What this Tory tax break tells us

This post first appeared on LabourList.

Good news, everyone! Well, not everyone. Good news, couples! That is, couples who are married. Couples who are married, where one of them is a basic rate taxpayer, and the other one earns less than the personal allowance. If that’s your particular niche, then congratulations! You can now register for the marriage tax allowance, saving yourself anything up to the life-changing sum of £212 a year. Although this policy is, as David Cameron reminds us, ‘about far more than pounds and pence. It’s about valuing commitment’.

Famously, JK Rowling – after publishing six bestsellling children’s books, establishing a charitable trust with an annual budget of £5.1 million, being awarded an OBE, winning countless awards, and encouraging an entire generation of children to fall in love with reading – finally became a productive and valuable member of society by getting married, in 2001. As a former single mother, she responded to David Cameron’s belief in the symbolic importance of financial rewards for married couples, in 2010:

“Nobody who has ever experienced the reality of poverty could say ‘it’s not the money, it’s the message’. When your flat has been broken into, and you cannot afford a locksmith, it is the money. When you are two pence short of a tin of baked beans, and your child is hungry, it is the money. When you find yourself contemplating shoplifting to get nappies, it is the money.”

But let’s say for the moment that it is the message. Let’s say it is for the government to tell people how to arrange their personal lives. What other messages are they sending out?

The young woman who finally ended an abusive relationship and got her violent partner out of the house – only to be evicted, because as a single person under 35 she was entitled to £150 a month less in housing benefit. What’s the message for her?

Then there was the woman who was accused of benefit fraud, because her ex-partner came round sometimes to see their kids. The DWP gave her a choice. Let your partner move back in, and we’ll add you to his claim for sickness benefits: if you don’t, we’ll stop your income support anyway, and prosecute you while we’re at it. “I’m just worried because they’re going to pay all the money straight to him,” she told me. “What if he decides not to let me have any?” What message about relationships is the government trying to send by forcing a separated couple back under the same roof?

Another woman receiving income support wanted to make sure she didn’t commit benefit fraud without realising it: she mentioned to a DWP adviser that she’d started seeing someone, and asked how often he was allowed to stay over before they were deemed to be living together. “Never,” she was told. “You’re not allowed to be in a relationship if you’re on income support.” Is that the message? You need to get married – so make sure you don’t give away the goods first?

If you’re thinking that these are extreme examples of a reasonable rule – that we should avoid, as far as possible, giving taxpayers’ money to people not in work – then how about the handful of working single mums I heard from one week? They were all having their income topped up by working tax credits, and had all received a letter saying HMRC had reason to believe they were living with a partner, and claiming fraudulently. “I don’t have a partner but I do let my teenage daughter’s boyfriend stay over sometimes – is that not allowed?” The letters – apparently sent out at random – caused a lot of confusion, but for me the message was clear: you can work, and pay tax, and bring up your kids, but as long as you are a single parent you are not to be trusted.

In any case, don’t forget just what sort of married couples will be rewarded by this tax break. One basic rate taxpayer, and one person earning under the personal allowance: otherwise known as one person going out to work, and the other one not. If you want to stay at home and look after your kids, the government will support your lifestyle, no questions asked – as long as you’ve married someone who can support it too. So be sure to stay on hubby’s good side, ladies! Perhaps next the government will find it helpful to distribute copies of the Ann Summers catalogue and a 1950 edition of Woman’s Own.

It’s tempting to imagine that this sort of socially backward appeal to good old family values is another Tory attempt to wrest back some of the support, from the right wing of their voters and their own party, that they’re losing to UKIP. But Cameron has been banging on about this tax allowance for so long – the last decade, on and off – that it seems he really does buy into the absurd, cargo-cultist belief that marriage makes people richer, more stable and better parents.

Either way, it’s a timely reminder of the Tories’ priorities. The marriage tax break is a message about what we can expect if they get back in for another five years. I just hope people are listening to it

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