The child benefit tax could be a disaster for the coalition

More than 300,000 households have not been informed that they must either stop claiming child benefit or pay a new tax.

2013 will be a year of dramatic changes to the welfare system: the introduction of the benefit cap, the abolition of Council Tax Benefit and, most notably, the national rollout of Universal Credit. But the first test for the government will come next Monday when the withdrawal of child benefit from higher earners begins. From 7 January, payments will be tapered away from individuals earning over £50,000 and completely withdrawn at £60,000 (however, a household with two earners each on £50,000 will keep the benefit in full). Those households affected will either need to stop claiming the benefit or pay a new tax (known as the High Income Child Benefit Tax Charge) to cover the cost of the payments. Families will lose £1,055.60 a year for a first child and a further £696.80 a year for each additional child, meaning that a family with three children stands to lose £2,449.20 - the equivalent of a £3,500 pay cut (since child benefit is untaxed)

With the changes announced as long ago as the 2010 Conservative conference, the government has had no shortage of time in which to inform those who will lose out. But as today's Telegraph reports, almost a third of the families affected have still not been formally warned that they will no longer be eligible for all or part of the benefit. Of the 1.1 million households due to be affected by the change, 316,000 have not yet been contacted by the tax authorities. As a result, having missed the opportunity to opt out of the new system (as 160,000 have done), they will have to fill in self-assessment forms or face fines running into hundreds of pounds.

A spokesman for HMRC insists that "extensive advertising, media and online activity" means those affected will know about the changes. However, it's not hard to imagine that some families will get a nasty surprise when they discover that they owe hundreds of pounds in additional tax.

But then the Conservatives have long appeared complacent over the policy. Last year, in a bid to assuage Tory MPs fearful that the party could be heading for a 10p tax moment, George Osborne released private polling showing that 82 per cent of people favour the plan, with just 13 per cent opposed. But as I've argued before, more important than the question of how many oppose the policy, is the intensity of their opposition. If even a small chunk of the 13 per cent opposed to the move vote against the Tories in protest at the next election, the party will suffer significant losses. And those who lose out certainly won't be feeling charitable if the government hasn't had the courtesy to inform them of as much.

George Osborne announced the coalition's plan to remove child benefit from higher earners at the 2010 Conservative conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.