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Removing child benefit makes sense – but not if it punishes couples for marrying

This unintended consequence has to be dealt with as a matter of urgency

By on Monday, 11 October 2010

David and Samantha Cameron at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham (Photo: PA)

David and Samantha Cameron at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham (Photo: PA)

When I returned last weekend to this blessed plot, this England, from what (as far as I am concerned) is that other Eden, demi-paradise which is France, I had for a whole week been cut off from one of my many addictions: the media in all their forms. But it had all seemed at the time wonderfully restful: not cold turkey at all. All the same, as I came through the tunnel sous la manche, I found that I was looking forward to the English papers for the usual entirely pleasurable reason: that they would provide material to strengthen all my well-founded and entirely justifiable prejudices.

This time I found myself entirely at sea over what seemed to be the big story: how should I react, I wondered, to nice Mr Cameron’s intention – because of our parlous finances – to remove child benefit from those earning over £44,000 a year? What’s the difficulty, I thought: why not? It makes sense to ask (as he put it) that the “broadest shoulders should bear a greater load”. It might not raise all that much: but it “sends a signal” that he wants fairness.

Janet Daley (who over the years I have agreed far more often than not) in The Sunday Telegraph accepted that that was what it was supposed to do. But she obviously thought this was a bad thing. “As they staggered from the train wreck that was the child benefit fiasco last week”, she wrote (cor! I thought), “Tory spokesmen … recited pretty much word for word the new official defence: this measure was admittedly not much of a step towards dismantling the deficit (in the weird times in which we live, a saving of a billion pounds is relative peanuts), but it was intended as a ‘signal’ that the well-off were going to have to bear their share of the burden.”

Well, I thought, what’s the matter with that? It makes sense to do that: and more than half the population according to one poll (against a third who dissented) agreed. Then Janet Daley came in with what looked at first like a clincher. Ms Daley over the years has been one of the great defenders of the married family against all those forces which over recent decades have destabilised it; I have journalistically over the years followed admiring in her trail. Now she identifies this “child benefit fiasco” as being yet another threat to the family.

As it emerged, she said, “that this testament to ‘fairness’ was quite grotesquely unfair to traditional families with a single earner, and to couples who had made the mistake of actually marrying (cohabiting parents will be unaffected, since there is no way of proving that they are connected to one another), an even more unfortunate signal escaped unnoticed”.

That is certainly an unintended consequence that has to be dealt with as a matter of urgency: and fortunately for my by now severely confused mental state, Matthew D’Ancona in his next door Telegraph column provided the answer – a neat solution which requires that something be done which should be done anyway: that this particular encouragement to cohabitation rather than marriage be removed. This problem, he wrote, “adds force to the (already powerful) argument that couples should be allowed, as they were in the past, to choose whether to be taxed singly or jointly”.

So, Mr Cameron: how about it? You have said repeatedly that you are in favour of the family because it is a force for stability in society: here is your chance to strengthen the family in its most stable and durable form: the form based on the marriage of a woman and a man. You don’t have to say that that’s what you’re doing if it embarrasses you: just say it’s all about “fairness”. That will do the trick. If you don’t, I foresee that this unintended consequence of your child benefit initiative will more and more return to haunt you.

  • Caldecott2

    The election before this, I voted for my sitting MP, David Cameron, after discussing exactly this issue – fiscal disincentives to stable family life – with him when he canvassed me for my vote. He told me that single income families were a thing of the past, after all his wife had a job… My point was of course not about the legitimacy of working mothers, but rather about the choice to balance family and work in a way that does not impinge disastrously on the former. After an email exchange on the issue during which I was able to put the case more fully, he promised if re-elected to at least discuss it with the rest of the party. On the strength of which I voted for him, and was amazed when he went on, within the year, to become Conservative leader.

    Having moved house I am no longer his constituent, but at this election I voted Tory again, as I liked the young woman who was standing in my area. One of the things I liked about her was her insistence that the Tories should not be the party of the privileged, but should understand how most people struggle to make ends meet without being a burden on the state. Again to my astonishment, she just squeezed in ahead of the sitting Lib Dem MP Evan Harris, who had been so confident of holding his seat that he didn't make an appearance on our streets.

