‘After section 37 of the Income Tax Act 2007, insert—
“37A Transfer of personal allowances between spouses
(1) This section applies to an individual who is entitled to a personal allowance under sections 35 to 37 for a tax year if—
(a) the individual is a person whose spouse who is living with the individual for the whole or any part of the tax year, and
(b) the spouse meets the requirements of section 56 (residence, etc).
(a) the allowance exceeds the individual’s remaining relievable income;
(b) the individual makes an election, and
(c) the individual’s spouse makes a claim,
the individual’s spouse is entitled to an allowance for the tax year equal to the amount of the excess.
(3) The individual’s remaining relievable income is found by—
(a) taking the amount of the individual’s net income, and
(b) subtracting any personal allowance to which the individual is entitled for the tax year.”’.—(Mr Leigh.)
Brought up, and read the First time .
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
In the last Parliament the Prime Minister and other senior Conservatives repeatedly expressed their commitment to recognise marriage in the tax system. There were some very strong statements, particularly by the Prime Minister. For instance, in Glasgow, in July 2008, he said:
“And when it comes perhaps to the most important area of all, families, we will take action not just to support marriage and family stability”,
because he wanted to say
“to parents, your responsibility and your commitment matters, so we will give a tax break for marriage and end the couple penalty.”
That was the leader of our party speaking during the last Parliament. This was the key policy response to the challenge of social breakdown, or the “broken Britain” phenomenon, and it became an important manifesto pledge at the 2010 election—a manifesto pledge on which every Conservative MP was elected. It was a sacred bond, as it were, with the electorate to support marriage, which was considered to be an absolutely key part of dealing with broken Britain. We put that in our manifesto.
I know that our party did not win an outright majority, but the commitment, most importantly, got into the coalition agreement with a provision for our Lib-Dem friends to abstain. I am not asking them to do anything, but I am asking our Front-Bench team to fulfil the pledge that they solemnly made in the manifesto and put in the coalition agreement. We are still waiting for it, which is why new clause 5 is so important and why I believe that, whatever else has been going on in the background this afternoon—I need not go into that—it was my duty to move it. If it had not been moved, many people involved in the Christian community or in the Christian Institute or in churches would have wondered why this new clause—clearly on the agenda this afternoon, and a vital part of what we are trying to achieve for Britain—had suddenly been withdrawn. I was not prepared to let that happen. I have therefore moved it to allow a debate, to which the Government should be made to respond.
Since the election the Prime Minister has reiterated his commitment to recognise marriage in the tax system on a number of occasions, including at his second Prime Minister’s Question Time—but no action has yet been taken. Given that the manifesto pledge is backed by the coalition agreement and pertains to the period between 2010 and 2015, the fact that the Government have not yet acted to recognise marriage in the tax system is, I hope, no cause for alarm. This debate is important: the Minister will have to respond to it later, when he can assure us that although it has not been possible to do this yet, it is definitely going to happen in this Parliament because it was in our manifesto and in the coalition agreement. At the very least, I want the Minister to say that.
Since the commitment to recognise marriage in the tax system was made last year, there have been some significant changes, which in my personal view greatly increase the need for swift action. In this context, the tabling of new clause 5 on Report to recognise marriage in the tax system is an important step. It provides an opportunity to put on the record the standard arguments for recognising marriage in the tax system and, more importantly, to set out the changes over the last 12 months that have greatly increased the urgency of taking action in this area. As I have said, the Government are obliged to respond and engage with the implications of the changes as they relate to the importance of recognising marriage in the tax system.
Let us go into a bit more detail. Apart from married couples with at least one spouse born before 1935—a number that will clearly reduce over the years—and couples in which at least one partner is blind, everyone in the United Kingdom is taxed on an individual basis. Unused tax allowances cannot be transferred from a non-earning spouse to an earning spouse.
Under the system of transferable allowances, which we have constantly promoted as a party for several years and as is envisaged in our coalition agreement, a non-earning spouse would be able to transfer the whole or part of the basic income tax personal allowance to their earning spouse. Depending on how it was introduced, the whole allowance or part of it could be transferable, and it could be limited to couples with children under a specified age, or limited to tax at the basic rate. The Government can decide what they can afford and they can bring it in gradually; there need not be dead-weight costs or the other problems that were aired in the previous debate. Moreover, I am not at all sure that it is appropriate to talk about dead-weight costs in this context at all. For 2011-12 the personal allowance is £7,475; if the whole allowance were transferable it would be worth up to £1,495, so we are not talking about huge sums of money.
Let us look at what other countries are doing, because it is important to nail the untruth that this idea comes just from the right wing of the British Tory party, or from the Christian community, when it is very common throughout the world. In fact, Britain is unusual among developed countries in failing to recognise marriage in the tax system. This is something that we did as a country, with cross-party agreement, as it was considered absolutely the right thing to do, right up to 1999-2000. Only 24% of citizens of OECD states live in countries that do not recognise marriage in the tax system in one way or another, and most of those live in just three countries—Mexico, Turkey and the UK. We are very much in the minority in not recognising marriage through our tax system. Why should we not recognise marriage when most countries and tax administrations in the world think that marriage is a force for stability? It is not unusual to want to recognise that. Other developed countries such as France, Germany, Italy and America all recognise marriage. In that context it was hardly surprising to learn that, according to the latest figures—published in May 2010—the resulting tax burden on single-earner married families in the United Kingdom was one third greater than the OECD average.
My point is that the present system is unfair—unfair on single-earner families. Nothing in the new clause requires families to have a single earner; we are simply saying that if a family chooses to have one, particularly if there are young children and particularly if the mother wants to stay at home, that choice should be recognised. As I have said, such arrangements are common throughout the world, and I believe that the new clause is very moderate.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of marriage, but I am not convinced that it is appropriate to encourage and recognise it through the tax system. The hon. Gentleman mentioned unfairness, and I think the question of fairness is the nub of the issue, for if the money were spent on benefits or tax credits for children rather than on a married tax allowance, far more children could be lifted out of poverty.
