The Times attacks “worryingly confused” Tory marriage tax plan

Is this a tax cut too far for the Conservatives?

Following three days when National Insurance dominated this economy-laden election campaign, attention now switches to the Tories' marriage tax allowance. Details of the plan have emerged this morning and boil down to this:

  • Four million married couples and those in civil partnerships would qualify for the tax break
  • An eligible couple would be able to transfer £750 in tax allowance from the higher-earning partner to the lower-earning partner
  • The maximum benefit will be £150 a year -- or just under £3 a week
  • The tax break would fall sharply in a marriage where the higher earner is on more than £42,500
  • It will be funded by a tax levied on wholesale lending in the City

The Times, for one, doesn't like it. Here are some choice cuts from this morning's leader:

The Tories propose to recognise marriage in the tax system, paid for by a levy on the banks. This is bad social policy advanced by an arbitrary means.

This is surely no time to be giving money away so that people can just carry on doing what they are already doing, namely being married.

In a long philosophical journey in opposition, the Tories appear to have alighted on moral authoritarianism advanced by economic interventionism. These are the wrong answers.

This policy is worryingly confused. At a time when the main message of the Conservative campaign is that there is no money, it is odd indeed to be offering handouts.

Remember, this is the delivery of a promise made by David Cameron when he was running for the leadership of the party five years ago. For one of the country's most influential -- and broadly politically non-aligned -- newspapers to be so vehemently opposed to a policy so closely associated with the party leader has to be a concern.

Meanwhile, over on the Next Left blog, Sunder Katwala argues that by trying to counter criticism that the tax break would be regressive, the Tories have landed themselves with a confused policy. Katwala notes:

The policy doesn't send a simple "pro-marriage signal" any more.

The core distinction is no longer between the married and the not married.

Instead, the policy now signals that some marriages are valued while others are not.

Some good news for the Conservatives comes in a Harris opinion poll for the Daily Mail. Asking a one-off question, the pollster found that 65 per cent of respondents believe the next government should support marriage by raising tax allowances for married couples, with 35 per cent disagreeing.

But as Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report notes, "It's one of those questions that depend a lot on how it's asked."

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.