An End to Universal Benefits?

Cross-posted at Harry’s Place.


It was not until watching Channel4 News a few days ago that I realized that the Conservative MP, Louise Bagshawe – who took Corby for from Phil Hope by a gnat’s crotchet in May – was the same Louise Bagshawe whose chick-lit passes through my hands on most days at the bookshop.

The reason being was George Osbourne’s intention to abolish child benefit for families in which at least one partner was earning more than ~£45,000 per annum. Not only would an end to the universality of child benefit be at odds with both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos, but it also struck as being in opposition to traditional Conservative support for one breadwinner (naturally, the husband) whilst the home-maker (naturally, the wife): with this, a family with a sole breadwinner earning £60,000 per annum would loose benefits whilst one with both partners earning £40,000 per annum would retain it.

Bagshawe is a divorced mother of three, and in approval of such moves. She made the eminently honest and noble statement that she did not think she deserved or required child-benefit, either on her MP’s salary or on top of her book earnings, and never had claimed.

Good for her.

As far as I can tell, however, the idea of well-off earners (and that does not necessarily mean £45,000 per annum) claiming for child benefit in order to augment public school fees or foreign holidays is as misplaced as the idea of indolent, scruple-free fraudsters such as this yawning expanse of ego who considers defrauding the benefits system to be an achievement.

Although the proposals are unravelling faster than any military advance involving Harry Paget Flashman, Osbourne remains convinced that a noticeable number of families caught in the wrinkles which immediately were apparent is a price worth paying for the £1 billion they would be said to save.

Yes, remaining loyal to the universality of child benefit is, ultimately, ideological; but Osbourne is also speaking to his ideological position, so we should be even. If this Rubicon is crossed, there should be no reason why other state services should be scaled back leaving the affluent to pay for what they want and the basics be provided for the poor.

And, then, leaving the affluent becoming resentful at paying for services they do not use.

Louise Bagshawe, at least, recognizes the sense in her subsidizing child benefit for families on or below the median salary. There are those who do not.

I do not see anything wrong in principle about Jeremy Hunt’s statement today that anyone subsisting on state benefits should not consider this a license for procreation. I can think of several individuals in my town for whom that definitely applies, but I also can think of scores more for whom it does not: whatever the flaws in are a system which is now resulting in a generation being born to parents who had not seen a breadwinner in their household, I do not think the Conservatives (or Liberal Democrats) have the answer.

The Guardian carries today an article about Paloma, a single-mother living in a private accommodation in Queens Park (which the Guardian described as “Central London”; presumably in the same way that Thurso is near Inverness).

Paloma is, by accounts, in full-time employment but unable to find cheap and satisfactory social housing near to her place of work. Housing benefit is used to subsidize her £1,300 per month rent, and she states she cried when she found out that cuts would place their beyond her means.

I am in two minds about this. Whilst £1,300 per month is not only beyond the means of many individuals on the median salary, but also more than many full-time salaries, years and decades of under-investment in social housing has arguably caused situations like this.

And Paloma’s case should be more sympathetic than anecdotal and/or apocryphal tales of unemployed families with half a dozen children living in luxury accommodation.


13 Responses to “An End to Universal Benefits?”

  1. Francis Sedgemore Says:

    Well said, that man!

    Personally, I am so enjoying the irony of a bunch of old-Etonians fucking over the Middle Classes of Middle England. Grauniadland threatens to implode in a paroxysm of liberal angst, and to witness this great spectacle we lumpen-intellectuals have a ringside seat. Oh deep joy.

  2. Dominic Says:

    I must admit that, with slight reservations (i.e. over the 1 working parent on 44K/2 working parents on a total of 86K disparity) I approve and endorse the government’s actions.

    And in fact I approve of them stopping such extortionate payments to landlords renting properties in places like inner/central London (calling NW6 “central London” is very slightly pushing it, but not by very much. It’s my old hood, and, well, I had to move very very much further than Wembley before I could afford to buy a place to live that wasn’t the size of a shoebox), who are the people who ultimately benefit from such payments.

    Which doesn’t mean that one doesnt’ feel sympathy for (some of) the people affected by such decisions. But basically, at the end of the day, what is comes down to is: beggars can’t be choosers. But some of the pain will surely be short-term: when these payments from the govt to landlords go, the market will surely demand that rents come down to a more reasonable level. At the moment there is no incentive for that to be the case. It IS unfair that people are affected like this, but, well, such is life.

    I do think it is quite clear some kind of rent control mechanism (whether on the French or New York, or some other model) needs to be introduced, however. Certainly in inner London. And I dare say elsewhere. (The part-rent part-buy schemes of “affordable housing”, in practice, seem like a swindle, as far as I can tell)

    And as a veteran of the Becontree estate and some others, I increasingly am of the view that social housing (at any rate provided large-scale, en-masse) causes more problems, long term, than it solvees.

    I kind of think that Middle England will, when all is said and done, be on side with these decisions. Self-reliance as virtue, and all that. Why should our taxes go to subsidise landlords?

  3. efrafandays Says:

    Bloody hell, the warren might collapse with all this traffic!

