Five problems with the Tories' married couple's tax allowance

Including, only a third of married couples will actually gain, it discriminates against single parents and it reduces work incentives.

With Tory MPs continuing to agitate for the introduction of a married couple's tax allowance, Treasury minister David Gauke has written a letter to backbenchers reassuring them that the government "will legislate for this in this Parliament". 

The policy, as outlined in the 2010 Conservative manifesto, would allow individuals not using all of their personal tax allowance (because their income is less than the current threshold of £9,440) to transfer up to £750 of this unused allowance to their spouse or civil partner, reducing the latter's tax bill by up to £150. It would apply only to couples where the higher-income member is a basic rate taxpayer, with gains tapered away from higher earners. The proposal was included in the Tory manifesto and the coalition agreement provided the Lib Dems with the right to abstain, so Tory MPs are understandably angered by the government's tardiness. But as I show below, there are at least five good reasons why George Osborne (one of the most socially liberal MPs) shows every sign of wanting to abandon it. 

1. Only a third of married couples will​ benefit 

Despite the broad promise to "recognise marriage" in the tax system, most married couples won't gain from it. In 2010, the IFS estimated that just four million out of 12.3 million married couples would benefit (at a cost of £550m), including only 2.5 million of the 8.7 million married couples with someone in work. The remaining 1.5 million gainers are mostly married pensioners. As the IFS noted, "The policy is not, therefore, a general recognition of marriage in the tax system, as it affects only 32% of married couples and 29% of non-pensioner married couples." 

The policy could, of course, be redesigned so that all or most married couples benefit but this, not least for the fiscally conservative Osborne, would be prohibitively expensive. 

2. It discriminates against single parents, widows and widowers and more

In his recent GQ article, Andy Coulson described the perception that David Cameron does not like single parents as "electoral halitosis", but this policy unambiguously discriminates against them. Among those who also don't gain from the policy, as Don't Judge My Family notes, are widows and widowers, people who leave abusive relationships and working couples (discussed below). Is Osborne comfortable with tilting the tax system against them? In addition, if, as previously suggested, those in civil partnerships benefit from the measure, it will become even harder for the government to argue against introducing them for heterosexual couples (a policy that, unlike equal marriage, really would undermine marriage). 

3. It will reduce work incentives

Through policies such as reserving childcare support for dual-earner couples, Osborne has sought to increase work incentives, but this measure will reduce them. Since only those couples with one earner with an income above the personal allowance will benefit, it will encourage actual or potential second earners to stay at home. 

4. There's no evidence that marriage improves child outcomes

One of the main justifications for the policy is that marriage is beneficial for children. As Iain Duncan Smith has argued, "You cannot mend Britain’s broken society unless you support and value the institution which is at the heart of a stable society". But while children born to married couples have better developmental outcomes than those born to cohabiting couples, there's no evidence that this is due to marriage itself. Instead, as the IFS and others have argued, it is more likely due to the fact that better educated and higher-earning couples are more likely to get married. The right has confused correlation and cause. 

5. It will further complicate the tax system

Osborne has made much of his commitment to simplifying the tax system, but this proposal will create a new layer of complexity. To summarise, it will introduce a transferable allowance restricted to a third of married couples, capped at £750 and tapered away from higher-rate taxpayers. As the IFS points out, "Simpler ways to provide support to low- to middle income married couples would include introducing a married couples’ ‘premium’ into working tax credit and pension credit." 

David Cameron speaks with scientists before opening the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery at Oxford University on May 3, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity