Labour’s Green Paper on families makes it clear that the party is opposed to promoting marriage. Ferdinand Mount says it’s crucial that the Tories don’t waver, but stick to their promise of a financial incentive
What, if anything, should David Cameron promise in order to shore up family life in general and marriage in particular? Would some sort of tax incentive help to improve social outcomes and make people happier? Or is this a retro dead end, at once patronising and impractical and prohibitively expensive? Doesn’t Cameron’s self-confessed slip-up when explaining his commitment show how devilishly tricky and unrewarding the whole business is?
He can at least claim to be the first party leader to have dared put the question on the agenda. For on the agenda it now firmly is. Ed Balls’s last act of the old year was to admit that Labour had been wrong. The Minister for Children, Schools and Families conceded: ‘Because we knew it was complicated, we ended up not talking about families and talking about children instead.’ Now he tells us that the adult relationship matters too and that marriage is the best way to bring up children.
A mea culpa from Mr Balls is a collector’s item, but this is not really a confession at all, merely a political feint to claw back ground from the Tories by securing the headline ‘Labour performs U-turn on love and marriage’ — which the Sunday Times duly gave it. This week’s Green Paper on the family confirms that Labour remains as fiercely opposed to any concrete incentive for people to marry or stay married as it was in its first Green Paper on the family back in 1998. That, we are told, in tones of affected horror, would be ‘social engineering’, for all the world as though social engineering were not New Labour’s holy grail. Rather, to help ‘families of all shapes and sizes’, the government will distribute ‘a New Dads’ Guide’ and give some more money to Relate, an organisation which these days spends a lot of its time acting as an Unmarriage Guidance Council.
When I first started thinking in the early 1980s that there was a marriage question which politicians needed to address, I was soon made aware that I was running up the down escalator. For the golden age of individualism was then strolling towards its zenith. To make any long-term commitment was to constrain your precious freedom of movement, and marriage was the most long-term commitment there was. When I was at the Downing Street Policy Unit and we produced some modest proposals for helping families and they were leaked to the Guardian, there were snorts of derision from Polly Toynbee downwards. We were paternalist and condescending. We wanted to put the clock back and chain women to the sink. Margaret Thatcher herself was hostile to our proposal to prop up marriage through the tax system. Husband and wife were to be taxed separately, and it would be a retrograde step to allow non-working spouses (usually the wife) to transfer their tax allowance to their husbands. She could not look the mill girls of Bolton in the eye if she started subsidising idle bridge-playing wives in the Home Counties.
Geoffrey Howe forbore to point out that there weren’t any mill girls in Bolton any more and went on doggedly arguing that transferable allowances would merely give mothers, especially of young children, the choice whether to stay at home or not — which was surely a Conservative thing to do. Nigel Lawson after him argued the same, with no better luck. Margaret and Polly were sisters under the skin. And so indeed were most MPs. For when Ken Clarke began to whittle away the married couple’s tax allowance, memorably dismissing it as ‘an anachronism’, not a single MP uttered a peep of protest during the whole five days of debate on the Budget.
There were no votes in marriage. It was a cause as ponderous and old-fashioned as knitting tea cosies. Sex of the marital variety was terminally unsexy. And so we landed up with the least marriage-friendly tax system of any large industrial nation. Elsewhere, married couples are either taxed jointly — France, Germany, Poland, USA — or they can transfer their tax allowances to one another — Australia, Canada, Italy, South Korea, the Netherlands, Spain.
It is easy enough to think up hard cases. Wouldn’t it be unfair when a man deserts his wife and goes on to remarry and so be entitled to the marriage tax allowance again while she is stripped of it? Well, if the deserted wife then goes out to work, she will receive her full tax allowance, and if she stays at home, she won’t pay any tax at all because she won’t have any earnings and will instead be entitled to income support, just as she is now — not an enviable plight certainly, but you could hardly argue that the system was being unfair to her. But the broader answer to all such objections is that marriage-friendly systems work perfectly well in other countries where the family often seems to be in better shape, and our own system did not work too badly until it was abolished in 1991. It is typical of this government’s insular and present-fixated approach that it refuses even to glance at any wider perspective.
Worse still, in Britain now the benefits system interacts with the tax system in a malign fashion, encouraging single mothers to hide their lovers and to steer clear of marriage. According to Christian Action Research and Education, this ‘couple penalty’ has significantly worsened over the past four years. Three quarters of the families on low or modest incomes whom they interviewed were better off living apart. And this perverse incentive will get worse still if Labour’s present plans are implemented. CARE estimates that the tax burden on one-earner married couples on average and below-average incomes has more than doubled over the past 40 years and is now 40 per cent higher than the OECD average. It is not just a question of withdrawing tax privileges from poorer families. They have been systematically penalised.
Cameron’s numerous opponents (quite a few within his own party) argue that in present circumstances we cannot afford to do anything worth doing. In any case, they claim, the movements of the heart are impervious to cash offers. Who’s going to get hitched for the sake of a twenty-quid-a-week bung, as they put it so charmingly?
