I’m going to begin with a confession. When it comes to Iain Duncan Smith, our apparently untouchable Work and Pensions Secretary, I’m about as far from being a fan as one can be. It’s not that I dislike him, more that I utterly and unalterably loathe the man. If I have the misfortune to catch him on the Today programme of a morning, it can colour my mood for the rest of the day. If I turn the page of a newspaper to see his faux-earnest face gazing back at me, I’m overcome with an almost uncontrollable urge to rip the paper up into hundreds of tiny pieces. Do consider yourselves warned.
IDS recently unveiled his ‘family friendly test’ – a series of five questions every civil servant must consider when drafting policy, as a safeguard to ensure policies are conducive to a strong and stable family life. The questions are broad (“How does the policy impact families before, during and after couple separation?”) and the test is not binding, but IDS believes it will ensure the Government puts the support of families at the heart of it’s domestic policy. IDS claims his ‘family friendly’ test will look at how policy effects families without claiming a preference for any type of family (although to use that well-worn piece of Government rhetoric, they of course have to be ‘hard-working’).
So there you have it, Iain Duncan Smith, our self-declared champion of families. Except I’m not sure, given his record, if Iain Duncan Smith is actually very family friendly at all. Perhaps he even fails his own test which, given he’s in charge of family policy is a pretty awful state of affairs. Perhaps he should resign or be sacked for either being so incompetent he can’t understand his own safeguards, or so enthralled with his sense of moral triumphalism he’s blind to his own actions. Given we’re talking about a Minister who was found to have lied on his CV and stayed in his job, champions his ‘beliefs’ over actual, you know, facts and isn’t laughed out of office, and who’s Universal Credit project could see £500 million of public money written off, I won’t get my hopes up.
Two years IDS published a report which found that 28% of children in lone-parent families lived in relative poverty, compared with 17% for those living in two parent families. The report suggested that “children tend to enjoy better life outcomes when the same two parents are able to give them support and protection throughout”. So great, provide relationship counselling so parents stick together, rather than providing support, be it financial or otherwise so that parents can provide for their families whatever their circumstances (for example by providing affordable childcare, or paying a living wage across the board, or ending the uncertainty and instability created by zero hour contracts, and that’s just off the top of my head). Two years on, and IDS is still singing the same tune. And yet, Unicef recently reported that one in four children in this country now live in poverty, and claim the number is increasing sharply due to the Government’s austerity measures. The majority of children effected live in homes with working parents on low wages. (DWP disputes the reports findings, claiming the apparent increase is due to nothing more than a change in the way the figures are collated).
Two years ago the charity Save the Children warned that the introduction of universal credit would see working single mothers lose up to £68 a week, and families with ‘second earners’ – the majority of whom are women – facing a loss of up to £1800 a year, pushing an estimated 250,000 children further into poverty. The charity also reported that mothers already struggling to support their children have suffered cuts to childcare support, child benefit and tax credits. In March the Government announced details of it’s Tax-free Childcare Scheme, due to begin next year, which the IFS reports is far more generous than first thought – however paying for the extras in this scheme will mean further cuts to universal credit next year, meaning families may suffer in other ways. Yesterday the Government announced it was considering cuts to ESA, the replacement to incapacity benefit which is currently paid to 2 million people. Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, told the Guardian: “The proportion of people in absolute poverty in families living with disability has gone up each year since 2009 and now stands at a shocking 22%. Any cut in support would make it very much harder for families already reeling from austerity blows and would surely fail any credible family test.”
The Local Government Association estimate that the income of households claiming benefits will be, on average, lower by £1,615 a year – or £31 a week – in 2015/16 as a cumulative result of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms – a huge burden for any family already surviving on a low income to tolerate. The Child Poverty Action Group recently reported that families in which both parents work full-time on the national minimum wage now have only 82 per cent (couples) or 87 per cent (lone parents) of the minimum income required to meet their needs – so I suppose DWP can claim here it isn’t showing a preference for any one ‘type’ of family – both single and two-parent low-income families are now struggling to afford a fair standard of living. And yes, you have read that right – in 2014, the majority of low-income families on benefits cannot afford to meet their basic needs. What a badge of honour for the Government.
If Iain Duncan Smith truly believes that a stable family life is key to tackling child poverty, and should be central to this Government’s domestic policy, it is perhaps time he gazed long and hard into the mirror and considered his record. Removing a family’s ability to meet their basic needs is not ‘family friendly’, punitive sanctions are not ‘family friendly’ – they breed instability and a sense of desperation, as does forcing people to work for no pay, or allowing them to be exploited by large corporations more than capable of paying them a living wage. Likewise, threatening to further cut a safety net relied on by 2 million people already struggling to cope with a disability is hardly ‘family friendly’.
The ‘family friendly test’ is laughable from the off, but when the result is the misery of countless families already struggling to make ends meet, who’s laughing?