Five problems with the Tories' marriage tax allowance

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

Three years after the formation of the coalition, the Tories have finally announced plans to introduce a marriage tax allowance. In response, one might ask, what took them so long? The proposal was included in the 2010 Conservative manifesto and the coalition agreement, which provided the Lib Dems with the right to abstain. But senior Tories, most notably the socially liberal George Osborne, have long recognised that the policy is profoundly flawed. Let us count the ways.

1. Only a third of married couples will​ benefit 

Despite the broad promise to "recognise marriage" in the tax system, just a third of couples will benefit from the move. The policy will only apply to basic rate taxpayers not using all of their personal allowance (which currently stands at £9,440), allowing them to transfer up to £1,000 to their spouse or civil partner, reducing the latter's tax bill by around £200. As a result, just four million out of the 12.3 million married couples will benefit (at a cost of £600m), 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 has 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 measure 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 and widows and widowers

In a recent GQ article, Andy Coulson described the perception that the Tories frown upon single parents as "electoral halitosis", but this policy unambiguously discriminates against them. Among those who also don't gain from the policy, as the campaign group Don't Judge My Family notes, are widows and widowers, people who leave abusive relationships and working couples (discussed below). Are liberal Conservatives really comfortable with tilting the tax system against them? The philanderer on his third marriage gains, while the hard-pressed single mother is ignored.

3. It will reduce work incentives

Through policies such as reserving childcare support for dual-earner couples and increasing the personal tax allowance, the coalition 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 has 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 £1,000 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 and his wife Samantha during their holiday on May 26, 2013 in Ibiza, Spain. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.