parents in a child’s educational development. Disadvantaged parents are less likely to support children because they may be in work, or lack the money to pay for tutoring, learning software or homework clubs.

These combined factors contribute to disadvantaged children falling behind their peers during long holiday breaks. Studies have found that only after seven weeks of teaching in the autumn do some children exceed the level of education they achieved prior to the summer.

And that’s before the impact on family finances. The average cost of holiday childcare in the UK is £133 per week. Between 2003 and 2015, nursery costs increased by 77 per cent while earnings have remained roughly the same. It is estimated that the loss of free school meals adds between £30 and £40 per week to parents’ outgoings during school holidays.

There is also evidence that long school holidays cause an increase in child poverty. Evidence from charities suggests that food bank use accelerates significantly among families during the long summer holidays as they struggle to feed their children every day. Every year, three million children are at risk of going hungry over the summer period every year.

Long periods out of school also have a knock on effect on children’s physical health. Evidence shows that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds suffered a greater loss of fitness following the summer holidays. The poorest quarter of kids see a drop in their fitness levels 18 times greater than the wealthiest 25 per cent over the summer.

There is wide variation the length of school holidays around the world. In some parts of Asia, including high performing countries like South Korea and Japan, students are only on summer holiday for four weeks, whereas in Italy and Portugal pupils are typically out of school for up to 13 weeks.

A number of academics have made the case for shorter summer holidays, including Professor Tina Hascher of the University of Bern, who has argued that four weeks of summer holiday should be enough to ensure pupils, teachers and parents are able to enjoy a degree of respite whilst mitigating the effects of the summer slide in learning.

When I was a teacher, I recognised the value of the summer break. It is an important time for students to rest and recover after a long academic year. But, I also know from experience the difficulty some students face when they start the year in September after a long summer of losing academic ground.

Lockdown has taught us the difficulties that come with long stints away from the classroom, with learning suffering, health suffering, families struggling financially and a widening attainment gap between well off and disadvantaged students.

This is why I am proposing that the Government introduce a shorter summer break of four weeks from Summer 2021, and consider reducing other holidays, including the upcoming Christmas break. These new weeks of learning should be used for structured activities and education in the term-time either side.

We cannot change the past. The time that has been lost has been lost. But we can make up for that lost time. Reducing the length of school holidays will help close this attainment gap, while reducing the burden on working families.

Ryan Bourne: If you want to feed hungry children, don’t target food poverty. Aim to reduce poverty as a whole.

28 Oct

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Covid-19’s initial economic impact fell disproportionately on those least able to mitigate it. An Institute for Fiscal Studies paper in July found that single parents, low educated poor households, and ethnic minority groups suffered the worst relative hit. Since then, workers in low-wage services industries such as hospitality, transport, and retail, have faced both the worst of unexpected job losses and uncertainty about their income.

With this unique shock, it is unsurprising that a welfare state built around previous experiences has exhibited failures in protecting against hardship. Falling incomes, especially for those without savings or access to government benefits, have consequences. The Food Standards Agency reports greater food bank use, self-reported hunger, and families eating out-of-date produce.

That context is why the Government faces intense pressure over extending free school meals during school holidays through Easter 2021. Given the uncertainty around the efficacy of other government support, you can see the temptation to follow the advice of Iain Martin, who proposes caving to Marcus Rashford’s campaign again. Give the “£20m, handshake with Marcus R on steps of Number 10 on Monday and Royal Commission into child poverty,” Martin tweeted.

That defeat might seem a small price to pay to end the optics of opposing meals for hungry children, regardless of any questions you might have about the realities, or the desirability of extending the government scheme. As Isabel Hardman writes, the belief that Conservatives are insensitive to “food poverty,” coming first in righteous anger over food bank use in 2010-2015 and now “free” school meals, has hung around the Conservatives for a decade, whether fair or not.

Martin’s short-term solution, however, neglects that campaigners won’t be satiated by extending out-of-term meal vouchers to Easter 2021. Rashford’s campaign’s ultimate aim, remember, is to implement the Dimbleby Review, which would double the number of kids on benefit-triggered free school meals by extending eligibility to every child from a Universal Credit household (an extra 1.5 million kids.)

Crossbench peer Baroness D’Souza is already pushing for out-of-term meal vouchers to become a permanent feature. Combined, that would be billions of pounds, year on year, not tens of millions.

Come next year, no matter the labour market’s health, the Government will face the same criticism. If much of austerity taught us anything, it’s that even when acute need passes, wrapping up programmess will renew accusations that Conservatives “want to starve kids” by “snatching” their lunches.

