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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 13:28 GMT 14:28 UK
Who are 'Britain's hardworking families'?
Feature
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter

It is rapidly becoming the most over-used phrase of the 2005 election.

Lizzie Bardsley
Why should people on lower incomes be prevented from having children?
Lizzie Bardsley, from Channel 4's Wife Swap
No policy announcement, whether on crime, immigration, the economy, health or education, is complete without it.

But who exactly are "Britain's hard-working families"? And why are politicians so obsessed with them?

"It has always been a Tory message," says Times columnist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris.

"It is nothing new from the Tories, but both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair want to rid the Labour party of this association with handouts to people.

"It chimes in very well with New Labour, this idea of no free rides and no feather-bedding."

Left out

It reflects a wider shift in British politics in recent years, he argues.

"Thatcherism was all about "me". The view of society as being about single people and individuals. There has, broadly, been a shift away from that towards the family."

Matthew Parris
Mr Parris believes there could be a backlash from single people
And there is a lot more to it than rhetoric, he argues, with many of Gordon Brown's tax changes benefiting families at the expense of single people.

There is a danger that hard-working single people, such as himself, might start to feel left out, he says.

"Sooner or later there is going to be a backlash from the growing number of single people."

But, he admits, speaking out against more rewards to families is never going to be a popular cause.

"People who are single have a feeling of indebtedness towards people who are bringing up children."

People are getting fed up with the endless repetition of that phrase
Labour MP Austin Mitchell
He is also convinced politicians on all sides are hitting the right tone with their appeal to this audience.

"I am not sure it is doing the politicians any harm. I just think it is a bit unfair."

In Autumn 2004, there were 14,396,000 working people living in households with children, according to the Office for National Statistics' Labour Force Survey.

That is roughly a third of the UK electorate.

'Social cohesion'

That compares to 3,533,000 one person households of working age, of which 973,000 (27.54%) are jobless.

The figures also suggest couples with children are far more likely to be in work than single people or lone parents.

Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Grimsby, one of the most deprived areas of the country, sees no problem with Labour targeting its message at one section of the electorate.

"People are getting fed up with the endless repetition of that phrase, but it is at the kernel of what the Labour party is about.

"Families are very important. They stand for social cohesion, as against the breakdown of society."

Families were better off in his constituency since Labour came to power, but many "people still found it really difficult to make ends meet".

"Labour has been able to help less well off sections, but family life is still difficult for a lot of people."

Even single people and pensioners had extended families so the message did not alienate anyone, he added.

Wife Swap

Lizzie Bardsley, a mother of eight from Rochdale, who provoked fury in some quarters by claiming 37,500 benefits a year for her family while not working, disagrees.

Mrs Bardsley, who appeared with her husband Mark, an unemployed builder, on Channel 4's Wife Swap, says she is no longer in receipt of benefits because she has a television career.

But she adds: "I don't think the government gives enough incentives for people to go out to work. People are not always better off."

She says people who criticised her and sent her hate mail after the programme were being "small-minded".

"Why should people on lower incomes be prevented from having children? We are not living in China.

"I didn't have my children for my bank balance. I had them because I felt I had enough love to give them a good upbringing.

"Who is to stand there and say you are not working - you are not entitled to have any children? My children are all well-educated and well looked after.

"But because I was in receipt of benefits I was seen as a second-class citizen."

She urges politicians to "make sure you consider everybody, in every class and every financial situation".

But, she adds, she is not planning to vote in the election, because there is nowhere to park her two pushchairs.

"It was always quite a bind getting down the polling station," she adds.

Here are some of your comments:

I don't want gimmicky tax credits to pay for childcare, I want sensible taxation whilst my children are little so that I can stay at home and care for them myself and return to the workplace when they are older. Hard working families are caught in the horrible reality of the two income trap created by high taxes, high housing prices and the myth that hard work brings rewards. The reality of being a hard working family is awful, chronic fatigue, insecure children and pressure from a long working hours culture do not show on statistics but are a reality for hard working families. We carry a heavy burden for little or no reward.
Sam, Sheffield, UK

I'm sick and tired of the focus being on "hard-working families" ... do the rest of us not work hard?? Do the rest of us not deserve some consideration from the political parties? Not one of them, as far as I can see, is doing anything to make my life better - I work full time, own a property, I pay every tax they throw at me, I save money and I have a pension. I agree wholeheartedly that many policies have been a long time in the coming, and congratulate the government for moving forward in so many areas .... BUT not everyone in this country is a student, a pensioner, has children or is gay ... so until the politicians wake up and realise this none of them are getting my vote.
Happily Un-married With No Kids, Manchester

I have a three year old daughter who I bring up alone. I've been working full time since she was six months old. The only benefit I ever received was Maternity Allowance - which stopped the week before I returned to work. I am not entitled to any additional benefits except tax credits which hardly cover her nursery fees. It drives me mad that if I left work tomorrow I would probably receive the same amount that I earn in benefit plus have the added incentive of a council house (which I can't get because I work and earn too much apparently!) with rent and council taxes fully paid! But because I am a decent person I would rather work my fingers to the bone to give my daughter a decent upbringing than by sponging off of the government! Maybe if the government paid more incentives to the hard workers of the country than to the unemployed by choice, then we wouldn't think the system was so unfair.
EL, Kent, UK

It makes me laugh and cry to hear Gordon Brown talk about helping hard working families. Once you are on working families tax credit, if you earn an extra pound you pay 33p in tax and NI and loose 37P in working families tax credit. A total of 70p in the pound. It is almost like Dennis Healey making their pips squeak, except this is a tax on poor working families, not the super rich.
Benedict White, Sussex UK

