Explaining the child benefit saga

Do you prioritise fairness for individuals or for households? The coalition is realising you can't d

Observing a government in the midst of a policy u-turn is rarely an elegant sight. When it is drawn out over an extended period, and fuelled by briefing and nods and winks from the PM downwards, it is even less edifying. So it is with the coalition's current contortions on Child Benefit.

None of the proposals being discussed as improvements to the coalition's original idea (to axe Child Benefit for households with a higher rate tax payer) are attractive. All are likely to be an administrative nightmare. Indeed, if the government could press rewind I doubt very much they would choose to repeat the initial pledge they made (not withstanding polling evidence showing it could be quite popular). And if they could press fast-forward into the future my guess is that they would probably decide not to plump for the sort of complex proposal that they are reportedly leaning towards (for instance creating what would in effect be a new tax threshold at £50k).

As things stand, Osborne's room for manoeuvre is limited. He's made clear that he wants to remove Child Benefit from the affluent. Some of the ways of achieving this that have been floated by leading voices like the IFS, such as integrating Child Benefit within the tax credit system, and so means-testing it according to household income, are now likely to be deemed to be politically too difficult (even though they might have once been possible back in 2010).

Why? Because they would hit (many) households with two earners each on say £30k-35k. You might think this would be more rational than axing Child Benefit for single earner households on £45k. Perhaps. But the last thing a government in retreat wants when placating one group of losers is to create another disgruntled set who previously thought they would escape unscathed. Indeed, the biggest risk the coalition faces right now on this issue is not that they fail to recoup the full £2.4bn they were hoping to save, but that they find themselves making a series of expensive concessions as each new proposal they make comes under pressure. They need to find a position they are sure they can defend and stick to it.

Given the hole they are now in on this issue, and assuming a complete u-turn is not on the cards, the least bad option for Osborne would probably be to ditch the idea of abolition and instead start taxing Child Benefit for higher rate taxpayers; though he will probably feel this falls short of what he needs to do (and it still suffers from some of the problems as his original idea).

Given the upheaval, it's worth asking what led the government down this path? Part of the answer is the tendency towards politically-driven but ill-conceived policy announcements - recall that the Child Benefit proposal arose in the first place in order to soften up opinion in advance of the wider cuts to the benefit system.

But it also reflects an underlying and still unresolved issue about the future of the tax system. Take a step back from the detail of this row and consider what pattern emerges from the coalition's changes to the tax and benefit system. In terms of where money has been spent, it has been on Clegg's flagship idea of increasing personal allowances - an agenda which is primarily about tax-cuts targeted at individuals. Meanwhile those parts of the tax and benefit system targeted at supporting households and children (like tax credits) face harsh cuts, though no one in the coalition would like to put it this way.

The Child Benefit proposal is an uncomfortable hybrid: it's based on individual earnings (means testing child benefit for higher rate tax-payers) but in a very clunky and arbitrary way it nods towards considering household income in that it asks each claimant whether their partner pays the higher rate of tax. The result, as has been widely pointed out, is that the single-earner household on £45k risks losing up to several thousand pounds while the dual-earning household on a combined income of £80k loses nothing.

At the heart of the issue is the point that tax and benefit reforms can prioritise fairness for individuals (Clegg's argument), or they can seek to respect the principle of individual taxation whilst advancing greater equity for low and modest income households with children - which is in essence what tax credits seek to achieve (at the price of far greater complexity). But they can't do both at once.

Regardless of how the current Child Benefit saga plays out it is unlikey to be the final word in this debate about supporting individuals as opposed to households. Why so? Because if personal allowances continue to be the favoured mechanism for tax reform, and there's little reason to think they won't for as long as the coalition survives, then sooner or later their comparative shortcomings as a way of supporting families with children will surface as more of an issue.

Liberal Democrat strategists concede as much (at least in private). Looking to the longer term they are interested in exploring ways of making the personal allowance better reflect household circumstances - for instance through some form of children's tax allowance. This isn't an issue for now, but could well be in the event Lib Dems are in with a real chance of forming another coalition government beyond 2015.

If you think some of this sounds vaguely familiar, you'd be right. We used to have child tax allowances before they were phased out in the 1970s and replaced by the Callaghan government with (you guessed it) a version of today's Child Benefit - a system thought to be much more beneficial to mothers than its predecessor.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.