Milton Friedman’s warning that “there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary government programme,” in part stems from recipients’ aversion to losses. A Royal Commission packed with do-gooders who examine food poverty in isolation will bring further demands for spending and diet control.

That is why, I suspect, some Conservative MPs vociferously oppose the Rashford campaign. It’s not heartlessness, or even this specific extension they oppose, but the precedent and direction of travel. They can foresee the vision of government this type of reflexive policymaking and its paternalistic particulars end with.

The problem for them is that they are on a hiding to nothing in claiming this specific measure risks creating longer-term “dependency” or “nationalising children” if the public think today’s needs are real. Conservatives who believe in a small, limited state have to have answers —about what responsibility the Government should have in dealing with hardship, what tools it should use, and what its role should be for those falling through gaps.

After ten years in government and riding cycles of support for the welfare state, there’s a lack of clarity in the Party’s position, with a mix of preferences among its MPs for income support, service provision, civil society solutions, and combinations of the three. There is a clear, principled alternative vision of how to deal with poverty if the Tories want it. But it requires getting off the fence.

That alternative would say that “food poverty” is not distinct from poverty. Free school meal campaigners are broadly right that hunger is not usually caused by parental fecklessness.

Therefore, logically, food poverty largely results from insufficient disposable income for some families. If widespread hunger is evidenced, the debate should therefore be about whether benefit levels or eligibility are sufficient to meet basic needs—the goal of a safety net welfare state.

This type of limited support that trusts people to use top-ups for the betterment of their families is vastly preferable to a paternalistic state stripping us of responsibility, through demeaning out-of-term food vouchers akin to U.S. style food stamps.

In deep unexpected crises, the case for additional emergency income relief is greater. But if there really is a more structural problem of hunger, then it demands examining why wages plus benefits are insufficient to deliver acceptable living standards. Rather than just look at benefits then, we should examine living costs, too—the poor spend disproportionately high amounts on housing, energy, food, clothing and footwear, and transport.

My former colleague Kristian Niemietz wrote a free-market anti-poverty agenda back in 2011, which I’ve pushed MPs to adopt since. He showed that market-friendly policies on housing (planning reform), food and clothes (free trade), energy (ending high-cost green regulations), childcare (reversing the credentialism and stringent ratios), and cutting sin taxes to economically-justified levels could shrink poverty by slashing the cost of living for the poor, so reducing food hardship, homelessness and more.

Most of this agenda would require no extra spending or busybodying from government paternalists; some of the policies would bring the double-dividend of raising wages .

The Government has ambitious policies in a number of these areas. But why are they never linked to the poverty discussions? As they press for planning liberalisation, why is nobody highlighting how cheaper housing would lessen these tales of distress? Why is nobody identifying the discrepancy of some campaigning about food poverty while opposing trade deals that would make food, clothes, and manufactured goods cheaper, to the huge relative betterment of poor consumers?

Sure, there would be families who make bad decisions and find themselves in trouble, even in a world of cheap and abundant housing and an effective safety net.

But instances of poverty owing to lack of resources would be much lower and these thornier challenges (often stemming from addictions, loss, ill-health, criminality and more) are much better identified by local charities and civil society groups anyway, as Danny Kruger argued in the Commons last week in relation to hinger. Giving nearly three million kids “free” school meals year-round would be an absolute sledgehammer to crack any remaining nut.

In today’s emotive debates, it’s not enough to just oppose proposals when the need is perceived as urgent. Conservatives must be better at re-setting the debate on their terms—a task much easier if they held a clear vision of the role and limits of state action.

Ryan Bourne: Sunak should not and cannot try today to restore pre-virus Britain. It’s gone – and we must now adapt.

7 Jul

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Rishi Sunak earned plaudits for his dealing with the immediate economic fallout from Covid-19. Yet today’s summer statement presents a thornier challenge than playing Emergency Santa, dishing out funds to keep businesses alive. For today requires taking steps to further facilitate the “normalisation” of economic life.

Boris Johnson waded into economics last week, arguing (rather conveniently) that the Coronavirus highlighted the need for his pre-pandemic “leveling-up” agenda. Exactly how Covid-19 proves the need for, say, HS2 is unclear. But underpinning the Prime Minister’s argument was an assumption that, post-lockdowns, we can get back to focusing on pre-virus priorities – in the Government’s case, state-led economic rebalancing.

Similar “back to our future” thinking underpins business representations ahead of this statement. From calls for taxpayer-financed high street spending vouchers, to VAT cuts for hard-hit sectors, the prevailing discourse appears to be “now the virus is less of a threat, let’s incentivise returning to normal activity,” with “normal” meaning “what happened in early March 2020.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m in the U.S. and so have been to this reopening BBQ before, but I bear bad news: while the UK can expect a relatively sharp bounce-back in things such as retail activity, “normalisation” will not and should not mean a return to the economy of March 2020.