As so often in Finance Bill debates, the devil is in the detail. The hon. Lady has made a perfectly reasonable point. However, I hope to establish in my speech that the present system is unfair and, specifically, militates against single-earner families. That applies especially to those who are struggling out of poverty, but it is not necessarily the very poorest about whom we should be concerned. We should also be concerned about families on fairly modest earnings who are desperately trying to look after their children, and who decide that someone, usually the mother, should stay at home and care for them. But, as I have said, the devil is in the detail, and I will try to deal with the hon. Lady’s point later. It is important, and we need to tease the answer out of Ministers. We want to know why action has not been taken.
That argument has been used against transferable tax allowances. It is true that it is impossible to create a transferable tax allowance that helps everyone, but I do not consider the fact that in certain circumstances, through no fault of their own, people will not be allowed to enjoy the benefits of such allowances to be a good argument against trying to help others—and that is all we are trying to do.
Let us examine the extent of support for marriage in Britain. It is no surprise that marriage rates are at an all-time low and family breakdown is a massive problem, affecting many different areas and, it is estimated, costing us directly between £24 billion and £41 billion per annum. The “Breakdown Britain” report motivated the then Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, to come up with this policy—our policy—and launched the debate. It was promoted by my right hon. Friend the
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; although he is not present today, I pay tribute to him for his fantastic work.
I will in a moment, but I want to make a little more progress. Others will want to contribute to this important debate.
There is no doubt that the lack of support for marriage gives rise to some family breakdown, not primarily through the breakdown of existing marriages but by making marriage a less attractive and more costly option for some people than it would otherwise be. I do not pretend that that applies to everyone, but undoubtedly our present system, which is very unfair on single earners receiving relatively low wages, is a disincentive for some. As the “Breakdown Britain” report demonstrates, a child born to unmarried parents has a nearly one in two chance, before reaching the age of five, of seeing its parents split up, whereas for children whose parents were married, the figure is just one in 12. That is unmistakably a huge difference. It is, I believe, a commonly held view that marriage is a good thing.
A more recent piece of research, “Family breakdown in the UK”, set out the problem of the lack of support for marriage in the following terms:
“the problem is not divorce. While marriage accounts for 54% of births, the failure of marriages—i.e. divorce—accounts for only 20% of break-ups and 14% of the costs of family breakdown, amongst all families with children under five. Unmarried families account for 80% of the break-ups and 86% of the costs.”
The report also states:
“These new statistics demonstrate dramatically that family breakdown is a huge and growing problem and that the main driver of family breakdown is the collapse of unmarried families. A failure to acknowledge these key points will lead to the inevitable failure of any government policy aimed at strengthening families.”
That is why many Government Members believe that this policy is so important.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s proposition that the tax system discriminates against single-income households and could cause couples to break up, what does he think of the Government’s decision to force through a change in the child benefit rules for single-income higher earners with, say, three children, whose families will lose up to £3,000 per annum? If he believes that family breakdowns result from financial circumstances, he must surely believe that that will lead to even more of them.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have made clear my belief that our policy of fiddling around with child benefit is entirely wrong. Child benefit works because there is no fraud and no error, and because it is a flat tax. I strongly oppose the Government’s policy, because it will attack families who are on the margin just as they get into work and emerge from poverty. I predict that we will see a U-turn on that policy, and if it is the 23rd U-turn, it will be one of the best of them.
Why does the lack of stability in marriage matter? We all recognise that most single parents do a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances—I noted earlier interventions on my speech to that effect—and they must enjoy our full support. Nothing that I am saying constitutes an attack on them. However, policy must be based on evidence, and the evidence is very clear. It shows that, on average, children who are brought up in single-parent families do less well than children brought up in two-parent families according to every significant measure: educational attainment, health, the likelihood of getting into trouble with the law, and alcohol and drug abuse. I do not think it wrong for the Government to try to recognise what works when it comes to bringing up children.
Some may be tempted to respond to what I am saying by suggesting that the principal cause of the different outcomes is not marriage but wealth, and that it just so happens that wealthier people are more likely to get married. However, the facts do not support that. No one is trying to argue that marriage is the only important consideration, or that wealth is not relevant—of course it is—but data show substantial differences in family stability between married and unmarried couples in the early years of parenthood, even after the discounting of socio-economic factors such as age, income, education and race.
Most notably, the difference in family breakdown risk between married and cohabiting couples is sufficient that even—this is an important point—the poorest 20% of married couples are more stable than all but the richest 20% of cohabiting couples. It is foolish to make ourselves the odd one out in comparison with other developed countries such as France, Germany and America. Why do we not recognise marriage in our tax system, and why has the Minister not fulfilled the pledge that we made in our manifesto?
As we all know, recognition of marriage in the tax system specifically through a transferable allowance brings heightened child development benefits. In a culture that encourages parents to go back to work as quickly as possible, even though research demonstrates that this is a key time for developing attachment which has huge implications for the later development of a child, the provision of a transferable allowance makes it easier for one parent to stay at home to be with their children. I am not saying that everyone will want to do it, I am just giving an opportunity. I am not requiring anybody to do anything.
I have given way to the hon. Lady once. I will make a bit of progress and if she is really desperate, of course I will let her in because I am very fond of her, as she knows, and we have served together in a Select Committee.
Polling demonstrates that staying at home is a choice that parents want to exercise. That is all that we are talking about here; we are talking about choice—no requirement. For instance, a 2008 YouGov poll for the Centre for Social Justice, run by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, found that 88% of parents thought that more should be done to help parents who wish to stay at home and bring up their children in the early years and 97% agreed that the Government should do more in that area. What other policy has 97% support?
