The Sunday Times

November 28th, 2010

Ugly words but true: welfare does encourage larger families

Conservative politicians should be issued with a list of forbidden words. High at the top should be “stock” and “breeding”. Not far down should be “deserving”, “irresponsible” and “duty”. Perhaps there should also be a general Tory requirement to avoid making any public statements at all unless given the party seal of approval as “safe with words”.

Alastair Campbell was right about this in his determination to keep even the most insignificant of Labour backbenchers on message, because in these high-surveillance days it isn’t what you say that matters so much as the way that you say it: there are ears and eyes and bloggers everywhere. And there are plenty of politicians, as we know to our merciless delight, who have a disastrous gift of the unacceptable gab.

If only, for example, Howard, soon to be Lord, Flight had had such a list, or had been under such a general self-denying ordinance, he wouldn’t be in such trouble now for his impromptu remarks in a newspaper last week. He wouldn’t even have given the interview, because it was entirely unnecessary to anybody or anything, except perhaps to his own amour propre. And as he himself said in that interview, “partly because of media scrutiny, MPs feel they cannot say anything except the blandest nonsense”. How true. They are right. Why, only days after Lord Young’s disastrous comments, did he not follow his own advice? Flight was unwise to open his mouth at all before he is safely installed in the House of Lords. But for some reason he chose to give the London Evening Standard the benefit of his views, including his thoughts on the government’s child benefit policy, which will cut payments to those earning more than £44,000 a year.

“We’re going to have a system,” he said, “where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it’s jolly expensive but for those on benefit there is every incentive. Well, that’s not very sensible.”

Later, talking of sharp rises in university tuition fees, he said he feared that, as with child benefit, the rich would be fine and the poor would be subsidised, leaving what he called the “lower middle” trapped in the middle and unable to improve themselves (or, presumably, to improve their numbers).

Any fair-minded person must see that while Flight expressed himself foolishly and insensitively, in no-go words and in some confusion about class and income, there is nonetheless some truth in what he said, especially if one considers the entire interview, which of course headline writers and political enemies never do, as he should have known. “Not very sensible” of him, to use his own words, but even Red Ed Miliband is starting to talk in his incoherent way about the “squeezed middle”.

Flight has been forced to grovel in public, and his future is in doubt because David Cameron is understandably furious at his idiotic outburst and the blogosphere is full of rage, but there is something wrong with public discourse here if ordinary people cannot take a fair-minded view.

The media reacted as if this were a top story. They were quick to see a resemblance to the notorious remarks of Sir Keith Joseph, who said in 1974 that “our human stock is threatened” by the rise of poor unmarried mothers. But Flight said nothing of the kind. He may be rather unaware of life as it is lived — he seems to be suggesting that life on about £40,000 is lower middle-class when in fact only 15% of the population earns this or more — but he is not a Nazi; there isn’t the slightest whiff of eugenics or class supremacism in what he said, however lordly his manner. When he referred to “breeding”, with all its tabloid connotations of rabbits and licentious untermenschen, he was referring to the reproductive reluctance of the middle classes.

There is some evidence that tax and benefits influence the number of children people choose to have, which is what Flight was suggesting. In 2008 the Institute for Fiscal Studies reviewed the impact of new child-related welfare, such as Gordon Brown’s tax credits, which increased as the number of children born to a family increased. This study found that between 1999 and 20003 government spending on such benefits went up by 50% in real terms. At the same time there was an increase of 15% in births among low-income families.

One might argue that the coalition government’s plan to stop paying child benefit to higher-rate taxpayers (those earning more than £44,000) is hardly likely to discourage better-off people from having the number of children they want — child benefit makes less difference to better-off families, although it is still important to families on £44,000 gross earnings. But this argument ignores the other cuts that higher taxpayers now face, on top of the new child benefit cuts. These working households will have their tax credits removed and will also face much higher rail fares.

There is also the important fact that families on welfare have more children and are given bigger houses at the taxpayer’s expense, while working families are not, yet cannot afford to buy bigger properties in the private sector if they do have more babies.

There can be little question that Flight is largely right: the rich and those on benefits can afford to have big families without changing their lives much, while working families, even many in the top 15% of earners, cannot dream of doing so. That isn’t fair or prudent, given the huge difference between the life chances for children in welfare families and children in more independent working families.

The system amounts to a set of perverse and unjust incentives in family life . To say that is not in any way to hint at “stock” or “breeding”. If fairness were to be at the centre of such benefit policies, it would mean restricting child benefit to only two or three children; this would mean that, apart from the rich, all families, including welfare families, would face the same limit to the number of children they could afford — the limit now faced in practice by most parents who are not on welfare.

It has always been good sport to jeer at public men and women who make crass political mistakes, and I enjoy it as much as anyone. Politicians are fair game, especially when they haven’t the slightest idea of how they seem or sound to the rest of us. But sometimes I feel there is a nastier mood surrounding such sport these days: it has turned into a gladiatorial bloodlust, and the victim is frequently not just the politician but also free speech and truth.