Progressives or regressives? The Lib Dems must choose on childcare policy

The coalition hasn’t resolved the role the welfare system should play in supporting families with children. The impasse on childcare policy reflects this.

Often it takes the deadline of an impending announcement to really expose underlying tensions about the future direction of policy. The coalition’s recent sorry saga on childcare policy  – breathless briefings about a major expansion in tax-relief meant to herald the coalition’s renewed vitality, followed by an awkward silence and then the inevitable stories about who is to blame for the lack of progress - is a case in point.  Never mind what this tells us about the coalition’s aptitude for media management, it also reflects something important about underlying attitudes towards the nature of the tax and benefit system. 

There have, of course, always been different objectives in our welfare system with different parties placing varying amounts of weight on them: social insurance or poverty reduction; targeting individuals or households. But when it comes to the question of how to support families with children through the tax and benefit system the current government seems to be in more of a muddle than most. Which in some respects is odd given that there is actually a fair amount of agreement within it.

To unpick this we need to consider that different governing logics are shaping current tax and benefit reforms. First, there is the agenda of targeting financial support at poorer households and doing this in a way that seeks to support work incentives. That’s the logic of Universal Credit (leave to one side whether it will be successfully delivered); just as it was for much, though not all, of the tax credit system that was built up under Labour. Both coalition parties agree there is still a role for this approach; but both think it should be a much diminished one (in part because of fiscal constraints, but not only because of this). Hence spending in pursuit of this objective has been cut back sharply and child poverty is set to climb steeply as a result.

Then there is the agenda of ensuring ‘fairness’ for individual tax payers as opposed to households. This second logic results in the personal tax allowance being prioritised. It is completely blind to household income or family circumstance: it matters not a jot to the size of your tax allowance whether you have no children or five. Again, both coalition parties have agreed it is right to spend very large sums of money on supporting individuals in the tax system – though the Lib Dems have been in the vanguard. The unnecessary collision between raising the personal tax allowance on the one hand, and the design of the Universal Credit on the other (something that has been highlighted before on this blog), meaning that low income claimants will lose the majority of any gains arising from future increases in their tax allowance, perhaps reflects the different political homes of the two flagship policies. 

There is a third and contrasting logic that says the tax and benefit system should be designed to recognise the financial pressures facing different types of households, for instance those with children compared to those without. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘tax-rebate’ objective – the point being that it’s not right to ask a family with three children to pay the same tax-bill as the single person on the same earnings (‘tax-rebate’ is in fact a misnomer as it’s about the additional costs a household may face whether or not they are supported through the tax or benefit system).

It was this  ‘rebate’ argument that led to child tax allowances being created in the People’s Budget by Lloyd George, renewed by Beveridge (alongside the family allowance), and then replaced by their more progressive and female-friendly successor, Child Benefit, ushered in by Barbara Castle in the mid-1970s. It was also this logic that underpinned a poorly explained part of Labour’s tax credit system: the ‘family element’, which was in effect a form of flat-rate payment, a bit like a tax allowance, which went to the majority of families with children though not the richest. This majoritarian component of tax credits was never really communicated in ‘rebate’ terms - and for both political and administrative reasons it was probably a mistake to include it in the tax credit system. Either way, that’s the role it played.

Support for this ‘rebate’ argument has recently also been in sharp retreat – at least when it comes to the benefit system. Child benefit has been frozen and clumsily affluence tested, and tax credits stripped away from middle income households. The result is that there are now two systems of means-tested support for families in operation at different parts of the income distribution. Again, both coalition parties have agreed to these changes - though I very much doubt either would have designed from scratch what has emerged as a result. 

So far this describes a picture of politically harmonious messiness on the question of how the tax and benefit system should support families. But sharper coalition tensions emerge when it comes to using the tax (as opposed to benefits) system to give recognition to different types of households. The Conservative Party is, of course, formally committed to a tax allowance to support marriage – a proposal which the Lib Dems can’t conceal their contempt for (along with, in private at least, a number of ‘liberal’ Tories). Tellingly, some influential voices on the right are pushing for the (re)creation of child tax allowances as opposed to a marriage allowance. Meanwhile, in a new twist to this ‘rebate’ logic, David Cameron and George Osborne want to use the tax system to support families with children so long as this is specifically for the costs of childcare, not those incurred more generally in raising a child. Tax-breaks (good thing) rather than tax credits or cash benefits (bad thing) are the order of the day: tax-break universalism appears to be alive and well; benefit-universalism is very last season.

On this note, at least, the Lib Dems appear, for now, to demur – hence the current childcare impasse (though doubtless a compromise will eventually be reached). Some, at least, are acutely aware that tax-reliefs - while often quite popular - are almost inescapably regressive. They exclude those who don’t work along with the rapidly growing numbers of the low paid who earn too little to pay tax – together amounting to roughly 40 per cent of the working age population. They are tilted against even larger numbers who earn too little to take full advantage of the relief on offer. And, of course, tax reliefs do much more for dual earning households who tend to be better off than their single earning counterparts. (It’s noteworthy, however, that the same Lib Dems have a tin ear when much the same arguments are applied to the personal tax allowance itself). Whether you love or loathe it, the policy of ‘taking people out of tax’ accentuates the distributional impact of tax-breaks. 

