What if the tax and benefits system already rewards marriage?

If you want the system to incentivise staying together, then relax.

MPs have written to the Chancellor this morning calling for the introduction of a marriage tax allowance. But what if the tax and benefits system already rewards marriage?

This would challenge the idea of the 'couple penalty' - the idea that the tax and benefit system makes it more attractive for families to split up than stay together. It's not mentioned in the MPs' letter, but it's an implicit part of the debate around the issue.

In principle, it sounds like a simple thing to work out: you would just need to calculate whether the system makes people richer if they split up, or not.

The problem is that it's relatively easy to work out how taxes and benefits change if a couple split up - but harder to work out how their cost of living changes. Economies of scale kick in when you live with a partner, and you need to calculate how much cheaper bills, rent and living expenses are under one roof.

The usual way of working out this is using an equivalence scale: a ratio that estimates how much extra family members cost. Most analyses that have suggested a 'couple penalty' exists rely on these scales, and usually an OECD scale drawn up in 1982. These scales generally rely on researchers' assumptions [pdf] about economies of scale and how people live - not, as a rule, actual evidence about how people live. They're not entirely plucked out of the air, but they are not really a meaningful way to assess relative need.

So why not ditch the abstraction, and actually aim to understand what people in the real world need to live on based on a common framework, and then work out the relative cost of living together or apart?

We need not imagine: this June some researchers did just that (report here [pdf]). Analysing what real, live, actual people said they need to live, and then combing through that to work out the precise cost of living, it found a rather different picture. An unemployed couple, for example, would be £62 a week worse off if they split up; if one parent was in work at £9 an hour they would £36 worse off; if both worked, it was £44. The numbers vary by family size and type but as a rule, people are not better off apart.

None of this necessarily makes the idea of marriage tax allowances a bad one, or undermines the aim of supporting families more generally. It does suggest extreme caution though. Policy based on a purely theoretical understanding of how couples manage money is likely to be ineffective policy. Examining the couple penalty is far from easy, but the best analysis we have suggests it doesn't exist on a systematic basis.

What's more, it suggests much of the angst about undermining marriage is misplaced. If you want the system to incentivise staying together, then relax, and rejoice: it already does.

Photograph: Getty Images

Gordon Hector is public affairs manager for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.