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New Labour's policies in relation to children and families maintain a focus upon control of family life rather than supporting families. Critically evaluate the statement with reference to at least two policy areas
The social policies of any government are aimed at welfare and protection of individuals and promote economic and social development with the aim of establishing a welfare state (Ellison and Pierson, 1998). Effective social policy also helps individuals to lead a fulfilling life and in turn promotes the growth and change of economies. Bad social policy retards the growth of a country and its individuals and leaves people in poverty or social exclusion.
In this essay we discuss the labour government's social policies with regard to families and children. We will discuss a few major policy areas in children's issues and family welfare and will critically evaluate whether these new labour government social policies are aimed at supporting or controlling family life.
Social Policies – Family and Childcare
After Labour's advent to power in 1997, there have been substantial increases in spending on family care aimed at helping families with formal childcare, early education and work life balance (Brewer et al, 2005). The three major reforms in this area are
1. To increase the generosity of and entitlement to paid (and unpaid) maternity, paternity and
2. To entitle all 3- and 4-year-olds to free part-time nursery education for 12.5 hours per week,33 weeks of the year;
3. To increase the subsidies available to working parents for spending on formal childcare.
We give labour's policies on family and childcare as laid down in its manifesto for helping families. The key features are given as follows: Source: Brewer et al. 2005
The main policies are in three areas of family life namely, maternity leave and pay, childcare element of the WTC and free nursery education.
Maternity pay -
Increase paid maternity leave from six months to nine months in 2007(£329m)
Enable the transfer of some paid maternity leave to the father (uncosted)
Has set a goal of increasing paid maternity leave from nine months to 12 months by 2010
Childcare element of the WTC -
Increase the proportion of formal childcare costs that can be claimed from 70% to 80% in 2006 (£130m)
Free nursery Education -
Free nursery education for 3- and 4-year-olds for 12.5 hours a week, 38 weeks a year from 2007 (£200m f) and 15 hours a week, 38 weeks a year by 2010 (£300m)
The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) analyses that labour's policies of increasing paid maternity leave from 9 months to 12 months will cost a minimum of £195 million per year, There are also possibilities of behavioural changes, which may increase above-inflation earnings growth and if this happens, the costs of the reforms will also increase considerably. The IFS further suggests that all main parties are committed to increasing the proportion of formal childcare costs that can be claimed under the childcare element working tax credit from 70% to 80% in 2006 at a cost of £130 million per year. Labour is committed to increasing free nursery education for 3 and 4 year olds to 12.5 hours per week and 38 weeks per year by 2007 and this will cost £200 million per year and if this is increased to 15 hours per week , 38 weeks per year by 2010, this will cost the government £300 million per year (IFS report, 2005; also see Brewer et al, 2005).
The Labour government's focus on family and childcare policies has been on three areas:
1. work–life balance
2. child care and nursery education;
3. the affordability of childcare.
Since coming to power, Labour's emphasis on family issues have focused greatly on increased maternity paid leave. The trend has been to increase the right to time off for new mothers and pregnant women and to compensate them during this period. The legislations brought into place for implementation of these policies included the Employment Relation Act (1999) in the first term of Labour's power and the Employment Act (2002) in the second term which increased length of ordinary maternity leave and relaxed employments conditions related to additional maternity leave. Statutory maternity allowance and pay levels were also increased.
Issues related to household expenditure and child care and the influence of parental poverty affecting children have been major concerns for the government.
The government has put reducing child poverty as its focus in improving child welfare policies since 1999 and reduction of child poverty is an important aspect of the domestic policy agenda that has led to increases in children's benefits and tax credits for families with children. According to Goodman et al(2005), although these increases in tax credits and benefits for families help the government to meet proximate policy aims and help reduce income based measures of child poverty, by 2004-05 and by 2010-11 it will be questioned whether and how much these financial transfers and benefits have affected measures of well being , especially improved conditions of children despite increase in income.
