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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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