The Tories are in danger of appearing complacent over child benefit cuts

Even if the majority of voters support the policy, those who don't could yet hurt the Tories.

In a bid to assuage Tory MPs fearful that the child benefit cuts could be their 10p tax moment, the Conservatives have released new private polling showing that the overwhelming majority of voters support the policy, including those who will lose out. The party's survey, conducted by Populus (and reportedly commissioned by George Osborne), found that 82 per cent of people favour plans to taper the benefit away from households in which at least one person earns more than £50,000 (those in which one person earns at least £60,000 will lose it all together), with just 13 per cent opposed. In addition, 78 per cent of people with children under-18 support the policy, as do 74 per cent of households earning over £69,000, 82 per cent of households with income between £55,000 and £69,000, and 80 per cent of households with income between £41,000 and £55,000.

We've yet to see the wording of the question used by the Tories, but the results are in line with previous polls on the subject. Despite this, it's hard to avoid the sense that the party is in danger of lapsing into complacency. As HM Revenue & Customs will inform those affected this week, families will lose £1,055.60 a year for a first child and a further £696.80 a year for each additional child, meaning that a family with three children stands to lose £2,449.20 - the equivalent of a £3,500 pay cut (since child benefit is untaxed).

The Tories argue that the policy, which takes effect in January 2013, differs from Gordon Brown's ill-fated decision to abolish the 10p tax rate in at least three respects. First, while Brown insisted for months, against all evidence to the contrary, that there would be "no losers" from the move, the coalition has been clear that some will lose out - they can't be accused of deception. Second, while it was the low-paid who lost out under Brown's policy (they saw their marginal tax rate double from 10p to 20p), it is the top 15 per cent of earners who lose out under the Tories'. Finally, while the 10p tax move was widely viewed as "unfair", the majority of voters believe the child benefit cuts are fair.

But as the Daily Express's Patrick O'Flynn suggests, more important than question of how many oppose the policy, is the intensity of their opposition. If the 13 per cent opposed to the move vote against the Tories in protest at the next election, the party will suffer significant losses. Thus, Osborne's poll, if intended to reassure Conservative backbenchers, is likely to have the opposite effect. Rather than persuading Tory MPs that the Chancellor understands their concerns, it will only confirm their fear that he doesn't.

Chancellor George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.