A new measure of child poverty as identified by the Government is material deprivation. Studies have indicated the relationship between family income and material deprivation in children and have highlighted how poverty and deprivation influence both parent and child health (see Daniel and Ivatts, 1998). However, Blow et al (2005) attempted an analysis of the child benefit system or the CB which is a transfer payment depending on the number of children in the household. The study indicated that Child Benefits do seem to have considerable impact on household expenditure patterns although the cash received as child benefit has been found to be spent not on child assignable goods but disproportionately on alcohol. This obviously is a shocking piece of information but the government's new policies of relating family income with material deprivation or poverty of children needs to be analysed beyond just how the benefit system is used.
Government's policies towards childcare are aimed at reducing material deprivation due to family economic condition (Berridge, 1999). Information on material deprivation is however often collected as an alternative basis for measuring poverty, and poverty measures based on this type of information are often referred to as "consensual" poverty measures (Goodman et al, 2005). Material deprivation is however a vague term as the absence of certain items of consumption in the household is usually described as material deprivation of children. However, governmental definition of deprivation may not be tenable as the presence o certain consumable in the household can be matter of choice or preference.
Goodman et al (2005) correctly points out that low family incomes may be a reason for material deprivation, yet the other possible reasons have to be considered. The government policies of providing increased support on the basis of the number of children in household can also be flawed. Health levels have been found to vary according to changes in income levels although Goodman concludes that if properly studied, material deprivation can indicate long term measure of family income. Goodman and associates suggest that 'there is still a lot to do in terms of developing a methodology for analysis of material deprivation which would be consistent with economic theory and guided by stricter 'scientific' rules' (p.11).
Government policies of promoting family welfare and childcare, providing benefits in proportion to the number of children in the household, using family income levels as a measure of material deprivation and making provisions for increased paid maternity leave and increased nursery care have been criticised as more controlling measures to regulate family life rather than providing support.
Hills and Stewart (2005) have criticised New Labour policies as although helpful in reducing child poverty is completely ineffective in promoting economic equality in society. New Labour has taken poverty issues, especially in children very seriously and aims to halve this problem by 10 years and abolish it in another generation. Yet Hills and Stewart point out, despite these moves, Britain continues to remain an unequal society. A study by LSE suggests that child poverty has been reduced considerably through tax and benefits reforms (also see Berridge, 1999). Yet, although low income families with many children seem to have benefited from the policy, poverty levels among childless adults have reached record levels since Labour's policies in 1997. Yet a one sided approach is not the only criticism against Labour's policies. As claimed by analysts, controlling rather than supporting, by providing benefits to only a category of people seems to justify the increased resistance of Labour's policies regarding family issues and child welfare.
In fact, Giullari and Shaw (2005) emphasise that as far as social policy on families and children are concerned, teenage pregnancy has been the subject of attention in recent social policy. Whether teenage parents should get supported housing and other kinds of support from the government and the family has been a controversial and problematic issue. The authors suggest in their paper that New labour's construction of teenage parents' housing needs as an issue to be considered is in isolation from support. The paper focuses on family support and suggests that New Labour's supported housing strategy ignores its fragile and individualised nature and also tends to disregard teenage parents need for independent housing and capacity for autonomous living. New Labour seems to show more control of the teenage parents who are perceived to be at risk of welfare dependency rather than a genuine concern for support. The paper argues that if New Labour is to show genuine support to teenage parents, then providing independent housing to these parents should be a primary strategy.
New Labour's policies seem to have concentrated on abolishing child poverty, maintaining family as a unit, providing increased maternity paid leave, and implementation of legislation that seem to support governmental decision on family issues. The families with more children are given many benefits and financial support whereas the childless adults seem to have been neglected and show record levels of poverty or loss in income with no government help after Labour came to power. Abolishing child poverty by focussing on income levels of family that apparently seems to determine material deprivation again seems to be a flawed policy biased in judgement. This is because material deprivation of children, an issue taken seriously by the government may be a question of personal choice and preferences and some children who are provided with certain consumables may not need certain others. This policy thus seems to be flawed as the government may not be the right institution to decide material deprivation in children and stress the separation of children into deprived or non-deprived categories based on assessment of family income levels. Finally we have discussed the direct control of government in issues of teenage parents to prevent them from taking benefits from the government which suggest that arguments against government control in social policy initiatives with regard to child and family issues may just be valid.
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