If Cameron's marriage tax break is his answer, he's asking the wrong question

At a time when millions of people are facing a cost of living crisis we should be helping all families and not just some.

The Tory Party conference offers the chance for the Prime Minister to tell the country how he plans to solve the cost of living crisis. Yet, on the first day, we find out that his flagship policy doesn’t support the vast majority of families in this country struggling to pay the bills. If David Cameron’s so-called marriage tax break is his answer, then the Prime Minister is asking the wrong question.

For millions of people across the country, this announcement will seem perverse at a time of rising prices and falling wages. Two thirds of married couples won’t benefit at all. If both work on more than £10,000 a year, they will not be able to transfer their tax allowance and they won’t get any extra money. David Cameron's flagship policy is not for anyone who is separated, widowed or divorced.

A single mum, bringing up her children, working every available hour to pay the energy bills and provide a hot meal each night for her children will not benefit. The hard-pressed couple on low pay, juggling part-time work and childcare, will not see anything from David Cameron’s announcement. A one-earner family who live on £40,000 a year will gain, but a two-earner couple on £20,000 each won’t. If a man leaves his wife, leaving his children behind and remarrying, he would benefit from this policy, whilst the mother of his children would not.

It’s a policy which is about division and stigma - not the One Nation approach we need. Many parents will think David Cameron is telling them they are second class, not worthy of his support. But they are bringing up children too. We can’t simply forget about or leave behind the millions of parents who may not be married, but love their children and work tirelessly to provide for them.

Even for the few that benefit, they may very well wonder why they receive only £3.85 per week in recognition of the commitment they made to one another, whilst David Cameron gives £1,986 per week to the 13,000 people earning over £1 million pounds with his top rate of tax cut. It’s another policy which reveals David Cameron’s priorities - millionaires and not millions of families.

And this policy is another blow to David Cameron’s already feeble attempts to understand women. Mums have consistently lost out under this government. Child benefit and tax credits, payments that traditionally go to the mother, have all been heavily cut back. For many mums, this has been a real blow, making it harder for them to support their children and taking away independent income. This policy will not solve that problem, as it will usually be paid into their husband’s account. The Tories are taking a lot from the purse and putting a little bit back into the wallet.

Most families are already struggling with the cost of living crisis and the clobbering they have received from this Tory-led government. Energy bills are up and prices have risen faster than wages in 38 out of 39 months of David Cameron being in Downing Street. Families with children have been hardest hit by government policies already - losing £7bn in things like child benefit and tax credits.

At a time when millions of people are facing a cost of living crisis we should be helping all families and not just some. That's what Labour set out this week with plans to freeze energy bills and expand free childcare for working parents.

I am married and the day I walked down the aisle was one of the most important and happiest of my life. But when David Cameron says "Love is love. Commitment is commitment", he doesn’t mean this for everyone. In Cameron’s Britain, some people’s love and commitment - to their partner and to their children - simply don't count.

Rachel Reeves is Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

"David Cameron's flagship policy is not for anyone who is separated, widowed or divorced." Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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If only I could wangle a job in the John Lewis menswear department I’d get to say, “Suits you, sir”

I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

So now that I have made the news public that I am even deeper in the soup than I was when I started this column, various people – in fact, a far greater number than I had dared hope would – have expressed their support. Most notable, as far as I can tell, was Philip Pullman’s. That was decent of him. But the good wishes of people less in the public eye are just as warming to the heart.

Meanwhile, the question is still nagging away at me: what are you going to do now? This was the question my mother’s sisters would always ask her when a show she was in closed, and my gig might have been running for almost as long as The Mousetrap but hitherto the parallels with entertainment had eluded me.

“That’s show business,” she said to me, and for some reason that, too, is a useful comment. (I once saw a picture of a fairly well-known writer for page and screen dressed up, for a fancy-dress party, as a hot dog. The caption ran: “What? And give up show business?”)

Anyway, the funds dwindle, although I am busy enough to find that time does not weigh too heavily on my hands. The problem is that this work has either already been paid for or else is some way off being paid for, if ever, and there is little fat in the bank account. So I am intrigued when word reaches me, via the Estranged Wife, that another family member, who perhaps would prefer not to be identified, suggests that I retrain as a member of the shopfloor staff in the menswear department of John Lewis.

At first I thought something had gone wrong with my hearing. But the E W continued. The person who had made the suggestion had gone on to say that I was fairly dapper, could talk posh, and had the bearing, when it suited me, of a gentleman.

I have now thought rather a lot about this idea and I must admit that it has enormous appeal. I can just see myself. “Not the checked jacket, sir. It does not become sir. May I suggest the heather-mixture with the faint red stripe?”

In the hallowed portals of Jean Louis (to be said in a French accent), as I have learned to call it, my silver locks would add an air of gravitas, instead of being a sign of superannuation, and an invitation to scorn. I would also get an enormous amount of amusement from saying “Walk this way” and “Suits you, sir”.

Then there are the considerable benefits of working for the John Lewis Partnership itself. There is the famed annual bonus; a pension; a discount after three months’ employment; paid holiday leave; et cetera, et cetera, not to mention the camaraderie of my fellow workers. I have worked too long alone, and spend too much time writing in bed, nude, surrounded by empty packets of Frazzles and Dinky Deckers. (For those who are unfamiliar with the latter, a Dinky Decker is a miniature version of a Double Decker, which comes in a bag, cunningly placed by the tills of Sainsbury’s Locals, which is usually priced at a very competitive £1.)

I do some research. I learn from an independent website that a retail sales assistant can expect to make £7.91 an hour on average. This is somewhat less than what is considered the living wage in London, but maybe this is accounted for in the John Lewis flagship store in Oxford Street. It is, though, a full 6p an hour more than the living wage in the rest of the land. Let the good times roll!

At which point a sudden panic assails me: what if employment at that store is only granted to those of long and proven service? God, they might send me out to Brent Cross or somewhere. I don’t think I could stand that. I remember when Brent Cross Shopping Centre opened and thought to myself, even as a child, that this was my idea of hell. (It still is, though my concept of hell has broadened to include Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush.)

But, alas, I fear this tempting change of career is not to be. For one thing, I am probably too old to train now. By the time I will have been taught to everyone’s satisfaction how to operate a till or measure an inside leg, I will be only a few months, if that, from retirement age, and I doubt that even so liberal an employer as John Lewis would be willing to invest in someone so close to the finish line.

Also, I have a nasty feeling that it’s not all heather-mixture suits with (or without) the faint red stripe these days. The public demands other, less tasteful apparel.

So I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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