A 2009 YouGov poll for the Centre for Policy Studies found that only 12% of mothers wanted to work full time, 31% did not want to work at all. Only 1% of mothers with children under five thought that the mother in a family where the father worked and there were two children under five should work full time, 49% thought that she should not work at all and fathers, when asked the same question, offered an almost identical response. So the facts are there in the opinion poll data. Only 2% thought that mum should work when her husband worked and the children were under five, and 48% thought that she should not work at all.
Many people are forced into work. Many mothers want desperately to be at home looking after their children when their children are very young, but they simply cannot afford to do so. No one suggests that a transferable allowance will solve the problem of family breakdown or make it incredibly easier for families to cope, but it will be a step in the right direction and a small gesture that we in Parliament could make to mothers who desperately want to stay at home and look after their young children.
Many women, rightly, want to work; they have good jobs. Why should we be forcing young women with very young children into low-paid jobs when they want to be at home looking after their children? Why should we create a tax system that militates against women making that choice?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for indulging me. He makes a powerful point. Many mothers of small children want to work part time. I worked part time as I am sure did many other hon. Members. I want to bring the hon. Gentleman back to the facts. When the tax system changed from one that included a transferable allowance to one that did not, was there evidence of any impact on family breakdown?
I confess that I cannot go back to 1999 and I do not know what data were then available to the Chancellor, but the hon. Lady cannot deny that our tax system is unfair because it militates against the choice to stay at home. Surely I can take the hon. Lady just this far, if no further—that it should be a free choice for women with young children whether they work or not, and the tax system should be neutral. That is all that we are asking for. The hon. Lady can make a speech later if she disagrees with me. I do not doubt her sincerity. I am just saying that the system is simply unfair.
Britain’s failure to recognise marriage in the tax system meant, as of May 2010, that it was out of line with other developed countries, with the effect that, far from supporting the best child development environment and being family friendly, it was placing a significantly greater proportion of its total tax burden on this family type than was the case in comparable countries. In that context, it is not surprising that family breakdown, the key driver of the broken Britain phenomenon is particularly pronounced and the case for recognising marriage in the tax system is clear and compelling. So all the arguments for recognising marriage in the tax system stand in one key area. The tax burden on one-earner married couples with children in the UK has now risen such that it is over 40% greater than the OECD average.
Should we be proud of that as a Conservative Government when we went to the country on the basis of supporting marriage? Why are we doing that? Why are we not taking action when it was a key part of our manifesto pledge to deal with broken Britain? What is even more important is that, if all the tax and benefit changes proposed for 2012 are introduced, the burden is projected to increase to over 50% more than the OECD average. So it is getting worse, not better, for every month that the Minister delays carrying out the pledge in our manifesto.
I want to go into a tiny bit more detail before I finish because Helen Goodman made a point and I have to reply to it. If 2012-13 rates had applied in 2009-10, the tax burden on a one-earner married couple with two children would have been 20% rather than 18%—in other words, 80% rather than 73% of that on a single person. OECD figures show that in 2009 a UK one-earner couple with two children on an average wage paid 39% more than the OECD average. They would have paid over 50% more if 2012-13 rates had applied. The figures are there. They are Treasury-approved figures and there is no doubt about it. One can disagree with the policy, and no doubt the Minister will say that there are a 101 reasons why we cannot introduce a transferable allowance yet, but the figures are there. We are out of touch with other civilised countries, and we should be, above all, a civilised country that helps young mothers look after their children.
Under Labour, the tax burden on one-earner married couples with two children on the average wage oscillated between 33% and 44% greater than the OECD average. That means that the phenomenon is getting worse under a Conservative Government. I do not think that, for all those people who supported us at the election, that is tolerable.
When the burden reached the 44% level in 2007-08, the then Conservative Opposition spoke out against the extraordinary unfairness and committed ourselves to addressing it when in office through the introduction of the transferable personal allowance. It was 44% under Labour; it is now going to increase to 50%, and we are still not taking action. It is worth quoting the then shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, now the Secretary of State for Transport. He said that the report “Taxation of Families 2008-9”, which demonstrated that the tax burden on one-earner married couples on average wage with two children in the UK was 44% greater than the OECD average
“highlights the continuing bias in the tax system against two parent families where only one adult works. No other European country penalises families in this way. If we want to end child poverty we must end this discrimination.”— what a ringing statement from a member of the current Cabinet—
“That is why Conservatives have pledged to reintroduce a recognition of marriage into the tax system”.
For the figure to deteriorate even further under a Conservative Administration such that the burden was over 50% greater than the average—breaking new ground never reached even by new Labour—would be a wrong thing for the Government to do, and that is why we should take action. I hope that the Minister will accept the new clause or at least give a commitment that he will address the issue in the next few months.
It would make the manifesto commitment to make Britain the most “family-friendly country in Europe” utterly ridiculous. Why is Parliament held in contempt? Why do people not follow these debates? It is because they vote for parties who make solemn pledges and five minutes later, when it becomes inconvenient, break them. This was a solemn commitment.
So when this new clause was promoted this afternoon there were all sorts of shufflings offstage to try to prevent its debate. I am not going to stand here and allow a solemn pledge not to be debated on the Floor of the House of Commons. It is about restoring faith in British politics. We made this pledge and many in this party will hold the Government to account on it.
Of course, some will respond by blaming the previous Administration’s economic mismanagement and the debt crisis—we do have a debt crisis—saying that the Government intend to make these changes but first have to deal with the debt crisis left by the previous Administration. I am sure that we will be told that this afternoon, but I do not accept it. Even if challenging times require a country to cut spending and increase tax, that does not mean that the way it shares out its bigger tax burden has to increase the already disproportionately negative effect on one same family type. We are all in this together, are we not? We are all in it together when dealing with this debt crisis, so why should we tax disproportionately heavily a particular type of one-earner family?
