It is a truth universally acknowledged by troublesome elements of the Conservative party that men and women should get married, especially if children are involved, and that same sex couples should not.
In an attempt to appease those resisting (and in some cases resigning from) the party’s direction of travel, the Tory leadership has pulled a marriage tax allowance out of the hat. They are, they say, sending a signal that they understand the value of commitment by recognising marriage (and civil partnershps) in the tax system.
However, Cameron and Osborne, while finding the image of a land of fantasy fifties families alluring, are not actually as out of touch with the public as many on the left like to think. They have no ideological commitment to a marriage tax allowance. They know that it is not the job of the government to judge commitment. They also know that this policy will not help those families that most need it. But they need to be seen to go through the motions to keep their party together to fight the next election.
So the rhetoric begins.
George Osborne told the Times, back in 2010, that he thought that he knew, from years of evidence, “that a society where more people are married is a stronger society.” What a stronger society means, coming from a party unsure whether one even exists and what exactly makes a big one, is difficult to judge.
But clarity is provided by The Telegraph: “Children fare best, and are less likely to be a problem to society, if they are raised by married parents.”
The Institute of Fiscal Studies agrees that children born to married couples do better in both cognitive and social outcomes than those born to cohabiting parents. However they conclude that cohabiting couples often have lower educational qualifications than married couples and, it would seem consequentially, lower levels of income. They believe that these factors provide most of the explanation of why those children have lower outcomes.
It casts doubt on whether getting the cohabiting down an aisle would actually be better for their children – unless exam certificates were handed out along with marriage ones. And therefore, other than a possible £3 per week, if they were eligible, from the married tax allowance, it’s unlikely to change their wealth either.
Nick de Bois, the secretary of the 1922 Committee, described the marriage tax allowance as a progressive tax that “would be a welcome return to recognising hard-working families through the tax system.”
Fifteen Conservative MPs, in a letter sent to the Telegraph, last November continued this theme. They said that the marriage tax allowance was a “vital weapon in combating child poverty.”
The Conservative’s marriage tax allowance does not reach very many of our “hard working families” and it isn’t likely to combat much child poverty. Firstly, it won’t reward any hard working family that isn’t married. But secondly, it won’t even reach a third of marriages. The marriage tax allowance only applies to those where one of the partners doesn’t pay income tax (because they earn less than £8,105) and the other is a basic rate tax payer.
If both married parents worked full time earning the minimum wage we might consider them committed and hard working and certainly not well-off. But they wouldn’t be eligible. The marriage tax allowance will only reward the traditional family where one partner is chiefly the homemaker (90% of which are women) and the other the breadwinner.
In 2001 there were 2.1 million families with (opposite sex) cohabitating couples. That increased to 2.9 million families, with 1.8 million children, in 2011.
What the census doesn’t reveal is the level of commitment of those 2.9 plus families and why they have chosen not to get married or enter a civil partnership. Nor do we know how hard they work compared to those also in possession of a marriage certificate.
In 2011 there were two million single parents. And again, we don’t know why each of those is single. Some might be Daily Mail scapegoats: parents who were never together or expressly got pregnant in order to extract benefits and column inches. But it’s likely that most are divorced or separated, including those who left abusive and destructive relationships to protect their children or were left by their partner, or have been widowed.
What we do know is that they are likely to be living on lower incomes. And we know that spending £550m on the marriage tax allowance won’t benefit them or their children.
The government is not using this tax break to reward commitment or hard working families; it’s a reward for MPs and voters who will be called upon to swallow the bitter pill of their modernising agenda – primarily gay marriage.
The rumours are, despite the cat-calls, that a marriage tax allowance won’t be in this year’s budget either. David Cameron may be able to “reaffirm very strongly that recognition of marriage in the tax system […] will be put forward in this parliament”, but he’s in no rush to do it.
And the other leaders?
Nick Clegg is vocal in his opposition, although less strident in his action. The coalition half-time agreement lets Lib Dems abstain on the issue. And Ed agrees with Nick, but doesn’t seem to be suggesting better ways of spending half a billion.
Which means, there is, in reality, a political consensus. Because, in that same statement that he made about society, George Osborne actually set out what he and Cameron really think: “I don’t preach about people’s lives…”.
The Government should not judge families or how people show commitment and they know it. They should, however, spend our money responsibly. And that doesn’t mean on a sop to appease the anti gay marriage brigade who want a return to the 1950s – when a woman’s place was in the home and being gay was illegal.