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Leading article The Week

Leader: Family fortunes

It is a curious fact about modern Britain that while we romanticise marriage and stable families as never before, our government still bribes us to split up.

12 February 2011

12:00 AM

12 February 2011

12:00 AM

It is a curious fact about modern Britain that while we romanticise marriage and stable families as never before, our government still bribes us to split up. There has been much nonsense talked this week of the perils of introducing a ‘marriage bias’ into the tax system. But the truth is that a distinct and deplorable bias already exists — against couples. Families on low incomes are usually financially better off apart than they are together — in terms of various state hand-outs and housing benefit. The payments offered by the welfare state have robbed the low-income family of its economic function. Although one hesitates to say so on the eve of St Valentine’s day, this can often be a deciding factor in whether a couple stays together.

David Cameron, the most pro-family Prime Minister in recent British history, has promised to address this problem, and he has demonstrated how serious he is about this unfashionable cause by putting Iain Duncan Smith in charge of welfare reform. Next week, the two of them will make the case for root-and-branch welfare reform, and publish a Welfare Reform Bill aimed at springing the benefit trap in which one in seven British people are currently caught.

In place of the current system, with its array of 50-odd benefits, will come a single Universal Credit. Among other things, this will ensure that no one is better off on the dole than they are in work. It will also address the ‘couples penalty’ — so people will no longer be forced to choose between love and a higher standard of living.

Few could doubt that welfare reform is most urgently needed. The British welfare state is now incubating the very poverty it was designed to eradicate, creating what Beveridge called the ‘giant evil’ of idleness. The welfare state, in effect, ‘employs’ the people who would otherwise be part of the economy. Women suffer most. Girls leaving British schools without decent qualifications are given a choice by the government: work or pregnancy. A lone parent with two children in Britain is assured more disposable income than a hairdresser, post office worker or clerk. Only those both living and working in Westminster could fail to see why this is a problem.

But there is one relationship that won’t flourish as a result of the Welfare Reform Bill — the arranged marriage between David Cameron and Nick Clegg. For party-political reasons, Clegg has decided to speak out against Cameron’s family policy.

Clegg must understand the depths of the problem, but he fears that the Liberal Democrat identity has been lost, and that this will be all too obvious in the Scottish and English town hall elections in three months’ time. He says that he dislikes talking about family structures for liberal reasons. But his liberal principles should lead him to understand the dangers of a government dangling subsidised housing and a welfare package as a reward for breaking up. It is an indefensible and illiberal intrusion into the lives of millions.

It is time to confront the social facts of child welfare. One in four British children now grows up in a single-parent family. Studies show that these children are 75 per cent more likely to fail at school, 70 per cent more likely to become drug addicts, 50 per cent more likely to have alcohol problems and 35 per cent more likely to be unemployed. The family is the first, best and cheapest source of health, wealth and education. No government has ever created a more effective institution.

The ‘couples penalty’ is most pernicious for the poor. The Institute of Fiscal Studies says that over 80 per cent of unemployed couples would be better off apart — and by an average of £46 a week. For those living just below the average income, this rises to £82 a week. It is understandable, then, that there are couples who claim falsely to be living apart. But it is a disgrace that they should have an incentive to do so.

It was a liberal thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, who first addressed Britain’s problem with welfare. His paper ‘Memoir on Pauperism’ asked why ‘one-sixth of the inhabitants of this flourishing kingdom live at the expense of public charity’. The answer, he concluded, was that welfare was competing with work — and winning.

One could have asked the same question at the peak of the Labour boom (or bubble). At its height, in summer 2008, some 13 per cent of the population were on out-of-work benefits. But the then government was content with this deplorable state of affairs. These five million people were paid to stay out of the way, in edge-of-town estates, as immigrants took their place in the labour market.

After his 1835 essay, de Tocqueville promised a follow-up paper to address the ‘degraded condition into which the lower classes had fallen’. It never emerged. Little wonder: it is the toughest problem in politics and so usually avoided. In Universal Credit we have a solution that may be equal to this almighty problem. Cameron has had the nerve to break the mould, and has given Duncan Smith a budget, and his full support. We wish him luck. Millions of lives depend on their success.

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