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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.