The need to increase the total tax take should be used as an opportunity for redistribution in the tax system—this may appeal to Labour Members—so that it is shared out more fairly between families and single people, even as it increases overall. I might even take Labour Members that far, for do they not agree with fairness among all family types? Interestingly, the tax burden in the UK on one-earner married families with children is on average 73% of that on single people on the same wage with no dependants. I have nothing against single people with no dependants, but what we are doing at the moment is manifestly unfair. Our system is disproportionate compared with the arrangements in other countries—our figure is 73% whereas the OECD average is 52%, so other countries are at least trying to address this state of affairs. Moreover, the tax burden on single people in the UK has fallen steadily since 2007, such that it is now lower than the OECD average. That is great—I have nothing against that—but we should not unfairly discriminate against other people. How can we allow the tax burden on one-earner married couples who have two children and are on an average wage to rise from 73% of that on a single person on the same wage to more than 80%? That is why I said to the Minister that this situation is getting worse and worse with every month and year that we delay taking action on a solemn manifesto pledge.
The ongoing arguments for recognising marriage in the tax system have been greatly enhanced by the fact that, other things being equal, the tax burden placed in this country on one-earner married couples on an average wage with two children will rise to more than 50% of the OECD average. We need a swift recognition of marriage in the tax system—the case is overwhelming. It will also probably take Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs two or three years to make the necessary changes. Depressingly, even if the Minister were suddenly to announce today that he was going to do this, it might take two or three years for it to happen, so it is even more important to act. This is even more important than raising the personal allowance to £10,000. That Lib Dem policy concentrates on individuals, rather than families and, thus, favours two-income couples, rather than single-earner couples. The Government’s policy is actually making the situation even worse. With that, I rest my case and just plead with the Minister to try to recognise a solemn manifesto pledge.
New clause 5 would allow married couples to transfer their personal income tax allowances between each other, along the lines of what was said by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions during the election campaign about recognising marriage in the tax system. The new clause is not exactly what the Conservatives were proposing at the general election, and I shall deal with the differences in a while. The important point, which has not been clearly articulated by Mr Leigh, is that this policy arose from a 2005 report by a Conservative think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, on the breakdown of the family. Its main argument was that marriage is the important point in keeping families together, tackling poverty and dealing with all the other arguments that he has covered. It also supported the introduction of an incentive in the tax system to encourage people to marry, and I shall return to that in a moment. I am not sure that most people who get married are thinking about the tax system before they decide to do so.
My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point and one that we were discussing on the Back Benches earlier. I am married and all three of my children attended my and Allison’s wedding in 2003. We did not need a tax allowance in order to get married—that is the important factor here that is being missed.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Gainsborough will be shocked at the fact that my hon. Friend’s children actually attended his wedding. I did not realise that my hon. Friend was such a progressive individual, but he makes a perfectly good point.
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I am not suggesting for a moment that people get married in order to get tax allowances—I have never said that. All I am saying is that the current system is unfair, because it militates against a family on modest earnings where one person wants to stay at home to look after children. Of course nobody gets married in order to get a little tax allowance, but why should we have an unfair tax system?
I actually do not understand why all this is unfair, because the new clause would give an advantage to people who are married but do not have children. I do not know how the new clause does what the hon. Gentleman is proposing in terms of keeping family units together and alleviating child poverty.
The important point relates to what was in the Conservative manifesto. What came out of that Conservative think tank was the idea that marriage was an important point in keeping the family unit together and ensuring that children and wide society were not disadvantaged by a breakdown in the family unit. The manifesto made a commitment to “recognise marriage” in the tax system. It proposed that couples and civil partners who were basic rate taxpayers should be entitled to transfer just part of their allowance—this was worth, in effect, up to £150 a year. That is very different from what is contained in the new clause, because it makes no mention of civil partnerships. Given the names of the people who are supporting this proposals, I suspect that this has come from the wing that has not quite gone all the way in being the new cuddly Conservative party in terms of even envisaging the idea that civil partnerships, with or without children, could constitute a family unit.
As the hon. Gentleman mentioned briefly, the policy came unstuck in the coalition agreement because this proposal is clearly not supported by the Liberal Democrats. I believe that during a general election television interview, the Deputy Prime Minister called it “Edwardian”.
That is a bit rich coming from the Liberal Democrats, because most of the things that they come out with are patronising drivel. However, they were clearly not happy about this policy, so in the scramble to get the red boxes and cars they had to reach some type of compromise. Thus, the coalition agreement simply states that there will be a provision whereby the Liberal Democrats can abstain at some point in the future when this policy is introduced.
I expect better of the hon. Gentleman than the trivialisation of this important issue. He is better than that. I know he is probably working up to the filibuster that is usual from him when we do not have a guillotine on our business, but does he concede that low-income families in North Durham who are eligible for working tax credit and in which one parent wishes to stay at home to look after the children will miss out on the child care element of that credit? That is the reality, and he should address those issues rather than trivialising the subject through knockabout.
I am not trivialising the subject, but I will say to the hon. Gentleman that the real difference in North Durham was made by provisions opposed by him and his party, such as tax credits, which raised hundreds of families out of poverty, and the Sure Start initiatives, which were important in poor communities such as Stanley in my constituency and gave real life chances to youngsters from poor backgrounds. I will not take any lectures from a Conservative on alleviating child poverty. I hasten to add that since this coalition Government came to power, many families, including many individuals whom I met the other day at a school in my constituency, will lose the education maintenance allowance. That was not a luxury but a vital part of supporting those children in education and giving them the access to higher education that generations before them had never had.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I remember the debates on the minimum wage as a trade union official, as he will too, and we were told that it would wreck the economy, but in the north-east alone 110,000 people got a pay rise thanks to that change. It is interesting that we are now hearing proposals from Conservative Back-Benchers to change the system and that people who are disabled and others should perhaps be offered a lower rate of minimum wage.
