Will Balls be forced to use the 50p tax to protect benefits?

Pegging the welfare uprating to the 50p tax rate would be an expensive decision in terms of future policy development.

Ed Balls yesterday gave the clearest indication yet of how Labour intends to handle coalition plans to raise benefits by less than the rate of inflation over the next three years.

George Osborne’s aim to put a Welfare Uprating Bill before parliament next year is plainly meant as a political trap for Labour – forcing them, or so the Chancellor sees it, into unpopular defence of wasteful spending on benefit-dependent layabouts. (The nuances of Osborne’s calculation and the dilemmas it poses for Labour are examined in more detail here, here and here.)

Balls was challenged in parliament to say whether he would support the measure. The nub of his reply was to suggest that Labour would only back the real terms cut to welfare provision on the condition that the top 50p rate of income tax is restored. Specifically he said:

“On the question he asked, we will look at the legislation. But if he intends to go ahead with such an unfair hit on mid- and lower-income working families, while he’s giving a £3 billion top rate tax cut, we will oppose it.”

There is no chance of the 50p tax rate coming back, so in effect Labour is committed to voting against the Welfare Uprating Bill and hoping to reframe the argument around fair contributions from the top of society when those at the bottom – specifically those in work and struggling to get by – are hit hardest.

Much commentary on Labour’s position has focused on the difficulties the party will face winning over voters who are hostile to the idea of benefit “scroungers”.  Balls’s solution indicates that he has his eye on a different dimension to the problem, which is that by opposing Osborne’s move he implicitly makes a spending commitment – and the shadow chancellor is deeply averse to making any of those before he has to.

Balls will be alert to the accusation coming down the line that, whatever Labour says it plans to do about the deficit after 2015, it has already implicitly offered to raise spending on benefits. This can easily be fashioned into an attack along the lines summarised by one shadow cabinet minister as “the £10bn benefits black hole in Labour’s plans”. Not surprisingly, that is a charge Balls is determined to avoid.

Pegging the welfare uprating to the 50p tax rate at least provides some fiscal cover to the Labour position – but it would be an expensive decision in terms of future policy development. It implies a Labour pledge to restore the top rate as soon as the party gets into power and then pre-emptively spends the proceeds, which means the cash isn’t available for anything else. There aren’t that many obvious revenue-raising measures going spare. Balls will not be happy if Osborne forces him to deploy one of them upfront and on benefit spending, more than two years before an election.

Ed Balls said Labour would oppose "an unfair hit on mid and lower income working families". Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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