It must count as some achievement to attract the simultaneous ire of the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the trade union movement and the Labour Party. That’s the unusual position George Osborne finds himself in this morning as his raid on child benefit comes under attack.
It appears that the cabinet was given little, if any, advance warning of the move, with one minister describing it as “complete bombshell”. The Mail and Telegraph both attack the measure as a blow against the family in their leaders this morning and the IFS warns of the perverse anti-work incentives that result from the move. The decision to abolish child benefit for all higher-rate taxpayers means that a one-earner couple with two children with a gross income of £43,876-£46,850 would be worse off than if their income were £43,875. A one-earner couple with an income of £43,875 would need a pay rise of at least £2,975 to ensure they were no worse off after paying tax and losing child benefit.
It’s for reasons like this that, less than 24 hours after the measure was announced, the children’s minister, Tim Loughton, has already floated the possibility of “compensating measures” for those who have lost out. Is this the coalition’s 10p tax moment? It would be foolish to rule it out. The decision to simultaneously abolish tax credits for all those earning over £30,000 means that there will be howls of anguish from those set to lose thousands of pounds of benefits in a single stroke.
But far more significant is the fact that this marks the opening salvo in the coalition’s war on the universal welfare state. The decision to make child benefit universal was never just about income, rather it was the means by which society collectively recognised and supported the decision of couples to start a family. Once the poison of means-testing is injected into the system, the principles on which the entire welfare state is built start to break down. And it is the poorest who will suffer the most from the abandonment of universality. As the great sociologist, Richard Titmuss phrased it: “services for the poor will always be poor services.” Ed Miliband must live up to his campaign promises and resist the coalition all the way.