Opinion: Rewarding marriage – with less than the cost of the cake…

There must be better ways for Liberals to support families that the marriage tax allowance.

Politics has always been about compromise and pragmatism and in a coalition Government we are seeing the impact of this in a very public and often painful way. For every moment of joy there are two where I want to bury my head in my hands and weep for the future of liberalism.Don't Judge

Whether we like it or not the coalition agreement set out a commitment to introducing a married couples’ tax allowance. I don’t know what the logic was at the time for agreeing such an obviously un-liberal and expensive gesture. I hope that what we gained outweighs the feeling of nausea that this policy gives me.

Before we even delve into the principles of the thing, it’s the cost that really gets me. On one hand we are cutting back on services that directly support families in their local communities whilst with the other spending £550m on a tax break that rewards people for declaring their love through an official ceremony. With the average cost of a wedding at around £18k, it is not really enough of an incentive for people to flock to their local registry office and tie the knot, but then we know in reality this is not about marriage. It’s about appeasing right wing members of the Conservatives who are beginning to feel Farage and his party seem like a tasty catch.

It is also not enough to support those households where one of the partners has decided that homemaking, childrearing or novel writing is so important that they need to stay at home. The marriage tax allowance would see £150 a year going to a third of married couples, just those where one (you can almost hear the Tories saying “the wife”) is a homemaker, whilst the other (“the man”) is the breadwinner. Single parents, widows and widowers, couples where both work, couples where neither work, cohabiters and single people all lose out. Wow, a discriminatory policy with an extra discrimination bolt-on!

Our MPs can abstain. Not that they want to, of course. They want to vote down the policy which is clearly illiberal and discriminatory, even if it does put a strain on coalition relationships. But perhaps it doesn’t have to come to that. Perhaps we can think of a better idea, one that the Tories would love too and everyone can forget this nonsense.

The grassroots campaign against the marriage tax allowance, Don’t Judge My Family has launched a call for evidence which asks academics, politicians, think tanks, charities, campaign groups and members of the public to submit ideas which would cost £550m or less to help families, relationships or giving kids the best start in life.

I don’t think my ideas will be top of the wish list, enlightened sex education (to balance access to porn and teach respect for everyone), equal access to arts kids in schools (why should only the private school kids get it) and free financial advice (because when all types of family are struggling help is very handy), but you may be able to come up with some that tickle the Tories fancy a bit more.

You can help contributing to the call for evidence (#helpdontjudge), or supporting the campaign here.

* Laura Willoughby MBE is a Lib Dem member in Islington

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  • The married couples allowance combined with the Child Care “discount” vouchers make zero hour employment contracts a desirable commodity! Since they offer potentially very low income – good for getting the maximum tax allowance, whilst giving employed status – good for getting the Child care vouchers.

    Please can someone gag Vince to stop him crusading against zero hour employment contracts …

    More seriously, I agree with the total spend argument, however if the LibDems followed this logic, they would of cancelled at least one big ticket vanity project the day after they entered government.

  • Peter Chivall 17th Aug '13 - 1:34pm

    The Coalition Agreement only mentions Married Couples Tax allowance obliquely in allowing LibDem MPs to abstain on it. If Labour got their act together they could vote it down, although some of the Ulstermen would support it. However, Labour has shown itself to be instinctively conservative on family issues in the past. The section in ‘Families and Children’ which struck me was about funding for relationship support – I wonder if that has been implemented, or would it be a good candidate for evidence to ‘Don’t Judge my Family’?

  • Andrew Colman 19th Aug '13 - 8:14am

    Not a fan of married tax allowance or subsidised childcare.

    However, If I had to chose, I would chose the married tax allowance as this subsidises parents who take time off to look after kids along with wives and husbands who may do other useful voluntary work or may require care. Childcare subsidy however is doing the reverse and is effectively subsiding low wages (insufficient to pay for childcare needs), so the benefits ultimately go to bad employers rather than families.

  • @Ian Sanderson (RM3)
    >>Why do weddings cost £18k?
    I think the rhetorical question you meant to ask was: why do people see the need to spend £18K when the Registry Office can satisfy the legal requirement for approximately £120.

    Laura’s point is quite interesting – it does help to determine a possible upper limit for a married allowance. If we treat the £18K as an investment, we ask over what term would we anticipate a reasonable return? 10, 15, 20 years?. Hence if the allowance were to be £1200, it would be at least 15 years before an average couple (who paid £18k in today’s money to get married) would possibly start to be better off… I suggest that an allowance of £1800 pa giving a possible term of 10 years is a borderline incentive to getting married.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Aug '13 - 4:52pm

    I think the rhetorical question you meant to ask was: why do people see the need to spend £18K when the Registry Office can satisfy the legal requirement for approximately £120.

    Because people now view it primarily as about making a big show rather than making a commitment. If one viewed it seriously in terms of making a commitment, one would rather make that commitment early on even if one could not afford the show, rather than wait until the show could be paid for.

    As a sort of analogy, suppose it became a habit that on election day one dressed up in one’s finest clothes to go out and vote. This would start off as a charming show of how much we value democracy that we make this effort. However, as time went on, we would find some people staying at home on election day and not voting, claiming “I can’t afford to dress up and do it”.

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