Supporters of tax benefits for marriage point out that on average the children of married couples, particularly in poorer families, tend to live longer, happier lives and are less likely to get into trouble with the law or take to drink and drugs, suffer divorce and ill-health. Cameron’s opponents argue that this is to confuse cause and effect. People who get married are a self-selecting cross-section of society, who tend to be steadier, soberer, more employable. They marry and stay married because they have ‘conjugal minds’, to use the phrase Milton used in arguing for the right to divorce. To chivvy the unconjugal to conjugate may to be store up greater unhappiness.
Well perhaps, but we don’t complain about social engineering when the government offers incentives for other worthwhile aims, such as buying your own home or saving for retirement. Nor do we moan that such incentives ‘stigmatise’ people who prefer to rent or spend their spare cash. And we know that such incentives do work. As soon as successive Chancellors reduced the tax perks for saving, people stopped saving. As soon as banks offered 125 per cent mortgages — but let’s not rehearse that raw and painful memory. Most striking of all, in the Civil Partnerships Act of 2004, we offered legal recognition and fiscal incentives for gay couples to exchange vows. Some gay campaigners for the Act, such as Andrew Sullivan, argued that this recognition would domesticate gay life and render homosexuals even more accepta
ble to society. Those same liberals who are sceptical of incentives for heteros to marry were all in favour of this particular form of social engineering.
Nor did anybody in my earshot say ‘who needs gay marriage? It’s just a piece of paper.’ It was universally recognised in this context that, like the trad marriage it imitated, the civil partnership was a verbal contract performed by the couple themselves, and merely certified by the registrar and the witnesses. The medieval church courts understood this better than modern statute, for they would recognise a marriage made pretty much anywhere, in a blacksmith’s shop or on an alehouse bench, so long as there was a witness or two. In this sense, the ability of Americans to get married in their sitting rooms is truer to the Western tradition than British law’s absurd refusal to allow Charles and Camilla to wed in Windsor Castle because it was not a registered venue open to all.
The last resort of the sceptics is to point out that our system already offers married couples certain exemptions from inheritance tax and capital gains tax, and these have not stopped the decline in the proportion of people getting married. Yes, but these exemptions are useful only to the better off. Take the ingenious wrinkle of the Peaky Spouse Syndrome explained to me by a banker friend. Suppose that years ago you bought a cottage in Cornwall and it is now worth ten times what you paid for it. If you sell it, you will have to pay 40 per cent CGT on nine tenths of the sale price. But if your spouse is in poor health and you transfer ownership to him or her, when he or she dies and leaves Ocean View back to you, you profit from both the free CGT upgrade on death and the exemption from IHT and can flog it without paying a penny in tax.
But of course to benefit from this device you need to be rich enough to have a résidence secondaire in the first place. Ditto with the exemption for legacies from one spouse to another; to take advantage of it, your estate has to be worth more than the present general exemption level of £325,000. Again, only the relatively well off will have savings large enough to be worth splitting between the couple in order to secure the benefit of two tax allowances. For the poor, the only relevant rule works the other way, to wit, the ‘couple penalty’. All the privileges go to the already privileged. The underprivileged are socially engineered to remain unattached.
You would therefore expect the propensity to marry and stay married to be higher today among the middle and upper income groups. And so indeed it is. Research from Essex University shows that less educated women born after 1960 had a divorce rate 30 per cent higher than that of the better educated. They were also less likely to get married in the first place and more likely to be bringing up a child on their own. David Willetts went so far as to tell the Guardian just before Christmas that marriage was in danger of becoming an exclusively middle-class institution.
We could of course take the view that the lower orders are temperamentally less capable of marriage than people like us. But actually we can’t take that view, because until very recently there wasn’t much class difference in the marriage stakes. So something has gone wrong, and most observers agree that a prime candidate is that working-class young males have become worse prospects: less likely to find steady work at a wage that will support a family, less favoured by the tax system as household heads, altogether less marriage-able. This is partly because of deindustrialisation, partly because of wages being held down by competition from immigrants, but also partly because the tax and benefit system does not seek to shore up their position.
So, no, an extra £1,000 a year is not likely to persuade a Goldsmith or a Grosvenor to marry and stay married, but it might persuade an unmarried mother in Dagenham to think about taking on the father of her child, and vice versa. It is not simply a matter of cash, it would be a social recognition, a mark of respect — and one which is taken for granted in most civilised countries.
How do we begin to reverse the malign bias for low-income families without making the Treasury wince unduly? In a Centre for Social Justice report this week, Iain Duncan Smith suggests that an affordable option would be to make the tax allowance transferable for families with children under six but limited to the basic rate of income tax. The cost is £900 million a year (or only £600 million if you restrict it to families with a child under three), peanuts compared to the cost of an aircraft carrier or to the money saved by freezing personal allowances generally. This seems the barest minimum to start with. The thing is do-able, because it is already done almost everywhere, and on a much more handsome scale, on the Continent and in North America. And it ought to be done here, unless you think that, to adapt the words of the old Garment Workers Union song, marriage is too good for the working class.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 23, 2010