Its official. After a short interim in which newborns will receive a mere £50 or £100, the Child Trust Fund (CTF) is in effect to be axed. As of January 2011, there will be no further government contributions into any CTFs.
As Sunder pointed out in his post here earlier today, the Conservatives did not fight the election on a platform of completely abolishing the CTF. Their policy was to trim it back to the poorest families. The Lib Dems, however, have fought two elections on a platform of abolishing the CTF. The effective abolition of the CTF is, quite clearly, a Lib Dem responsibility.
Let us not be detained by the argument that this was a financial necessity. Despite being one of the most effective pro-savings policies ever introduced by a UK government, the policy is inexpensive. It could easily have been preserved with government contributions reduced but with a clear commitment to raise them back to present levels as financial circumstances allowed.
When the policy was first introduced, my wife, Kathy, discussed it with children in her classes at school - teenagers in a comprehensive school in Oxfordshire. The children were surprised and enthralled at the idea that the government might invest some money on their behalf. (They understood they were too old to benefit, but they had the ability to empathise with those future children who would benefit from the policy.)
My son's CTF will continue.
But I think it is a great shame that so many other parents and children in the future will not receive this simple act of affirmation. And that so many of these children will consequently lack the capital to launch ambitiously into their adult life.
The Lib Dems have had fair warning that abolition of the CTF is a deeply illiberal policy. I have argued this case in a range of contexts from multiple Next Left posts to academic articles in Public Policy Research and British Politics. The CTF was anticipated by policy thinking in the Liberals and SDP in the 1980s. It emerged out of academic efforts to think through the institutional implications of liberal egalitarianism of the kind articulated by John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin and Bruce Ackerman. It finally went some way to satisfy the call for the universalisation of asset ownership which we can trace back through generations of Liberals to the radical republicans of the Chartist movement and back further to Tom Paine.
I think it fair to say that at no point in these years have I received a single adequate reply to the arguments I have made against the Lib Dem policy.
Overwhelmingly, the response has been either silence - as when Nick Clegg ignored an open letter I sent to him on the subject - or embarassed acknowledgement that something was wrong. In private, Lib Dem policy wonks would look a bit bemused and sort of accept that, yes, perhaps, maybe the party's policy of abolishing the CTF wasn't right, but the party had to stick with it to 'make the figures add up' and that, 'after the election', there would be a rethink.
When I have spoken at fringe events at Lib Dem conferences on this subject, I have found the audiences thoughtful and responsive. I have never had a sense that opposition to the CTF was a popular policy with the rank and file. The audiences I spoke to took my criticisms seriously.
And when I have challenged Lib Dem canvassers on the doorstep about the policy, I have met with a wall of ignorance: 'Oh, I didn't know we were doing that, I'll have to go away and look it up...' (canvasser hastily retreats...)
The CTF was one of the great liberal achievements of New Labour.
How sad that one of the first acts of the Liberal Democrats in government is to abolish it. What a self-inflicted wound to that old venerable Liberal ambition of creating a society based on 'Ownership for All'.