Baby bondage

Think about the phrases 'baby bond' and 'Child Trust Fund'. For a few hundred quid, the state can buy a bond with your baby - and show that you, the parent, cannot be trusted.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

Of all the things that bug me about New Labour’s manifesto, the one that won’t go away is its proposal for a ‘baby bond’ scheme, formally known as a ‘Child Trust Fund’. It bugs me because it looks so benign, but you just know it’s not.

‘All newly born children will have an interest-bearing Child Trust Fund set up in their name with an initial endowment from the government, with more for poorer children’, states the Labour Party manifesto. In practice, as the UK press has suggested, this would mean the government giving about £500 to each newborn baby, with top-ups for poorer children to a potential maximum of about £800.

What can you possibly have against that? Remember your teenage years – how nice it could be to come of age and suddenly have a few hundred quid at your disposal. Of course, it wouldn’t be entirely at your disposal – as the manifesto intones, ‘All the next generation will have the backing of a real financial asset to invest in learning, buying a home or setting up a business’. Not drink and drugs money, then.

You might also point out that £800 – even with the substantial interest that it would accrue – does not go very far towards putting yourself through higher education, securing a deposit on a house, or setting up a business. But still, it’s got to be better than a kick in the teeth.

For parents, too, the baby bond idea has its attractions. Okay, so it might not provide you with much-needed financial support when you are bringing up your child – but it’ll be good for your kids, so it must be good. Right?

Well – remember the phrase ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’. And then think about the phrases ‘Baby Bond’ and ‘Child Trust Fund’. For the price of a few hundred quid, the state can buy a bond with your baby. And in doing so, it can show that you, the parent, cannot be trusted.

Never before has the UK state given money directly to a child. The direct costs of child-rearing have been assumed to be the responsibility of the family – and even when the state has provided money to help with these costs, it has left it to the parents to distribute that money. So the state gives child benefit to the mother, and she decides the best way to spend it. Kids – grasping, ungrateful, naive little buggers that they are – obviously think this scheme is deeply unfair. But that’s kids for you. They like any excuse to have a go at their parents; and they think they are more grown up than they actually are.

By creating a Trust Fund, that children cannot access until they reach adulthood, New Labour recognises that children are not the best judges of how to spend money sensibly. It also endorses the status quo, to the extent that parents will still be responsible for financing their children throughout childhood. But the baby bonds scheme introduces a crucial difference – in the sense that, when it comes to ensuring children’s long-term wellbeing, mummy is no longer assumed to know best.

Implicit in the Child Trust Fund scheme is the idea that you cannot trust parents to give their children a decent start to adult life, by giving parents the money to spend as they see best. Instead, parents (and their friends) are encouraged to put money into the scheme – ‘We will provide incentives for extended family and friends as well as parents to contribute to the fund,’ states the Labour manifesto – yet prohibited from taking it out. For this moneybox, the state holds the key.

If you believe that parents are the best guardians of their children’s interests, this scheme just does not make sense. It introduces the notion that there is a contradiction between the priorities of parents and those of their children – that far from determining and fulfilling their children’s needs, parents put their own interests first.

This betrays an extraordinarily inflexible approach to notions of good parenting. It might be quite reasonable, for example, for a young family to decide that £500 of state money was best used to help secure a mortgage on their own home, or to pay for a baby’s childminding fees, on the grounds that this would make them better able to provide for their kids in the future. But by setting up the idea that children have their own interests, distinct from those of their parents, the Child Trust Fund makes that decision impossible.

You also wonder what might happen if, for example, a doting family had contributed £500 to each of its kids’ Child Trust Funds – and then, during a period of hard times, wanted to draw the money out again. It seems entirely reasonable to me – but within the framework established by this scheme, it could only seem like parents robbing their children of their future start in life.

And you have to ask, what does this kind of idea do to children’s view of their parents? What does it do to parents’ sense of themselves?

If New Labour wants to give children a better start in life, it should increase child benefit from the measly sum of £15.50 per week for the eldest child, and £10.35 for others, that parents currently receive. If it wants to give young people a financial leg-up, it should give them the cash when they get to adulthood (or maybe make them shell out a bit less for their near-compulsory higher education – the basic baby bond, after all, is unlikely even to cover three years of university tuition fees).

And if New Labour wants to support families, the last thing it should do is draw a distinction between the interests of parents and their children, through schemes like the Child Trust Fund. Even if mummy doesn’t always know best, she always has your best interests at heart – and you cannot say that for the state.

Read on:

No dreams – and little reality, by Jennie Bristow

Low ‘Ambitions for Britain’, by Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

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