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Starting next week, child benefit will gradually be withdrawn from over a million families with the aim of saving the government around £1.3bn a year.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families claiming child benefit, where one partner earns over £50,000, will have one per cent of their child benefit withdrawn for every additional £100 of income they earn up to the threshold of £60,000, at which point the benefit is completely withdrawn.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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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