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.

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.