    Ideology is fine, but pragmatism is better (and could have been said to Osbourne before he ruled out means testing, and the necessary beaurocracy). Even for the apocryphal sole earner on £46,000, I cannot get too upset; and my “thin edge of the wedge” fear is, I know, not yet realized.

    And, rather like Francis, I do love the sight of Middle England squealing. Check this out for proof positive.

    On a personal level, Paloma’s situation deserves sympathy but objections based on single cases are bad objections. As Dominic says, by removing the guarantee of state-subsidized rents, the noveau aristrocracy of buy-to-rent might have to sell.

    Now, that would be fun to watch!

  4. Dominic Says:

    I suppose one should always remember that sub-editors, not authors write the headlines chez the Graun (and elsewhere).

    Otherwise my first response would have been (and was) “Lol, too funny for words, the Guardian publishes a piece saying that the Govt has “declared war on families”, and starts out the very first sentence by quoting a man who hasn’t even been bothered to do the decent thing – for his “partner”, and their children – and marry the mother of his children (and let’s not even go into the birth certificate thing)”

    The other point is: announcing a policy in a context like this (high profile conference speech, but not anything that is formally legislative in nature) is a good way of “floating ideas”, gathering public opinion, etc, before more formal proposals are presented.

  5. efrafandays Says:

    Bloody hell, Dominic, where does it say that Harker isn’t married?

    Plus, I suspect sub-editors would have allowed him nto choose the title, considering he’s the deputy comments editor at the Graun. See this excerpt:

    However, not since China’s one-child rule has there been such a penalty for having kids.

    Try harder.

  6. Dominic Says:

    ED MILIBAND, Alec.

  7. efrafandays Says:


  8. worldoftofuness Says:

    “Paloma is, by accounts, in full-time employment”

    ?? According to the article, she “has not worked since she had children” (that is, at least 3 years) although “hopes to return to work in the City” (so, far from definite let alone imminent).

    I’m afraid my sympathy is somewhat limited. Yes, commuting is a bit of a bugger. It’s also what the vast majority of the population working in London have to do. Not everyone who commutes in from outside Zone 2 does so because they have a spiffy country mansion–mostly they live in pretty ordinary houses/flats…er, little or no more plush than the one in the article, it seems.

    I’d also (save for a few exceptions below) take issue with descriptions of people as “single parents”. Humans don’t really do parthenogenesis: meaning, where exactly is the father(s) in this “single mother” case (and others)? Unless he’s dead, serving a long prison or escaped unenforceably abroad, being jointly responsible for the existence of those kids it is surely he that bears the main responsibility for making up the shortfall in the first instance, not the state. And yeah, the CSA’s not great–but that’s an argument for improving it, not quietly abandoning the idea of absent-parent responsibility altogether.

  9. worldoftofuness Says:

    “I do think it is quite clear some kind of rent control mechanism (whether on the French or New York, or some other model) needs to be introduced, however. Certainly in inner London.”

    Hey, this would possibly be good news for me as a would-be owner-occupier. Declaring an interest here: I worked for 4 years in private rented housing policy, one of the lessons of which being that decades of rent control under various Rent Acts left a shrunken PRH sector–as landlords withdrew from it and *sold* their properties on the non-regulated market.

    So, a sudden glut if rent control was reintroduced could lead to sales prices coming down and reasonable stuff within inner London actually being something I could afford to buy.

    On the other hand the world’s middle class (and upwards) is growing, able to get here quite easily and is taking quite a fancy to London’s/UK’s lack of restrictions on property ownership–a Chinese acquaintance of mine and his friends back home are considering buying here as an investment, if they can find something at the right price.

    Either way, the likely withdrawal of properties from the rental market means rent control would be ultimately less likely to benefit tenants than is commonly supposed.

  10. efrafandays Says:

    Good grief, how did I miss that WoT? My sympathy diminishes somewhat.

  11. worldoftofuness Says:

    Heheh…The other thing one notices when in nitpicking mode is “She currently lives now two streets away from her parents’ home in the area where they have lived since they arrived from the West Indies 40 years ago. She has a strong network or friends and family…”

    So, it appears Ms Johnston’s parents are close to her physically and emotionally, and presumably having brought their own child(ren) up at their address would now have at least 1 spare bedroom (plus living-room etc).

    So it’s a bit odd that the article doesn’t even *hint at the possibility* that they’ve considered her + kids moving in even temporarily. Sure, no-one likes doing without a living-room (although enough houseshares manage). And there might be very good reasons why the parents can’t take them in. But if having to move out of Queens Park really is The End of the World, you’d think the option of merging households would be raised even if only to say why it can’t reasonably be done.

    • efrafandays Says:

      I tend not to read Graun articles too closely, as they tend to be both hilariously confused and fist-swingingly offensive.

      I have one friend in Zone 10 or thereabouts who recently split with her husband. Instead of relying on State housing-benefit, she and her 14 year old daughter have moved back in with Mum.

  12. Won’t someone please think of the children? – Scottish Roundup Says:

    […] Efrafandays agrees that, even though there are a number of problems with the proposals, there are merits in the idea but does worry about the possible end to universal benefits and how some more affluent people may resent paying for services that they do not use. […]

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