While the hon. Gentleman is patting himself on the back about the great successes of the previous Government, can he tell us which he thinks would have the best effect for working families with low incomes: scrapping the 10p rate or raising the income tax threshold, as this Government are doing?
The hon. Gentleman must be honest with my electorate in North Durham about the fact that although the Government have increased personal allowances they have taken away money in others ways, such as the increase in VAT and the £140 million of cuts that Durham county council will have to impose over the next three years. Those cuts will have a direct effect on many of those poor families. The Liberal Democrats can claim that they have had great success, but if that is their only claim they should be honest with people and tell them what they have lost, as well, through such vicious policies. The hon. Gentleman should remember that this Conservative Government would be doing nothing without the support of him and his Liberal Democrat colleagues.
Another problem with raising the tax thresholds—a provision constantly promoted by the Liberal Democrats—is that, as I am sure my hon. Friend has not forgotten, the biggest beneficiaries are those who are highest up the income scale. The biggest value of the change is not to the people at the margins—those who are just caught or just not caught by the tax boundaries—but to the people higher up the income scale.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but she knows as well as I do that many people in County Durham are facing unemployment as a direct result of the spending cuts. Many of those people will be taken out of paying income tax altogether because they will not have a job. For Members to try to trumpet that policy, not realising the damage they are doing to regions such as the north-east of England, is disingenuous.
I understand the argument made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough, which is that marriage is key in ensuring that we have the units that will lead to less crime, less social breakdown and so on, but—I am sorry—I do not accept that. The root cause of many of those issues is poverty. If we consider the examples given by the hon. Gentleman, as well as those given by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions when he toured his Glasgow housing estate, we can see that £150 will not make a great difference to lifting anyone living on such a council estate out of poverty or giving life chances to the young children who live there. We should address poverty, and, in my opinion, provisions to do with the tax system and marriage are not the way to do that.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. Would he care to comment on the UNICEF study, produced in 2007, which showed a league table ranking the well-being of children in 21 developed countries, including their material, educational and subjective well-being, their health and safety, their behaviour and the strength of their family and peer relationships? Under the hon. Gentleman’s Government, Britain came bottom of the league.
I think that report has been discredited, but I can look at the north-east of England and my constituency and consider the changes in employment that happened under the previous Labour Government as well as the life chances we gave to individuals, the new hospitals we provided and the investment we made in things such as Sure Start centres. Although I accept that such changes will not have benefits straight away, they will have real benefits over the lifetimes of those individuals. The Government that the hon. Gentleman supports is taking away such provision and says that the state is not important in one respect while, in this case, they want the state to engineer people’s private lives socially. I find that a completely contradictory stance, but, again, the hon. Gentleman is a Conservative and is therefore allowed to be contradictory.
My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way and he is making the point that the state can be family friendly through its policies without having to give away a tax break to people based on their marital status. The previous Labour Government made great changes by giving life chances to young families, in particular, without having to manufacture the tax system in such a way.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. A little later, I shall discuss what our Government did to recognise the fact that if we are to address the issues raised by the hon. Member for Gainsborough about child poverty, the tax system and marriage are not necessarily the way to do it. The way to do it is to ensure that the money goes to the families and children who are affected. That is why the child tax credits and other such provisions were vital in raising people out of poverty. Earlier, my hon. Friend Mark Tami mentioned the minimum wage, which lifted a lot of very poor individuals out of poverty who were getting a pittance. I remember seeing as a trade union official an advertisement in the jobcentre in Newcastle that read, “Night guard, bring your own dog, £1.35 an hour.” That is a thing of the past. I hope that it will remain so, but I do not know, as we hear from Conservative Back Benchers that they might want to change the minimum wage in some way.
It was interesting that Mr Jackson mentioned the UNICEF report, because Denmark came at the top and Britain came very low down. I want to remind hon. Members that Denmark has the highest rate of lone parenthood and the Danish can combine that with good child well-being because they have a strong welfare state. Does not my hon. Friend think that that is far more important in addressing child poverty and well-being?
It is. To be fair to the hon. Member for Gainsborough, he did say that being a lone parent does not make someone a bad or unfit parent. My hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne had three children before he got married, but that does not make him a bad parent. [ Interruption. ] He says, “I don’t know,” but I do not think it makes him a bad parent: it is something that he and his partner chose to do. As he said earlier, the offer of a tax break of £150 a year would not make any difference to whether people decide to have children before or after they marry. Indeed, I have many friends who have children and who have never married and have no intention of doing so.
Has my hon. Friend considered the situation of people like my mother whose husband, my father, died when I was a child? Under the proposed system, she would have found that the support was taken away at the very time when financially she needed it most. That would be the effect of the measure, which pays no real attention to the needs of the family or the needs of the child.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The proposal is not subtle at all and his personal example is a good one. Why should someone who loses a spouse in an accident or through natural causes be penalised because, through no fault of their own, they have lost their spouse? That is the problem with trying to use tax in relation to marriage. As I have said, the measure is very different from what was put forward in the Conservative manifesto because it does not include civil partnerships. It clearly is not what Conservative Back Benchers have read in their own manifesto.
The hon. Gentleman knows that there are always winners and losers in any tax system. I am very surprised at him because I know that he has very libertarian views on a whole host of subjects, which we have heard on many occasions in the Chamber. Is he really suggesting that we should use the tax system socially to engineer society by saying that people should marry rather than cohabiting or, as has been mentioned, becoming single through separation or bereavement? I am surprised at him because I thought he was very much against the state doing anything, but the measure has the state wanting to determine or influence exactly what an ideal society should be. I am sorry, but the statistics just do not bear out what the hon. Gentleman proposes. If such tax measures worked as a way of bolstering marriage and keeping families together, we would have expected marriages to rise with the married man’s tax allowance through the 1960s and 1970s, but they did exactly the opposite—we had record levels of divorce and separation. Hon. Members should look at the facts. Tax measures have not succeeded in doing that in the past, and I doubt whether they will in future. They certainly will not encourage anyone to get married for a small financial benefit.
