The child benefit reforms are a disaster waiting to happen

Osborne has underestimated the perverse incentives that removing the benefit from higher earners will create.

Starting next week, child benefit will gradually be withdrawn from over a million families with the aim of saving the government around £1.3bn a year. But the new system is complex to understand, difficult to administer and costly to implement. After U-turns and climb downs, the government has ended up with a dog’s breakfast.

From Monday, all families claiming child benefit, where one partner earns over £50,000, will have one per cent of their child benefit withdrawn for every additional £100 of income they earn up to the threshold of £60,000, at which point the benefit is completely withdrawn. Although the government has softened its original stance on child benefit withdrawal, it will still affect roughly 1.1 million families.

By complicating what is a very simple benefit, as reflected by its high take-up rate (97 per cent), this reform is set to create all sorts of perverse incentives. The Chancellor will effectively increase the marginal tax rate for families where one person earns between £50,000 and £60,000. The rate of child benefit is £20.30 a week (or £1,056 a year) for the first child, and £13.40 a week (£697 a year) for each additional child. Based on these figures the marginal tax rate for an individual earning over £50,000 with one child will be 52.6 per cent, rather than 42 per cent. But in the extreme case, a person with six children and earnings over £50,000 will face a staggering marginal tax rate of 87.4 per cent. This translates into a net income gain of just 12.6 pence for every pound earned.

Given these high marginal tax rates, the Chancellor may have underestimated the impact this change will have on work incentives. For people with children who earn between £50,000 and £60,000, there may be little incentive to seek promotion, as any increase in their earnings will erode their child benefit entitlement. The benefit withdrawal will also seem unfair to some households. Two people in one household who both earn under £50,000, but together earn, say, £80,000 will not lose any child benefit, while a family with a single earner on £60,000 will lose it all.

The Chancellor may also have overestimated the savings that this move will bring. One logical response for someone facing a very high marginal tax rate due to the withdrawal of child benefit would be to increase their contributions to their pension. If enough people diverting earnings towards their pension pot, it could dramatically reduce the amount the government saves.

Rather than making complex changes to child benefit, the government would do better to conduct a more fundamental review of its support for families. There is evidence to suggest that spending on services for families instead of benefits is more effective in reducing child poverty. The government could extend its freeze on child benefit and use the savings to fund affordable childcare. This would avoid complicated reforms, cliff edges and perverse work incentives. Providing quality universal childcare should be a national strategic priority for public service and welfare reform, particularly as the cost of childcare largely influences parental decisions on whether work pays.

If the government is genuinely committed to welfare reform, then affordable childcare, rather than fiddly means testing, would offer the best help to struggling families.

Amna Silim is a researcher at IPPR

Chancellor George Osborne leaves Number 11 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.