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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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