It is important to dispel one myth, which has been put forward again by the Conservative party—the fact that a wicked Labour Government somehow did away with the married couple’s tax allowance and that Labour is responsible for the degeneration of society that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions describes in his report. It is important to recognise what the previous Conservative Government did on this. It was Chancellor Norman Lamont in the 1993 Budget who proposed that the married couple’s tax allowance should be restricted to 20% from April 1994. That was the first time that happened for the basic MCA, which for a couple under 65 was then £1,720, so it was worth something like £608 for those who were on marginal rates of 40%, but only £344 for those on marginal rates of 20%. We then had the argument that it was unfair to have different amounts for people on higher tax rates than for those on lower tax rates. The then Chancellor said:
“There is no good reason why an allowance intended to recognise the responsibilities of marriage should give least to those on low incomes and most to those right at the top of the income scale.”—[Hansard, 16 March 1993; Vol. 221, c. 182.]
In the November 1993 Budget, the current Justice Secretary confirmed that change and went on to announce that the MCA would be further restricted to 15% from April 1995, so there was a slow change in the system. The provision restricting the MCA was made in section 77 of the Finance Act 1994. When this was debated in Committee, there was general support for the idea that the MCA should be the same across the board.
My hon. Friend’s description of what happened in the 1990s reminds me of an issue that I do not think Mr Leigh addressed. One of the big debates on this subject was about the fact that transferable allowances reduce any scope for financial privacy within a marriage. A number of people felt very uncomfortable about that. Does my hon. Friend have any comments on that?
My hon. Friend makes a key point and I understand why she makes it. This goes right back to when income tax was introduced in the 1790s, when a spouse’s income was the property of the husband. That was the basis on which income tax was brought in and it continued for centuries. There was no recognition that even within marriages people might have separate tax affairs or sources of income that needed to be recognised.
“a relic of the days when a husband was taxed on his wife’s income as well as on his own. It contravenes the principle that marriage should be tax neutral.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee A,
The hon. Gentleman quotes my predecessor, the then hon. Member for Christchurch, but in order to emphasise how out of touch her opinions are, may I tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no longer a single Liberal Democrat councillor in the whole of my constituency?
I am very pleased to hear that but I am not sure that that is very good news for Sir Alan Beith to whom I understand the Baroness is now married. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.
Interestingly, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Michael Portillo, concurred with Mrs Maddock’s view. The then Chancellor, who is now the Justice Secretary, recognised that and announced in his Budget speech that there would be a two-stage restriction of the MCA, stating:
“Now that husbands and wives are taxed independently—one of the best taxation reforms in recent years—the married couple's allowance is a bit of an anomaly.”—[Hansard, 30 November 1993; Vol. 233, c. 935.]
The important thing that this demonstrates is that change was taking place under a Conservative Government, and that it was not the wicked previous Labour Government who came up with this idea. However, the change did set off the forces who were arguing that the changes were wrecking marriages. In 1995, a major paper called “Farewell to the Family” appeared. It made much of the fact that the measure would change families and discourage people from marrying.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a pretty poor show if a couple united in love and affection for each other decide to get married simply for the sake of some miserable, mean, pusillanimous fiscal mechanism? Would it not be a more healthy world if we could get the accountant out of the couple’s marriage bed, and concentrate on the important thing: two people who love each other, not two people who are trying to save a few bob from the Treasury?
As usual, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. He raises the idea of the accountant in the bed. I do not know of many couples who, when they are ready to get married, sit down with their accountant to work out the financial benefit to them. I am sure that for many, something other than money comes into the decision to marry or start a family—a point that I demonstrated earlier.
As I said earlier, the hon. Gentleman aspires to be the County Durham filibustering champion; no doubt he will be on his feet for many more minutes. Is he seriously denying the findings of the British household panel survey, which found that the average length of cohabitation is just over three years, and led it to conclude in its paper that, compared to marriage, cohabitation was a significantly more fragile and temporary form of family? Just one in 11 married couples split up before their child’s fifth birthday, compared to one in three unmarried couples. Those are the facts; is he disagreeing with them?
As for filibustering, this is nothing; I think that my record is two and a half hours. If the hon. Gentleman would like to keep intervening, I am sure that I can try to beat that. I do not deny what he says, and it is all right to cite the facts, but should one necessarily go on to say that those facts are a bad thing for society? Is he genuinely saying that the relationships of people who cohabit are any poorer than those of people who are married? Likewise, is he suggesting that if people decide, after marriage or cohabiting, to split up, that makes them bad individuals in some way—or, if they have children, bad parents? I know many cohabiting and divorced couples and single parents who are perfectly good parents and role models and work very hard to ensure that their families contribute to society financially and to local community life. The statistics that he cites are fine, but what is not fine is the next bit—the suggestion that the situation will somehow lead to the breakdown of society, or the idea that the family as a unit is the only answer to people’s lives these days. It is not.
That goes back to a Victorian notion. Before the Victorian period, it was not uncommon for people not to get married for many years. Marriage was a Victorian fashion, but in Georgian times many people did not get married at all, and raised perfectly good families. I am not sure that society came to a grinding halt because people were not married, or because there was not a tax system that encouraged people to marry.
Perhaps I might invite the hon. Gentleman to make a causal link, because he is not challenging the substantive point that I made with the figures that I gave. He will know that the Centre for Social Justice report of May 2011 found that children who do not grow up in a two-parent family are 75% more likely to fail at school, 70% more likely to be a drug addict, 50% more likely to have an alcohol problem, and 35% more likely to experience unemployment. That is not about traducing single-parent families, or besmirching their commitment to their children, but there is a causal link to family breakdown, which the hon. Gentleman denies.
