David Cameron has proved a reluctant groom on the question of married family tax breaks. It is hardly surprising that yesterday’s most recent ‘promise’ has been condemned as too little and too late, writes Research Fellow Kathy Gyngell.
Mr Cameron wants to be seen as very modern while Mr Clegg, whatever else he is, is very modern. In fact Mr Clegg is so modern as to believe that marriage really doesn’t really matter anymore. Marriage – unless it is gay marriage – is not very modern. In fact it is as old as houses.
Childcare though is very modern – certainly in Mr Clegg’s book it is. His utopian vision of a sanitised universal childcare state may mean an eight to ten hour day for babies as young as 12 weeks in ‘baby units’, but never mind. It is in the higher cause Clegg thinks mothers believe in – that overarching feminist dream of returning to the toil of the workplace as soon as possible after child birth.
The nation’s reluctant groom has been clearing the government’s policy decks to make way for it. A new and generous ‘tax free childcare’ policy - £2000+ a year to working couples earning up to £300,000 - is planned.
According to a Treasury spokesman at a recent Westminster Education Policy Forum, the scheme will be up and running by this autumn. That will be after a summer consultation not with mums but with ‘stake holders’ – all those nursery chains, childcare lobbyists and ‘early educationalists’ with vested interests in the government’s already heavily subsidised childcare industry. Billed as ‘tax free childcare’ it will replace the current voluntary employers’ scheme (through NICS) into a universally claimable tax allowance. Except, that is, by mums who’d rather not opt into the Clegg dream, mothers who’d rather care for their babies at home or use friends and relatives rather than registered day care.
But we mustn’t be too hard on Mr Cameron for pursuing this while kicking married tax breaks into the long grass.
For marriage puts him in a cleft stick, if not into a muddle. Modernity, makes marriage seem more out of date than desirable. If only it were just a designer accessory as featured in the society gossip columns and HELLO as a celebrity event - like fame to be dreamt of but never achieved - then life would be much easier.
Also despite MR Clegg’s lamentable performance in the opinion polls, Mr Cameron seems so much more comfortable sharing his feminist modern high ground than the enduring principles that some of his Conservative colleagues annoyingly hang onto.
And that’s not an easy place to stay when principled MPs like Tim Loughton MP have a disagreeable habit of tugging you down from it.
For it is only now, under huge pressure from the prospect of debate on Tim Loughton’s amendment to the finance bill, that Mr Cameron promised (once again, yesterday) to enshrine the transferable tax allowance - though still at the lowest possible level - in the law, possibly this autumn.
It is hardly any wonder that Harry Benson, the Communication Director of the Marriage Foundation, described this as, ‘more of a political sop than a serious social policy’. At a £3 per week allowance the message it sends is that marriage is worth little. Nor, he believes, can such a poor token have any effect on behaviour or make marriage any more a sound economic proposition for the poorest than at the moment.
However though less than radical, it hasn’t stopped Mr Clegg from taking a snide crack at Mr Cameron’s expense about the Tory loopiness of the policy – a less than veiled reference to Mr Cameron’s own swivel eyed description of UKIP members.
‘I have never understood the virtue of a policy which basically says to people who are not married: “you will pay more tax than people who are married… Or, more particularly, are married according to the particular definition of marriage held by the Conservative party,” Clegg pontificated yesterday.
Though hardly difficult to rebut this preposterously spurious charge the Tory leadership seems less than keen to do so.
It begs the question of whether they too share Mr Clegg’s portrayal of the proposed married tax break as a sad attempt to return to a mythical golden age of nineteen fifties family life?
So I am not holding my breath for the day that Dave stands up to Nick on this policy to ask whether he thinks all the other countries in the OECD that recognize married family responsibilities in the tax system (nearly all of them) are loopy and harking back to the 1950s?
Nor do I expect him to take to the TV studios to point out exactly how and why the one earner married couple (where one spouse forgoes their income to care for their children at home) is so penalised in the tax system that looking after your children at home is perceived a waste of time?
Though if the 32 year former barrister and mother of two, Laura Perrins, can do it, it’s hard to see why Cameron can’t?
If he needs to be reminded of the lines he would need to rehearse they are here:
First, many single-income families have already sacrificed an income to care for their children at home. This is, until proved otherwise, in the best interests of the vast majority of children. Second these families pay a disproportionate amount of tax compared to double-income families - a single-income family earning £36,000 per year will pay £9,000 in tax whereas a double-income family earning the exactly same amount will pay £6,500 - a penalty that increases the higher up the income scale a single-income family is. Third, the Coalition, under the constraints of austerity, picked on single-income families again by removing child benefit completely for those earning £60,000; though allowing double-income families with combined earnings of just under £100,000, where each party earns £49,000, to retain their child benefit.
On top of all this the new ‘tax free childcare’ benefits double-income out at work families (adding to the existing billions already spent on childcare tax credit and tax breaks for mothers) from which single-income families are explicitly barred.
“Surely Nick”, he could say, “isn’t this all a bit unbalanced? Even you cannot pretend this is fair? Even you can’t tear mothers away from their babies because government policy frankly gives them no alternative – even if you and Miriam privately think that’s what ought to happen – can you?”
Why the reluctance when the argument is so strong? Does it boil down to Nick Clegg’s specious charge about unfairness to widows and cohabitees?
Marriage, he needs to tell Mr Clegg, is a social justice issue; solving the growing marriage gap is fundamental to solving the social mobility problem that Mr Clegg bangs on about and preoccupies them all. How can they not sanction this earliest and most fundamental of ‘early interventions.’ Why does he believes that only some children (like his) but not others, need the identity, love, security and stability and life chances that marriage guarantees so much better than cohabitation?
And if Mr Clegg still insists on keeping his head in the sand, perhaps he should be asked why, if supporting marriage is so out of date and iniquitous, have his beloved EU countries along with the majority of modern democracies stuck with it?