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.

Photo: Getty
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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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