That is complete nonsense. When the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was in opposition, we saw him walking around the Easterhouse estate, saying how dreadful things were. That is not down to whether people are married; it is down to poverty. That is the key driver of the pressures that people face. It is all very fine talking about drug use, but I have worked with an organisation for parents of drug addicts in Durham, and most of those parents are middle class. They have stable homes, but they have drug-addict sons and daughters. They are not bad parents, and it is not down to whether they are married. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and the Centre for Social Justice report make the mistake of saying that the family units that he describes are the reason for poverty. They are not. Addressing poverty, which we were doing through measures such as tax credits, is the way forward, rather than social engineering, and £150 a year will not go very far in encouraging people to stay married—or, for that matter, alleviate child poverty at all.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is not a person in this marvellous, glorious, gorgeous building who fails to accept that couples together often nurture and raise children in a happier and better way, although they are not the only ones? However, we are not arguing about the sanctity of marriage; we are arguing about a backhander from the state—a few bob. Mr Jackson, who was a bank manager and may well have interposed himself in a few intimate relationships in his time, is speaking very much from the perspective of the Conservative who sees everything in terms of money and fiscal benefit. Is there not a better way?
There is, but the new clause that we are debating—I do not know whether the hon. Member for Peterborough would agree with this—refers only to married couples; it does not refer to civil partnerships, for example. I know that the new Conservative party is supposed to be modern and reflective, but what about people in a civil partnership who have children, whether from previous marriages or afterwards? Are we saying that that is a worse family unit than marriage? This debate is not about the tax system for those who are married and those who are not; it is about what is in the best interests of the child. Single parents—they may be separated, or their partner or spouse may have died, as my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner said—work very hard. This is about the child. The problem with the proposal is that it would reward people with no children.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune” of £5,000 a year
“must be in want of a wife”?
My hon. Friend’s suggestion that marriage was not as common in Georgian England as in Victorian England is somewhat belied by Austen and other authors of the age.
I think this is an important point, Mr Deputy Speaker. The main thrust of the argument that has been made is that marriage, and taxation in marriage, has been consistent throughout history, but it has not. Like a lot of things in this country, it has been looked at through a Victorian prism that seems to bend the reality of what took place way back then. However, I will move on to my next point.
It is important to note that income tax was introduced in the 1790s. We need not go back to the 15th century, but my hon. Friend Helen Goodman makes a good point, which was made earlier—the tax system treated women and their income as the property of their husbands. The supporters of the new clause argue that it would strengthen society, but there is no evidence for that. The new clause will help many people who have no children. It would apply to married couples and even retired people.
To what does the hon. Gentleman attribute the fact that many more people in County Durham, Northumberland and the north-east of England generally are keen on getting married than in, say, the south of England and London? Are his constituents wrong in supporting the institution of marriage?
No, not at all. Many things in the north-east are obviously better than anywhere else in the country, but the statistics show that the number of people getting married is going down. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions seems to think that a tax break of £150 a year will encourage people to get married, but that is not the case at all. He misses the main point.
The MCA was abolished in the Budget speech by the then Chancellor in 1999, and withdrawn in April 2000. Only married couples who reached the age of 65 by that date would be able to continue to claim the MCA. The additional personal allowance was also withdrawn at that time. The allowance equalised the MCA so it was given to lone parents, whether single, divorced or widowed, caring for one or more children under the age of 16.
Importantly, the then Labour Government introduced the child tax credit, which was vital to ensure that support went to the children. The Centre for Social Justice report suggested that marriage was important for keeping families together, but that is not the case. The important thing is how we support children. By introducing the tax credit system, we lifted thousands of children out of poverty by helping the families, whether they were married or not.
The credit took the form of an allowance which was then set at £5,200, on which relief was given at 10%. Families eligible to claim the child tax credit were able to cut their annual income tax not by £150, as is proposed, but by £520 a year. In April 2002 the credit was increased in line with inflation, making it worth £10 a week more. That was the fairest way of supporting families. I do not question the Secretary of State’s intention to help families, but the child tax credit was a far better way of doing it than through the married tax allowance.
The debate tonight has glossed over the cost of the proposal. We are told by the Government that we face hard times and that we must make every penny count. One reason given to explain why the proposal was not brought forward was the coalition Government; another was cost. The IFS estimated the cost of various options for introducing a transferable allowance based on different criteria. On the assumption that the allowance applied only at the basic rate of tax, which was due to be 20% in April 2008, the figures are eye-watering.
If the allowance applied to all married couples, the IFS estimates the cost at £3.2 billion. I am not sure where the Government would get such a sum from. If the allowance applied to all married couples but only half the personal allowance was transferred, that would cost £1.6 billion, so we are not talking about small amounts of money. If the object is to get that money to children, is this the best way? There is no realistic hope of the present Government doing this. I understand the annoyance of the hon. Member for Gainsborough, who thinks that he stood on a manifesto which will now not be implemented.
No one in this place would begrudge that sum if there was the slightest empirical evidence that it would be of any long-term benefit to society. There is no such evidence. Does my hon. Friend agree that that money could be far better spent on a raft of supportive mechanisms for families, particularly families with young children? That would ensure the longevity of the family unit.
I agree. The money should be directed into Sure Start centres and the child tax credit, for example, but the Government are penalising single parents in some of their benefit proposals.
Another option that the IFS considered was targeting the allowance at married couples with dependant children or those receiving carer's allowance. The estimated cost of that was £1.5 billion. The final and cheapest option was that it would be given only to married couples with children under the age of six, which would cost £900 million. The various options illustrate the complexity of the policy and the questions that arise from it—whether it should apply to everyone or only to the groups that I outlined.
