It’s a cliche to say debate about baby boxes has produced more heat than light, but when a national newspaper sets fire to one, it’s a fair comment.
The SNP has chosen to make the policy central to its political brand, like the abolition of university tuition fees before, so it can’t complain when critics take on its claims about the benefits.
Universal services are cultural touchstones. They take on greater significance than they otherwise deserve. Every reference to the NHS proves it. They send powerful – but sometimes misleading – signals about the type of society we think we are.
For that very reason, critics say universal services fail to direct resources at the people who really need help, and become expensive national shibboleths.
If there’s ever been a service that should be universal, though, it’s the abolition of local authority burial fees for children. That becomes clear when speaking to the Labour MP Carolyn Harris, who lost her eight-year-old son in 1989 and made it her mission to ease the burdens on other grieving parents.
No one plans to bury their child, she told me, and local authority fees can be the “cruellest” because they are often upfront. “Until someone is in that position where they are having to arrange their child’s funeral and somebody is saying to them, we need £1,000 before we can go any further, they won’t know.” Even the most comfortable families can struggle to pay. “When I lost Martin, I couldn’t fill a kettle,” Harris told me. Everyone needs this.
Official figures tell us that in an average year, one family every day is hit by the tragedy of losing a child. But the cost of making it easier – of saying that the council they pay tax to won’t ask for more money to bury their child – is less than £500,000 a year.
That’s a fraction of the £8.8m for the baby box. This is a service that can and should be universal.