Before a vaccine, consumers will go where they feel safe, businesses from restaurants to cinemas will be supply constrained by social distancing, and certain behaviors (from the demand shift from restaurants to supermarkets, to the supply shift to working from home) will partially remain. That will bring major reallocation costs: businesses will close and lay off workers, while other sectors grow.

It was understandable that the Chancellor, not knowing which businesses would be viable after lockdown, set up a furlough scheme to avoid companies and jobs perishing. This helped protect important “job-matching capital” and “firm-specific capital” – i.e. people doing jobs they are good at and firms as important bundles of productive relationships. But one risk was always that businesses would interpret support not as mere lockdown relief, but a commitment to ensure their survival through the whole pandemic.

Some aspects of the campaign for arts subsidies, rumblings by MPs for ongoing aerospace supply-chain support, and the Resolution Foundation’s gimmicky “high street vouchers” idea suggest that some now do believe the Government should support sectors, even after full re-openings, precisely because consumers would otherwise continue to reject them, preferring not to fly as much, attend as many in-person events, or go to fewer restaurants or stores.

This is a very different policy proposition. Attempting to keep the March 2020 economy preserved as some eternal truth would mean workers and funds not being where businesses and consumers actually value them given today’s circumstances, bringing large economic costs beyond the fiscal.

For example, if more professionals now work from home semi-permanently, then tastes will shift from buying lunches within cities to local delis, online, or at supermarkets. Hence why Pret is laying off workers.

But as Julian Jessop has said, the purpose of economic policy should not be to protect Pret jobs. What normalisation should instead mean is the return to a functioning market economy where the rise and fall of businesses depends on their ability to meet our wants and needs in today’s circumstances. Sunak’s aim, in other words, should now be “market-led adaptation to the virus.”

We want businesses to figure out how to serve us in safe, cost-effective ways. The alternative – having the government tilt activity towards our early 2020 preferences – would not only encourage activity worse from a public health risk perspective, but also inevitably subsidise much that would take place anyway.

So Sunak should today reject “painting by numbers Keynesianism” that sees industry spending collapses as holes taxpayers should help fill in. He should snub VAT cuts or vouchers. If, with the virus still around, people would rather spend money on food to cook at home, Netflix subscriptions, and a hot tub for the back garden over restaurants, cinemas, and trips to the Lake District, workers and capital should flow accordingly. Economic activity serves consumers, not vice versa.

That’s not to say government cannot make this process less painful. But we need to be clear about the challenge we face: a supply-side shock we hid with relief. New realities mean workers in the wrong jobs, businesses serving customers in the wrong ways, and capital in the wrong places. Government policy should focus on removing barriers that gum up businesses, landlords, workers and entrepreneurs adjusting.

Sunak appears to get this on the worker side. He is tapering the furlough scheme gradually to give businesses breathing room, but inevitably those with newly uneconomic business models will make some permanent layoffs.

It’s crucial to try to get workers reallocated into new roles quickly to avoid the scarring effects of unemployment. Direct financial incentives for new hiring, even beyond subsidies for traineeships trailed in the papers, would encourage this. The reported plans for expansions of jobcentre capabilities are important too to try to speed up the matching process of unemployed workers to new roles, as would re-training efforts be. Some U.S. states are rolling back licensing restrictions on people shifting to different jobs too. With child-care difficult to come by, now would be a good time to review the UK’s oppressive childcare regulations, for example.

Yet the Conservatives should do more to facilitate the adaptation of businesses as well. Repurposing premises to earn consumers’ confidence often requires upfront investments that the Chancellor should write-off entirely for the basis of tax, through full expensing of investment. The planning law reforms should have an eye to business activities too – if more out-of-town activity is demanded, let it bloom.

The case for allowing existing businesses and property owners more flexibility – on how they operate, opening hours, what premises can be used for etc– is overwhelming as well. With apologies to my Editor, when we are seriously discussing throwing billions at retailers such as John Lewis or Topshop through vouchers, it seems daft to consider it beyond the pale that such retailers open beyond 6pm on a Sunday. Give freedom to businesses to adjust to what customers want: what barriers exist to entrepreneurs developing drive-through cinemas, for example? These are the sorts of supply-side questions that should animate government.

As always with fiscal events, any financial support to industries will be heralded as ‘good news’  and absence of it denounced as throwing sectors to the wolves. But it’s time for Sunak to be bold and honest: his task is not to “normalise” activity by resuscitating the composition of the March 2020 economy, but to “normalise” the market-led economy that makes us rich by meeting our demands.