Why should the government provide an incentive to people to come off benefit? I don't really like my job but I work so that I can pay my way, I don't live my life expecting others to support it.
Charlotte, East Tilbury, Essex

Single people can't get affordable housing as all the council houses are taken by single mums, we can't get full Housing Benefit if we need it because our one income can't meet the rent, and we're constantly left feeling like second-rate citizens. Austin Mitchell's comment "Families... stand for social cohesion, as against the breakdown of society" is the last straw, implying that just because I am unwed I am part of the breakdown of society! Surely it's irresponsible child-rearing that does that, not single folk like me? Politicians need to stop scapegoating and admit that their poverty-inducing policies are to blame for much of the crime and social decay we're seeing now.
Pat B, London UK

If you are rich or low paid you can afford to have children, those stuck in the middle have to decide if you can afford kids, we need to work hard to afford to look after our kids, the government has stopped helping us.
Mark, Bolton

Why should the state support lower income people who decide to have large families? Surely having children is a blessing not a right? I think that state benefits should be restricted to perhaps the first 2 or 3 children per family only.
Alison, London

In the past a vote for Labour was a vote for the working classes, now, with the amount of benefits offered exceeding what is sometimes possible to earn for some families, it appears to be a vote for the non-working classes! Britain has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and unmarried mums, but still there are more and more financial incentives directed towards bringing more and more babies into the world! I had to work hard and save up before I could afford to take time off and have my daughter, and I only had the one child as I couldn't afford to take time off work to have another. While I'm battling to teach my daughter right from wrong in a measly two hours a day that I'm not working or travelling, Mums on benefit get the luxury of spending hours with their off-spring subsidised by hard-working tax-payers like me.
Louise

Yes Lizzie you are entitled to have children! But eight!
Ronnie May, Romford

Why should people on lower incomes be prevented from having children? ...because they can't afford them?
John Davidson, Bristol

Whilst its true that a person on benefits should not be considered a 'second class citizen', continued reliance on benefits should not be encouraged. If you ran up a credit card debt that you couldn't repay, the bank would hardly offer you another credit card. If you already rely on benefits to bring up your children, having more is equally irresponsible. Yet we live in a society that encourages both unlimited credit and unlimited benefits.
Jon, Birmingham, UK

I know many working couples who simply cannot afford to have children and remain living in London, arguably the most dynamic living and working environment in the UK. What is being done for these people? Little or Nothing as far as I can see.
Shahbaz, London, UK

Lizzie, no one is disputing that just because you were not working you couldn't love children or care for them emotionally. It was the fact that you had such a large family whilst on benefit
Steve, Peterborough UK

My wife and I both work, we would struggle financially if we started a family so we are waiting till better times. The problem is if we stopped work we would get no benefits, whereas it is the fear of giving up the benefits and entering a situation like ours that is stopping a lot of people getting off the benefits system and working.
Craig, Edinburgh

The idea that working families benefit hugely from government policy is ridiculous. To get anything substantial out of the current system you have to be on a very low combined income. What angers working families is that they are no better off than families that don't work. This is because the housing market is a nightmare for young people. My wife and I both have good jobs and struggle to pay a mortgage and bring up our child. If I was to leave my wife, my wife and child would be much better off! How do you think that makes the current generation of hard working, young fathers feel? I may as well not exist.
Stewart, Bristol

As a single person, I agree with Mr Parris' belief that there will eventually be a single person backlash. Why should single people be subsidising other peoples children? Unlike contracting an illness, people choose to have children. People, including Lizzie Bardsley, should be free to have as many children as they like - just don't expect me to pay for them.
Tony M, Swindon, UK

Change hard-working to hard-taxed and everyone will identify with it!
David Sheffield, Sheffield UK

If families are important to the country why is it then that being married actually incurs more tax than being a couple? For example capital gains on property or running a business together. If families are important why can't married couples use each others tax credit to help them with family finances. This country is geared towards the rich and the very poor but completely fails when it comes to hard working married families - who seem to be taking on all the tax burden of the country - remember that there will be no pension for anyone unless families are allowed to thrive as there simply will not be enough workers in the future. I run a business and can't even employ my wife for the fear of the Inland Revenue thinking that we are avoiding tax by sharing our tax credit - it is completely wrong the tax law needs to change.
Steve, Worthing, UK

I hate all the chat about "hard working families". It makes those who can't have or don't have children feel like second class individuals. I happen to have a partner but no children so don't fit in with your figures. All I know is that each Budget in recent years has discriminated against my and my partner's position and we've paid heavily.
Esther Simmons, Linlithgow

My husband and I are a "hard working family". We just make ends meet and compared to some we earn good wages, well above the minimum wage. I work full time and have two part time jobs that I do from home. My husband also works from home part time as well as a full time job, and we are considering if he should take on a further job that would take up his weekends and only time with us as a family. We are not affected by taxes on alcohol or cigarettes as we do not smoke or drink (we couldn't afford to!) and our one luxury is a takeaway once a month which we even go and collect to save a few pence on, but with the cost of petrol these days we might have to re-think that! Our daughter is our main priority, but we do not get any money from the government to help with childcare fees etc as we supposedly earn too much. Why then have I taken on two part time jobs! We do not regret for one second having a child, it my have stretched our limited finances even further and meant that I had to return to work rather than stay at home as we had wished, but we are happy. My younger sister earns the same amount as my husband and I together. She is single and her largest expense is her going out fund! I do not feel jealous of her, she is making the most of her time. She puts money aside for a pension (I can't afford to) and for a deposit on a house as she is planning for the future. In addition Lizzie Bardsley says she won't vote as she can't get to a polling station as there is nowhere to park the prams. Why doesn't she use the postal vote scheme then?
Pippa Wright, Milton Keynes





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