The result? Either Lib Dems reconcile themselves to the fact that the biggest gains from tax-breaks will be captured by higher income households - all the more so because of their own flagship tax policy - or they push back against the proposed use of reliefs and make an argument for the direct funding of universal childcare services as a central element of the welfare state. Which, as it happens, is the sort of argument they would have to sign up to if they find themselves in any sort of governing arrangement with Labour after 2015.

For now, we are left with the appearance of coalition confusion on how best to use the tax and benefit system to support families. Though, perhaps it’s less confusion and more that there are different parts of government who are each clear about the variety of welfare logic they want to prioritise - and no part of government capable of successfully reconciling them. Whoever wins the next election will inherit a system of support for families that no party will feel comfortable with.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg speak at a press conference inside 10 Downing Street to mark the coalition's half-way point earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Brexit has opened up big rifts among the remaining EU countries

Other non-Euro countries will miss Britain's lobbying - and Germany and France won't be too keen to make up for our lost budget contributions.

Untangling 40 years of Britain at the core of the EU has been compared to putting scrambled eggs back into their shells. On the UK side, political, legal, economic, and, not least, administrative difficulties are piling up, ranging from the Great Repeal Bill to how to process lorries at customs. But what is less appreciated is that Brexit has opened some big rifts in the EU.

This is most visible in relations between euro and non-euro countries. The UK is the EU’s second biggest economy, and after its exit the combined GDP of the non-euro member states falls from 38% of the eurozone GDP to barely 16%, or 11% of EU’s total. Unsurprisingly then, non-euro countries in Eastern Europe are worried that future integration might focus exclusively on the "euro core", leaving others in a loose periphery. This is at the core of recent discussions about a multi-speed Europe.

Previously, Britain has been central to the balance between ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, often leading opposition to centralising eurozone impulses. Most recently, this was demonstrated by David Cameron’s renegotiation, in which he secured provisional guarantees for non-euro countries. British concerns were also among the reasons why the design of the European Banking Union was calibrated with the interests of the ‘outs’ in mind. Finally, the UK insisted that the euro crisis must not detract from the development of the Single Market through initiatives such as the capital markets union. With Britain gone, this relationship becomes increasingly lop-sided.

Another context in which Brexit opens a can of worms is discussions over the EU budget. For 2015, the UK’s net contribution to the EU budget, after its rebate and EU investments, accounted for about 10% of the total. Filling in this gap will require either higher contributions by other major states or cutting the benefits of recipient states. In the former scenario, this means increasing German and French contributions by roughly 2.8 and 2 billion euros respectively. In the latter, it means lower payments to net beneficiaries of EU cohesion funds - a country like Bulgaria, for example, might take a hit of up to 0.8% of GDP.

Beyond the financial impact, Brexit poses awkward questions about the strategy for EU spending in the future. The Union’s budgets are planned over seven-year timeframes, with the next cycle due to begin in 2020. This means discussions about how to compensate for the hole left by Britain will coincide with the initial discussions on the future budget framework that will start in 2018. Once again, this is particularly worrying for those receiving EU funds, which are now likely to either be cut or made conditional on what are likely to be more political requirements.

Brexit also upends the delicate institutional balance within EU structures. A lot of the most important EU decisions are taken by qualified majority voting, even if in practice unanimity is sought most of the time. Since November 2014, this has meant the support of 55% of member states representing at least 65% of the population is required to pass decisions in the Council of the EU. Britain’s exit will destroy the blocking minority of a northern liberal German-led coalition of states, and increase the potential for blocking minorities of southern Mediterranean countries. There is also the question of what to do with the 73 British MEP mandates, which currently form almost 10% of all European Parliament seats.

Finally, there is the ‘small’ matter of foreign and defence policy. Perhaps here there are more grounds for continuity given the history of ‘outsourcing’ key decisions to NATO, whose membership remains unchanged. Furthermore, Theresa May appears to have realised that turning defence cooperation into a bargaining chip to attract Eastern European countries would backfire. Yet, with Britain gone, the EU is currently abuzz with discussions about greater military cooperation, particularly in procurement and research, suggesting that Brexit can also offer opportunities for the EU.

So, whether it is the balance between euro ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, multi-speed Europe, the EU budget, voting blocs or foreign policy, Brexit is forcing EU leaders into a load of discussions that many of them would rather avoid. This helps explain why there is clear regret among countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, at seeing such a key partner leave. It also explains why the EU has turned inwards to deal with the consequences of Brexit and why, although they need to be managed, the actual negotiations with London rank fairly low on the list of priorities in Brussels. British politicians, negotiators, and the general public would do well to take note of this.

Ivaylo Iaydjiev is a former adviser to the Bulgarian government. He is currently a DPhil student at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford

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