Caroline Nokes: Spare a thought for women. Male ministers have forgotten we exist in their lockdown easing plans.

30 Jun

Caroline Nokes is Member of Parliament for Romsey and Southampton North. 

Covid-19 has taught us many things about the importance of physical and mental wellbeing. We discovered (if we actually needed to be told) that your chances of recovery were greatly improved by being physically fit and in the normal weight range for your height.

We found out that mental resilience was important to cope with long periods of relative isolation, and social contact carried out mainly by Zoom. We were told very firmly that an hour of exercise should be part of our daily routine, and pretty much the only way to escape the house legitimately.

But for women in particular the importance of wellbeing seems to have gone well and truly out of the window as lockdown is relaxed.

Why oh why have we seen the urge to get football back, support for golf and fishing, but a lack of recognition that individual pilates studios can operate in a safe socially-distanced way, rigorously cleaned between clients?

Barbers have been allowed to return from July 4 because guess what – men with hair need it cut. They tend not to think of a pedicure before they brave a pair of sandals, although perhaps the world would be a better place if they did. Dare I say the great gender divide is writ large through all this?

Before anyone gets excited that women enjoy football and men do pilates can we please just look at the stats? Football audiences are (according to 2016 statistics) 67 per cent male and don’t even get me started on the failure of the leading proponents of restarting football to mention the women’s game.

Pilates and yoga (yes I know they are not the same thing) have a client base that is predominantly women and in the region of 80 per cent of yoga instructors are women. These are female-led businesses, employing women, supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of women, and still they are given no clue as to when the end of lockdown will be in sight.

Could it be that the decisions are still being driven by men, for men, ignoring the voices of women round the Cabinet table, precious few of them though there are? I have hassled ministers on this subject, and they tell me they have been pressing the point that relaxation has looked more pro-men than women, but it looks like the message isn’t getting through.

I will declare an interest. Since I first adopted Grapefruit Sparkle as a suitably inoffensive nail colour for an election campaign in 2015, I have been a Shellac addict. The three weekly trip to Unique Nails is one of life’s little pleasures, an hour out, sitting with constituents, chatting, laughing, drinking tea.

It is good for the soul, a chance to recharge and chill out. And for many of the customers it is their chance to not have to bend to get their toenails trimmed, it is a boost to their mood, that can last for a full three weeks until it is time for a change.

And it is a fairly harmless change to go from Waterpark to Tartan Punk in an hour. Natural nails have done very little for my mood since a nice chap from Goldman Sachs told me: “you could go far if only you opted for a neutral nail, perhaps a nice peach.”

At school I was described as a “non-participant” in sport – I hated it, and it has taken decades to find the activities I can tolerate to keep my weight partially under control. Walking the dog is a great way, but nothing is as effective as the individual work-out rooms in a personal training studio – where it is perfectly possible for those of us who do not like to be seen in lycra to exercise in isolation and then have the place cleaned for the next victim.

I am not suggesting it is only women who do not like to exercise in vast gyms, there are men with similar phobias, but what I cannot get over is the lack of recognition that a one-to-one session in a studio is not the same as toddling off to your local treadmill factory.

The Pilates studio owners of Romsey and Southampton North are deeply frustrated at the apparent inability to draw the distinction between their carefully controlled environments and much larger facilities where, to be blunt, there is a lot of sweat in the atmosphere.

I know I get criticised for being obsessed about women – it goes hand in hand with the job description – but I cannot help but feel this relaxation has forgotten we exist. Or just assumed that women will be happy to stay home and do the childcare and home schooling, because the sectors they work in are last to be let out of lockdown, while their husbands go back to work, resume their lives and celebrate by having a pint with their mates.

(And yes I do know women drink beer too, but there is a gender pint gap, with only one in six women drinking beer each week compared to half of men.)

Crucially, women want their careers back and they want their children in school or nursery. Of course home working has been great for some, but much harder if you are also juggling childcare and impossible if your work requires you to be physically present, like in retail, hairdressing, hospitality.

These are sectors where employees are largely women, and which are now opening up while childcare providers are still struggling to open fully – with reduced numbers due to social distancing requirements. It is a massive problem, which I worry has still not been fully recognised or addressed.

Perhaps if the PM needed to sort the childcare, get his nails done and his legs waxed it might be different. But it does seem that the Health Secretary, the Chancellor, the Business Secretary and the Secretary of State for Sport and Culture, who all have a very obvious thing in common, have overlooked the need to help their female constituents get out of lockdown on a par with their male ones.

Am I going to have to turn up to work with hairy legs to persuade them that women’s wellbeing matters?