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Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 11:59 UK

Why do families always come first?

A child

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News

Why should people with children get special treatment? Whether it's for tax breaks, airports, lifeboats or office flexi-time - is it fair that people with children get priority?

In the political belly-flopping over the 10p tax rate, one of the most revered sacred cows of public debate was put under rare scrutiny.

That's the assumption that families should always be pushed to the front of the queue. Why should people with children get tax privileges? And does being family-friendly translate as being unfriendly to non-families?

The 10p tax rate abolition will not hurt many parents because of changes in tax credits

The love affair between politicians and the family (and sometimes other people's families) is profoundly rooted. In the Budget speech that announced the tax changes last year, the then chancellor mentioned "family" and "families" on 17 separate occasions.

Not to be outdone, in his mood-setting Spring forum speech last month, Conservative leader David Cameron referred to families no less than 39 times. In case anyone missed the emphasis he spelt out that "families should be the most important thing in our country's life".

David Cameron and child
All political leaders talk of family

Nick Clegg, in his first new year message as Liberal Democrat leader, used the F-words 11 times in a 600 word speech.

Politicians are always going to be happier kissing babies and perfectly-formed nuclear families. It's cute and shows they care. They don't want to be on the campaign trail kissing 40-year-old men who have been co-habiting with a beer fridge.

Maybe they should think again. Because the patterns of how people live are changing. People living in married couples, for centuries the backbone of traditional family structures, will in the not-too-distant future almost be matched in numbers by single-person households.

Workplace friction

The number of people living alone has doubled since the 1970s and the number of people getting married has almost halved, show figures from the UK Statistics Authority. Even though we like to think of the 70s as a kind of fluorescent haze, for most people it still had plenty of black and white values.

There can also be an unspoken friction in the workplace surrounding family-friendly office policies. A wealthy parent, with the nanny and holiday home, can get to bunk off to see the school play or re-arrange working hours around the school run, while a childless colleague is expected to hold the fort.

Flexible working is another grey area. Both the government and opposition are promising a year's parental leave to look after a baby. But if childcare is a valid reason for paid leave, then what about looking after an elderly relative?

Should there be flexi-time to look after elderly relatives?

This is going to become more of an issue, particularly in white-collar office jobs. The proportion of women graduates who never have children is set to reach one in three, shows a long-term study by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

For those with children, there is also a question about how much impact family-friendly policies really make.

My daughter had a toy steering wheel which she used to spin furiously, making loads of go-faster noises, leaning into all the tight corners. And perhaps running the government feels a bit like that. You make all the noises, but when you stop you haven't really gone anywhere.

The major architecture of family life is dominated by factors over which governments have little control. The necessity for both parents to work - and effectively how many spare hours parents can see their children - is shaped by paying the mortgage and the bills each month.

In the current spat over the 10p tax rate, the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted that for 55% of households the change would be equivalent to £1 per week. A pound is a pound, but it's small change compared to the hikes in utility bills and the soaring levels of debt problems.

When it comes to these pressures on time and money, politicians can do little except provide a commentary.

It can feel like the budget airlines. They used to shepherd parents and young children to the front of the queue, now such priority boarding is sold as an extra service.

Family friendly? Yes, we take cash or credit cards.

Below is a selection of your comments.

"Hard working families" makes a nice sound-bite. "Hard working bachelors" doesn't. Politicians might also think that single people don't bother to vote. We'll see if they're right.
Kevin, Malvern

The tax breaks and flexitime that I recieve are very much appreciated. If you have children, the extra help from the government takes the pressure off.They have done a good job encouraging family life. Whats wrong with that ? What is the alternative? Giving tax breaks to singles who have far less to pay out for? That's ridiculous.
Gareth, UK

Also, Transport for London and others often offer "two for the price of one" - eg entry into exhibitions etc. Why not just "half price" for those of us without partners? Supermarkets could also offer discounts rather than "buy one get one free" offers. It appears that single people don't get any special offers.
Annie Bebington, London

I am sick to death of the whole family friendly thing. I do not have any children and am made to feel like second class citizen. Colleagues trot off to anti-natal classes and everyone smiles, I go to the doctors and everyone grumbles. I am ill, she is glowing with health! People with kids great priority over everything and I for one am sick of it.
Anon, Bolton

As a single, childless woman with a strong belief in equality, I find this one a very difficult balance. On the one hand, I think society should make it possible for women and men to have children without having to sacrifice their professional life, but on the other hand, I'm always the one who has to work harder so that they can have that right. Being excluded from the "parent club" can be difficult enough, in the workplace as well as in a social environment.
Maria, Cambridge, UK

At the end of the day, those who commit to family are providing the workers, tax payers and leaders of industry for our economy to function in the future. If everybody took the easy option and simply lived life for today and for themselves we would be sitting on a ticking time bomb. My children are an investment and I need help and support to do this.
Phil, Cardiff

Shouldn't the country be encouraging and supporting those people who are willing to replenish the British population? Without children there would be no one in the future to pay taxes or work to support us all in our old age.
J Webb, Hampshire, England

I am fed up with the privileges given to families. They get tax breaks (single occupants pay 50% more council tax than members of a couple), work shorter hours (leaving the rest of us to pick up their unfinished work when they scamper off to their kids), get maternity and maternity leave and the rest of us pay a fortune for their offspring's free education and healthcare. And why? Because they are breeding the future. What nonsense, we have decent working-age adults queueing at the door waiting to get into this country, we don't need to subsidise breeding (and put up with all the crime kids commit) to get the next generation of workers - we can just import it.
Nick, London

My wife and I have made the decision not to have children, but all I hear at work are the parents going on about how much tax credits they get, while all I see is how much tax I'm paying each month. We have been married 15 years, neither of us have children from other relationships here there and everywhere, why isn't there a tax credit for that?
Marc, Andover

When are those of us, working full time, rarely ill and without children, going to be recognised and given a tax benefit? The benefit to the NHS alone in not using maternity services and all the various trips to the doctor and dentist involved with rearing children must be worth something towards our pensions.
Lorraine, Reading

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