Blair’s tough act is a diversion

Sometimes when the government talks tough, the reality can be quite
different – an iron glove wrapped around a velvet fist. Comparing
political rhetoric with practice can be confusing: Tony Blair made
his historic pledge to eradicate child poverty only a few weeks
after committing his government to ending “the something for
nothing welfare state”. Behind the mantra that work is the best
route out of poverty, the government has quietly increased income
support rates for children whose parents do not work, with further
increases likely when the new child tax credit is introduced next

Recent reports suggest that Blair is determined to press ahead with
child benefit sanctions, despite strong opposition from members of
the Cabinet. Similar schemes in the US have been shown not to work
and the government’s social exclusion unit did not recommend it
after a comprehensive inquiry.

Any sanctions are likely to be hedged with so many ifs, buts and
maybes as to be an administrative nightmare, used only in limited
but no doubt high-profile situations. So why is Blair keeping the
issue alive?

It’s a distraction. The government was forced on the defensive
earlier this year on youth crime. Ministers blamed the parents, and
the complex issues of crime and truancy were blurred. Few
commentators have noticed that, less than a year after being
introduced, targets to reduce school exclusions were dropped.

Some parents may not take a sufficiently robust interest in their
children’s education but to put this down to deliberate wilfulness
and neglect is simplistic and cruel. Schools are not, and never
have been, happy and secure places for all children. Sometimes
children will miss school because of the embarrassment and stigma
of being poor – avoiding the school trip that has to be paid for,
not taking up the free school meal or fear of teasing because of
their appearance.

The proposal is politically loaded. Just as Bill Clinton
outmanoeuvred the Republicans by stealing their ideological
clothes, Labour has also, at times, adopted this tactic of
“neutralisation”. The aim is to broaden your political appeal and
to neutralise critics. The strategy finds some echo in the
Conservative Party’s rediscovered, but still self-conscious,
commitment to vulnerable people. New Labour likes to sound tough
and look tough but, on this issue, removing child benefit is too
high a price to pay.

Martin Barnes is director of the Child Poverty Action

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