Setting the record straight: my full thoughts on family policy
8 min read
On Tuesday I attended an event for under 35s hosted by Onward, a leading Westminster think tank. I gave a short speech about family policy and then answered a number of questions from the audience. My contribution was intended to provoke debate and discussion and to encourage young people to think about an area of policy that is not often covered in Westminster. Some of my remarks have been misreported or taken out of context, which is of course par for the course in politics and always will be. But given the scale of the challenges that UK families are experiencing, and the barriers young people face to having children, I think it is important that I set out my arguments in full. What follows is an amalgamation of the short speech that I made and some of my remarks in the ensuing discussion.
What factors make a nation successful? Perhaps we think about high GDP or international influence or military might. Or maybe we consider a nation to be successful if its population enjoys long life expectancy or low crime rates or high levels of wellbeing.
All these things are good measures of a nation’s achievements. But for a society to be truly successful it must be able to sustain itself from one generation to the next.
A nation needs to produce enough children to at least maintain its population size. And it must bring those children up to be healthy adults with the skills and the virtues to maintain – or advance – that nation’s prosperity, values and culture and in turn to produce the next generation. I have a degree in genetics and I used to be a biology teacher, and in biology, one of the clearest indicators of a species’ success is its rate of reproduction. How many offspring can be produced, protected from predators, and raised to reach reproductive maturity?
Throughout history, the UK has been a successful nation – our institutions, constitution, industry, education, armed forces and even our health service have all been the envy of the world at different times. But this success has only been possible because successive generations have reproduced themselves, ensuring the continuity and renewal of our economy, culture and national identity.
But in Britain as in many Western nations, that success is now under threat because of declining fertility rates and the increasing challenge of bringing up the children that we do have to be healthy, skilled and virtuous adults.
In 1941, fewer than 20% of women reached their 30th birthday without having given birth to at least one child. Now it’s over 50%. In the 1950s and 60s, the average number of children per woman was around 2.5. Now it’s just 1.6. I don’t need to spell out the economic consequences of having a shrinking working age population. We just need to look to Japan to see what might be in store for us here in the UK.
We can say ‘hurrah’ for contraception, and choice, and women’s rights and gender equality and all these things that have done much good in and of themselves. But there is little point in all the great endeavours of those of us working in politics, in charities, in think tanks, in journalism, in law, in academia and many other areas if society cannot reproduce itself. There is no legacy without reproduction.
So why are so many young people not having children? I think primarily it’s because it’s so extraordinarily difficult when compared to previous generations.
In previous generations, families could survive financially on one income. In previous generations, people on ordinary incomes could afford decent housing. In previous generations, young people lived near their own parents and extended family who were on hand to help to raise children. In previous generations, men of all levels of income could achieve status from becoming fathers and husbands and they were expected to stick around and provide for and protect their families.
Young people are worried about the prospect of family breakdown and they are right to be – in the UK we now have the highest rate of family breakdown in the OECD, and 44% of British children experience it. We know that family breakdown is a significant factor in negative outcomes for children, including poor health, educational underachievement and poverty.
I could expand on any of these reasons why people are not having children, or why so many of the children we do have are not flourishing. But I want to focus on our taxation system, which is one area where the Government could act quickly to make it easier for couples to have children and to relieve some of the pressures on family life. Although if you do wish to reproduce, I would suggest that spending too much time talking about fiscal policy will not help your chances.
Our tax system actively discourages people from having children, it makes it difficult for them to look after their children, and it does nothing to support stable couple relationships. In the UK, unlike in many comparable Western nations, our unit of taxation is the individual and not the household. So if you are a single person with no dependents earning £40 000 per year you pay the same amount of tax as a parent earning £40 000 supporting a partner and three children, even though your outgoings are significantly lower.
Because of our individualised taxation system, for a one earner family to have a similar standard of living as a single person on a median wage (£28 000), that parent would have to have a wage of over £70 000, a salary that is simply unachievable for most people.
If you earn over £50 000 per year, the tax man sees you as wealthy and, if you are single, you are indeed in the top 15% of earners. But if you’re supporting a family you may be in the poorest third of households and yet paying higher rate tax, National Insurance, losing your child benefit and facing significantly higher housing costs.
This is not how other countries treat families. In Germany, couples are taxed jointly (though they can opt out if they wish) and parents receive significant tax credits for each child to reflect the costs and value of raising children. Families with children in the UK pay three or four times more tax than in equivalent countries. And if you’re on Universal Credit you are often better off living apart from your partner.
This system also means that many mothers are forced to return to work before they are ready, and polling consistently shows that the majority of mums of pre-school children would choose to work less or not at all if they could afford to. With the combination of high taxation and benefit withdrawal rates, even when mothers do return to work they get to keep very little of what they earn, meaning they are missing out on precious time with their children for scant reward.
When young couples do the maths and look at the costs they would face if they had a child, it just doesn’t add up. In fact, a report last year showed that around 50% of young people don’t feel they can afford to have children.
The problem is not just fiscal, it’s philosophical.
Over the last few generations, we have privatised family life. Having children is now seen as a personal choice, a luxury, like buying a Porsche. You shouldn’t get one unless you can afford to maintain it.
Now I absolutely agree that parents should be responsible, they should provide for and protect their children. But having children shouldn’t be a luxury. The urge to have children is one of the strongest biological instincts and it’s a societal necessity. Having children and raising them well is the most significant contribution most of us can make to society.
If we care about the success of our nation, we should be doing everything we can to encourage young people to have children, and to support them through our tax system as they seek to do a good job of raising the next generation.
Of course there are many things that we need to fix – and housing is one of them – but reforming taxation to recognise the costs and value of raising children, to remove the ‘family penalty’, would go a long way to removing the barriers young people face in starting a family.
When young couples do the maths and look at the costs they would face if they had a child, it just doesn’t add up.
Finally, I want to say why I think marriage is a good thing. Politicians are often reluctant to talk about marriage and families and I understand why. Most parents, whatever their family structure, are doing their very best to raise their children and often in very difficult circumstances and we must be careful not to judge, stigmatise or undermine anyone. But we also need to be honest about the evidence and the evidence shows that no other family structure is as durable as marriage, and no other type of couple relationship has better outcomes for children.
Marriage may be far from perfect, but nevertheless it is the best institution that societies have developed for the successful raising of children. The political class has often denigrated marriage as outdated and optional, and even patriarchal and oppressive. And no doubt some marriages are.
But we haven’t practised what we preached. Marriage rates in high income groups have remained high, and divorce rates low, and privileged children have therefore largely been protected from the tragic consequences of family breakdown. Meanwhile, amongst low income groups marriage rates have completely collapsed and children who are already disadvantaged face the additional disadvantage of family breakdown and instability. Marriage has become a middle-class secret and as a political class we have failed to be honest about its advantages for children.
The priority for government is to help with the cost of having and raising children. But politicians also need to have a serious debate about the advantages of marriage and what it means for children.
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