Today
Thu 6 May 2021

The news that Johnson ‘can’t afford to be Prime Minister’ rings hollow after a decade of austerity-driven child poverty, says Sian Norris

The Sunday Times report asking whether Boris Johnson can “afford to be Prime Minister” included the revelation that the Prime Minister, who claims he needs £300,000 per annum to stay afloat, asked a Conservative donor to fund the nannying costs for his one-year-old son Wilfred. 

Number 10 has refused to deny Johnson asked donors to cover childcare costs.

Johnson earns an annual Prime Ministerial salary of £157,373 and lives at Downing Street rent-free. He pays a tax liability on utilities that costs around £7,000 a year and council tax of £1,655 per year. He must also, Sunday Times’ journalists note, “cover the costs of any food and drink for personal consumption”. Johnson’s personal net worth is estimated at £2.9 million and in 2019 he bought a house worth £1.3 million with fiancée Carrie Symonds.

Tonight… 4.3 million children will go to bed in poverty. Their parents don’t have the phone numbers of wealthy donors to help them pay their childcare.

One unnamed Conservative donor was quoted as allegedly saying “I don’t mind paying for leaflets but I resent being asked to pay to literally wipe the Prime Minister’s baby’s bottom.”

The news that a man earning £150,000 a year can’t afford his childcare bills will raise a few eyebrows when measured against the Conservative Party’s austerity agenda that has slashed support for families and caused child poverty to rise to “record levels.”


Childcare in Austerity

Since 2010, Conservative-led Governments have enacted an ideologically-driven austerity programme through a series of welfare reforms that increased both absolute and relative child poverty. 

Research published in 2019 by the charity Save The Children found that over nine years, the number of children in households living in poverty with children under five had risen by 400,000, an increase of over a quarter over the period.

The increase has been driven by austerity measures that cut the value of benefits in real terms, including the benefit cap. The cap is the limit to the total amount of money you can get from benefits, and applies if you get Housing Benefit or Universal Credit.

In March 2021, the Child Poverty Action Group reported the cap disproportionately impacts households with dependent children. Over 150,000 capped households (84%) contain children and of these, 110,000 were single parent families. Scrapping the cap would lift 150,000 children out of severe poverty overnight.

The cap does not apply to everyone who claims benefits and families who earn a certain amount of income through work are exempt. This is designed as an incentive to get people off benefits and into the workplace. 

However – and this has a particular resonance to Johnson’s nannying woes – the costs and availability of childcare means families subject to the cap, and who are able to work, struggle to make the move into employment. 

Child Poverty Action Group explained that, while “the Government has increased help with formal childcare costs, supporting up to 85% of costs in Universal Credit … parents have to pay the costs upfront and claim them back, which can make it very difficult, and at times impossible.”

It goes on to say “the availability and cost of childcare remain key barriers which prevent households subject to the cap from entering paid work … it is these barriers to paid work, which are outside of parents’ control, that make it difficult for parents to find paid work and increase their earnings.”


Two-Child Limits

The two-child limit to child tax credit is another policy impacting on family income. The cut was passed into law in 2017 when Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary. 

Child tax credits were introduced by the Labour Government in 2003 before being folded into the Conservative’s new welfare system known as Universal Credit

The new system replaced a raft of welfare payments for most claimants, with a sum paid monthly into a nominated bank account. The fact the benefit is often paid directly to the “breadwinner” has led to accusations that the policy “facilitates” economic abuse.  

The two-child limit stated that “Universal Credit will no longer pay you an additional amount for a third or subsequent child born on or after 6 April 2017, unless special circumstances apply.” 

The policy impacts on nearly one million children and means a reduction in support of £53.50 per week for each child who does not qualify for support. Some women have reported terminating wanted pregnancies as a result of financial concerns about the cap. 

In one of the cruellest twists of the policy, women who can prove a third or more child has been conceived by rape, and who can confirm they no longer live with their abuser, are exempt from the cut. 

“Perhaps the Government really believes that only families rich enough to be confident that they will never need to rely on state support should have more than two children,” the Child Poverty Action Group wrote

Boris Johnson has at least six children. 


The Big Freeze

Between 2015 and 2020, a policy of freezing benefits had an impact on child poverty. The freeze meant that benefit payments did not rise with inflation, leading to a 6% cut in the value of welfare paid to people and families. According to 2020 analysis from the Child Poverty Action Group, the policy hit families with three or more children hardest as “benefits constitute a higher share of total income for these households than for many others.”

Another policy “leaving children hungry”, according to a study by education experts at the University of Manchester, is the controversial bedroom tax.

Otherwise known as the “spare room subsidy”, the policy states that if a family had one “spare room” its housing benefit would be reduced by an average £11 per week (£572 per annum). 

The study’s authors said “forcing children to share bedrooms – required under the Government changes which reduce housing benefit for those judged to have ‘spare rooms’ – was having a negative impact on schooling by leaving youngsters without a quiet place for homework or undisturbed sleep.”

The study also found that: “parents were saving money by cutting back on food, heating and other essentials and foregoing warm winter clothes, shoes and school uniforms for their children as a result of the reduction in benefits.”

Johnson’s house with Symonds has four bedrooms, as does their flat on Downing Street. The Prime Minister’s “grace and favour” mansion at Chequers has ten.

Tonight, as Johnson sleeps in his rent-free flat, worrying about being “broke” on a £157,000 salary that is supplemented by his book royalties and his personal wealth, 4.3 million children will go to bed in poverty. Their parents don’t have the phone numbers of wealthy donors to help them pay their childcare.

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