    I agree with our new Prime Minister that it takes two to tango in creating a stable and just society, and that we should all do our bit for the economy. But married people with more than one or two children and no inheritance have been playing Come Dancing for decades, and we are exhausted. “It takes two!” sounds to us like the prelude to “They Shoot Horses Don't They?” I am surely not alone in feeling a desperate floating-voter moment sweep over me as I stagger towards a pensionless old age.

  • David Lindsay

    The Coalition has been in chaos from the start. How long was it before the Chief Secretary to the Treasury had to resign for something that, if done by a Housing Benefit claimant, would rightly have resulted in a prison sentence? The allegedly predominant party's only distinctive policy at the General Election, some gimmicky rubbish about schools, has had to be abandoned in all but name because no one wants anything to do with it. And now this carry on over Child Benefit, obviously not even remotely thought through.

    The people who abolished the Married Couple's Tax Allowance, in a Finance Bill voted against by every Labour MP, now propose to revive some form of it in order to “compensate” for the punishment of full-time homemakers who dared to ignore the hectoring demands of Harriet “Paedophile Information Exchange” Harman and Patricia “Paedophile Action for Liberation” Hewitt that they stop “doing nothing” and get themselves out to work.

    It should not be necessary to have to spell this out, but clearly it is. Marriage is a public good. Having children is a public good. (If it matters, I am a childless bachelor.) They are obviously connected, but they are no less obviously distinct. The State should encourage and reward both, affirming the connection between the two by the fact that there would be double encouragement and double reward for those who did both at the same time. But the Married Couple's Tax Allowance cannot “compensate” for a loss of Child Benefit, any more than vice versa. That is why it must, and in fact would, be payable to married couples without children, just as Child Benefit must be, and in fact is, payable to parents without spouses. For example, widowed mothers. Or widowed fathers.

    Speaking of fathers, now that Child Benefit is back on the agenda, who will call for the restoration of the tax allowance for fathers for so long as Child Benefit is being paid to mothers, which would be yet another reason to keep Child Benefit, and thus also the fathers' tax allowance, universal? Not David Cameron or George Osborne, because the logic of that is also the logic of a legal presumption of equal parenting, of the restoration of the requirement that providers of fertility treatment take account of the child's need for a father, and of the repeal of ludicrous provision for two women to be listed as a child's parents on a birth certificate, although even that is excelled by the provision for two men to be so listed.

    It is the logic of legislation for paternity leave to be made available at any time until the child was 18 or left school. That would reassert paternal authority, and thus require paternal responsibility, at key points in childhood and adolescence. That authority and responsibility require an economic basis such as only the State can ever guarantee, and such as only the State can very often deliver. That basis is high-wage, high-skilled, high-status employment.

    And it is the logic of requiring that all aspects of public policy take account of this urgent social and cultural need. Not least, that includes energy policy: the energy sources to be preferred by the State are those providing the high-wage, high-skilled, high-status jobs that secure the economic basis of paternal authority in the family and in the wider community. So, nuclear power. And coal, not dole. That latter was destroyed, of course, by Cameron's and Osborne's heroine, who had left her own small children to hired help while she pursued first her legal and then her political ambitions. Exactly the sort of behaviour that Osborne now proposes actively to reward through the benefits system.

    “Why does the Government regard looking after children as work deserving of payment when it is done by someone outside the family, but not when it is done by the child's own mother or father?” That question, as timely now as it was then, was posed on the floor of the House of Commons in 1997. By the late Audrey Wise. A figure firmly of the Labour Left.

  • Ian Logan

    Re. comment of Caldecott2

    As one of Cameron's constituents, I can confirm that since Cameron became PM and exposed his 'liberal' agenda, he is not so keen on responding to his constituents, particularly when they question the coherence of his social policies. So he's going to take child benefit away from (some of) the married and give it back by another mechanism? Perhaps he should have worked out the implications of that before announcing this reversal of his own policy.