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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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