Friday 28 July 2023

Playing games whilst children suffer


There are varying estimates as to how many children in the UK are impacted directly by the ‘two-child-limit’ on benefits. This report suggests that the number is around 1 million. Whatever the number is – and a million is as good a starting point as any that I’ve seen – one of the increasing number of policies on which the Tories and Labour are agreed is that those children must remain in relative poverty for the foreseeable future (whilst they both, utterly incredibly, purport to support a levelling up of life chances). Their reasoning isn’t exactly the same, of course. In the case of the Tories, it’s a bit of performative nastiness, aimed to appeal to those voters who regard anyone receiving any benefits as being scroungers; those impacted are just collateral damage. They’re not people who are very likely to vote Tory anyway, and the few who do have already demonstrated that they don’t care what the government does to them, they’ll still vote for it. Labour’s argument is slightly different: it’s not that they don’t care (although I’m not sure they really do), it’s that deliberately keeping a million children in a state of relative poverty is a way of showing that they can take tough decisions contrary to their claimed core values in order to prove themselves fitting successors to the Tories in the eyes of the Tory press and media. Which of the two is the most immoral stance is one for the philosophers of ethics to debate: but in a choice between not caring on the one hand, and caring but deciding to do nothing on the other, it’s not at all clear to me that Labour are taking the more moral stance of the two.

Whatever, the effect of the different approaches is that it’s actually easier for the Tories to reverse their position than Labour. Populism with no great principles involved makes it easier to change direction if the alternative is more popular. It occurred to me that, if he so chose, Sunak could play a blinder here, by simply announcing that he would drop the policy if re-elected. Labour might bleat about unfunded spending commitments, but the Tories understand (rather better than Labour in terms of their actions, if not their words), that insisting on spending commitments being fully funded is a stick with which Tory governments beat opposition parties, not some great rule which needs to be obeyed. It would leave Labour floundering, forced to either reverse their previous reversal, adding to the Tories’ accusations of flip-floppery, or stick rigidly by their stupid and unnecessary fiscal rule, and defend the current policy. It would, of course, be an unprincipled, dishonest, cynical and opportunist ploy by Sunak, but all of those attributes only increase the probability that he would do it. It would also be a clever political move, and that’s the real obstacle. Clever politics is not an attribute of which Sunak has shown a great deal to date. Either way, the games that they are both playing aren’t doing much for a large number of children. We need to escape from them both.


Gav said...

Seems to me the only cast-iron fiscal rule for successive Govts is that there's always plenty of money for things they want to spend money on, but the things however worthy that they're not so keen on are never quite affordable. A nice bit of hypocrisy that helps oil the spinning wheels of politics. Makes Labour's brand new bag on child poverty quite alarming though, as if they're saying out loud what they really think.

dafis said...

A single person living in poverty low down on the pecking order for a spot of decent housing could well ask whether he/she might be better off breeding a shed full of kids with a partner thus getting better treatment on the housing list and some extra loot from the benefits agency. That's how the mindset seems to function among people who don't do the sums first and leave the breeding till later. Once they have the above average family size they come to realise that it ain't such a prize deal after all.

Tories hate these people who get into this kind of rut and will set out to "punish" them. Labour voters ( as distinct from politicians) often share a similar hatred. It now seems that the current drift in Party thinking (or is that too strong a word for it) is tending to reflect rank and file voter thinking which may win seats but won't do much for the oversized family units.

The big question is : does anyone really care about the predicament of large families? After all we all know many big families that are thriving and have seldom if ever been claimants, thus often reducing claimants to something that features in others' anecdotes but not relevant to our own daily experiences. And therein lies the big flaw in how we as a society responds to such issues.

John Dixon said...


"A single person living in poverty low down on the pecking order for a spot of decent housing could well ask whether he/she might be better off breeding a shed full of kids with a partner thus getting better treatment on the housing list and some extra loot from the benefits agency. That's how the mindset seems to function..." There are a number of assumptions involved in this portrayal, and it looks like a rather dodgy generalisation to me, of the sort which tabloids love. Whilst I'm not going to suggest that nobody, ever, rationalised the situation in that fashion, it seems to me more than a little likely that there are some more basic biological drivers in play, and that having a larger family is actually the default, evolution-generated, proclivity of humanity, like most other species. Treating the production of children as an economic act based on economic stimuli does seem to be missing out rather a lot of human nature. There are a lot of individual stories behind the headline numbers, and they don't all fit a simple template susceptible to simple solutions. That is at least part of the explanation why the policy has failed even on its own terms.

CapM said...

@ dafis
"Once they have the above average family size they come to realise that it ain't such a prize deal after all."

Mind you the offspring of these above average size families will likely soon be collectively making an above average contribution towards the pensions and health and social welfare costs of the elderly. So if not already, be patient and in time you'll benefit from an actual "prize deal".

dafis said...

John Your response suggests that you either didn't read all of my comment or chose to ignore most of the content beyond that which you quote. It reflects on yet another of those huge dilemmas that confronts a society whose leaders appear to have no financial/budgetary constraints when it comes to vanity/pet projects or national virility symbols like Trident but argue that we should have a big effort on housing and real economic regeneration and the default response is of the "can't afford it" variety.

Feckless breeding remains a peripheral problem and influences how priorities are determined because in many ways it reflects the irresponsible behaviours of our leaders as much as it might the mindset of those who are to varying degrees "deprived".

John Dixon said...


I did read it all, although I only responded to the part which I felt contained some dubious sweeping assumptions. Part of the problem is that it raises some questions which require a rather more lengthy response than a comment on a blog post. Population size in general is a serious issue, albeit one which expresses itself in different ways in different places. Part of the reason that the 'developed' world can lead a three-planet or even five-planet lifestyle is because much of the planet lives a less-than-one-planet lifestyle - our lifestyle depends on maintaining that distinction. And one of the problems for the most developed countries is that pensions in some ways approximate to a giant Ponzi scheme. Whether and to what extent the 'state' should seek to regulate family size is a question which is little-discussed, but lurking behind the two-child limit (the original subject of the post) is an idea that it should be regulated by financial means under which only the richest can afford to have larger families. We've moved on little since Sir Keith Joseph bemoaned the tendency of poorer families to have 'too many' children, even if the language and approach is a little more subtle. One of the issues with trying to manage it by creating a financial deterrent against people having more than two children is that those most hit by the consequences are the children themselves, and that simply doesn't seem right to me. And it certainly doesn't help to achieve the aim of eliminating child poverty. I understand the counter-argument about not providing financial incentives for people to have large families, but that doesn't justify keeping those families in poverty as some sort of punishment after the event.

You refer to 'feckless' breeding; it's interesting, is it not, that that is a pejorative term often applied to poorer families but not to the likes of Rees-Mogg or Johnson, yet limiting the world's quota of Rees-Moggs and Johnsons might actually do more good than limiting the nameless families who are pilloried by some of the tabloids. In any event, returning to the subject of the original post, neither Tory nor Labour support the limit because they want people to have smaller families: both want to keep children in poverty because they think it will bring them electoral advantage, albeit for different reasons. And that has little to do with the issue of population control.