Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Balls calls for Osborne to scrap marriage tax allowance to fund 10p tax rate

Shadow chancellor says 10p tax rate would benefit two-thirds of married couples, while tax allowance would help just one-third.

Ahead of the Budget on Wednesday, Ed Balls has given an interview to the BBC calling on George Osborne to scrap the planned marriage tax allowance and use the money saved to introduce a 10p tax rate.

It's a smart intervention, not least because the socially liberal Osborne privately loathes the policy (for both political and economic reasons). As Balls notes, despite the broad promise to "recognise marriage" in the tax system, just a third of couples (4.1 million) will gain from the move. Eighty four per cent of the winners are men and just one in six families with children will benefit. By contrast, a 10p rate of tax would help 24 million taxpayers, including two-thirds (eight million) of married couples. 

Here's Balls's exchange with Nick Robinson: 

EB: What did he actually announce last year, he said that he would introduce a married couples allowance which, when you look at the detail, only goes to a third of married couples, and one in six families with children, it goes mainly to men. We think what we should actually do is scrap the married couples allowance which is perverse and unfair, and use that money to give a tax cut for all middle and lower income families. We propose a new 10p starting rate of income tax, it's better than the personal allowance, because it’s better for work incentives, it would help two-thirds of married couples, it would help women as well as men, families with children. Let’s cut taxes for working families, and let’s ease this cost-of-living crisis rather than carrying on pandering to Tory backbenchers with tax cuts that are unfair and don’t make sense.

NR: Let me be clear what you’re telling us, if you’re Chancellor, the marriage tax break goes?

EB: Well it goes, because let’s be honest, it doesn’t go to widows, it doesn’t go to people who’ve been left by an abusive husband, it only goes to a third of married couples, the vast majority of families with children get no benefit, get rid of that, and use that money to help all middle and lower income families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. Fair tax cuts from Labour, not unfair tax cuts from George Osborne.

When I asked a Balls source whether the announcement meant the revenue that would be raised through a mansion tax (which Labour has pledged to introduce on properties worth more than £2m to fund a 10p rate) could be used for other measures, I was told that the party was not "de-linking 10p and mansion tax", or making a firm commitment to scrap the marriage tax allowance to help pay for the former. Rather, it is an example of a fairer choice that Osborne could make next week and an affirmation of Labour's commitment to tax cuts for the many, not the few. 

Balls is certainly right to emphasise his opposition to the marriage tax allowance, which is, as I've written before, a terrible policy. It will reduce work incentives by encouraging second earners to stay at home, further complicate the tax system and do little to support those families most in need of help. It's also, as Osborne has recognised, bad politics.

In a GQ article earlier this year, 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 has noted, are widows and widowers, people who leave abusive relationships and working couples. 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.

But under relentless pressure from Conservative backbenchers, Cameron has been forced to press ahead with a measure that will further toxify the Tory brand. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.