As the hon. Member for Gainsborough pointed out, whatever system is chosen, there are winners and losers. If we believe, as the hon. Member for Peterborough clearly does, that keeping people married is so important that everyone should get the allowance, the price tag is totally unaffordable, but doing anything less would undermine the main argument put forward.
It is worth recognising what that would translate into in cash terms. If it applied to the full personal allowance, the amount provided as an incentive to remain married would be quite meagre, at about £20 a week, which I am not sure is a great incentive. The rationale is that it needs to be fair and large enough to make a difference, but I do not think that a couple whose marriage is breaking down would stay together for an additional £20 a week. Whatever figure we come up with, I doubt whether it would actually make a real difference in determining not only whether a couple gets married in the first place, but whether they will separate after a period of marriage. When it comes to enabling families to stay together as a unit, clearly the important point is poverty. That pledge was made before the general election by the previous Prime Minister. I think that everyone, even those influenced by the darker forces on the traditional wing of the Conservative party, agrees that the modern family takes many forms.
My hon. Friend is young and has not been around for a enormously long time. When Mrs P and I were married in June 1976, virtually everyone got married just after the beginning of the financial year, which was a nonsensical system, with churches doubling the cost of altar servers. I assure him that one of the disadvantages of the married couple’s allowance was the great logjam of spring weddings. Despite that, Mrs P and I are still together.
It might have done, but clearly if it raised the cost of a wedding, any financial benefit that people got from their £150 would soon be used up as a result of the extra costs involved. It did nothing to ensure that people stayed together longer.
I understand why my hon. Friend and Mrs P have stayed together. Although the allowance might be an incentive to get married, the important point is that it does nothing to ensure that people will stay together for longer than the tax year. As has been mentioned, what is proposed would be very unfair. What happens if someone loses a spouse though no fault of their own, for example as a result of a tragic accident? Why should someone who finds themselves suddenly bereaved through no fault of their own after an accidental death, possibly with young children, be penalised by the tax system? It would be very difficult to introduce flexibility into this system to take account of that, and if we compare that with the tax credit system we will see that the important point is to support families and their children.
I will turn to some of the statistics on marriage that the Conservative party is putting forward. The hon. Members for Gainsborough and for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) are not known as great state interventionists, but by arguing that the tax system should be used to encourage people to marry, they are suggesting that the state should determine a certain model of behaviour. I find that very strange coming from Conservatives who deplore the nanny state and argue that the state should not interfere in people’s lives. There is an inconsistency there that needs to be answered.
The charming Maggie Pound deserves a long-service medal at the very least for putting up with Stephen Pound.
On the merits and logic of the argument that Mr Jones is making, is he suggesting that there is no place for fiscal incentives in directing personal and public policy? If so, does he think that we should not fine motorists for breaking the speed limit, for instance, because that is the logical corollary of his last remark?
I am not saying that at all. I am saying that the hon. Gentleman, his party and, certainly, the more blue-blooded elements of it very strongly argue that the state should not intervene in people’s lives, including, in some cases, motorists’ lives, but what we have in new clause 5 is the right of the Tory party arguing for direct state intervention in something very personal: somebody’s personal relationship.
Earlier, it was said that a tax system would encourage people to get married, but there is no evidence of that at all. In the late 1960s and ’70s, when the old married man’s tax allowance was in place, there was a record rise in divorces, but that was less to do with the tax system and more to do with the change in society and the law that clearly made it easier to get divorced or to choose not to marry at all. Again, the idea that £20 a week will encourage somebody not to divorce is quite ludicrous. All the studies find that we would need to offer a considerable amount of money to prevent people from divorcing.
My hon. Friend Helen Goodman raised the issue of international comparisons, somebody else mentioned Denmark and other countries and the hon. Member for Gainsborough mentioned the fact that we are one of the few countries not to recognise marriage in the tax system, but there is no evidence to suggest that taxation as an encouragement to get married does anything to hold the family unit together.
I have listened to my hon. Friend’s speech with a great deal of interest. On fiscal incentives for people to stay together, does he agree that the cost of running two separate households is a major financial consideration for people living apart? It far outweighs any fiscal benefit that the taxation system could deliver.
I agree. The changes being made to housing benefit will not do anything to help families stay together. My hon. Friend is a London Member, so he will know that families will be forced to move out of central London because of the Government’s changes to housing benefit rules. That is one of the inconsistencies of this Government. On the one hand they say that a tax break of £150, or £20 a week, will help to keep the social unit together, and on the other they—the same Minister,
I hasten to add—pursue policies on housing benefit and other benefit changes that will not help at all to keep families together but will lead to the root cause of most of these issues: the poverty that affects such individuals.
I turn to some of the problems with the Bill as framed, and to what we have before us. New clause 5 is not the measure in the Conservative party’s most recent election manifesto. This proposed change includes married couples but excludes civil partners, who would not be covered by the new clause. When there was an outcry and complaints about what had been proposed at the election, the Prime Minister included civil partners at the last minute.
People would have opt into this system and elect to transfer their part of an allowance. That would be very unfair to many people who do not understand tax codes. I have just got my annual tax return and I keep putting it to one side, as most people do, until the deadline arrives. Introducing a system whereby people have to elect to transfer a certain allowance may well help the more articulate middle-class people who can do that when they fill in the form, but I am not sure that some of the people on poor council housing estates in Glasgow whom the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is trying to address will have the wherewithal or knowledge to do it even if they knew that the option was available.
The Government have told us that they wish to simplify the tax system, but the new clause would make it a lot more complicated. In trying to bolster marriage, it would help certain groups of people but not others. Whenever we do anything with the taxation system, we should try to make it as user-friendly as possible. If someone opted to move their allowance around, that would be quite complicated because people’s incomes change throughout the year, so they might have a certain allowance available in one year but not another. The system would incur not only the £3 billion-plus cost of having it open to everyone but the cost of trying to work out how the tax office would administer it. In that respect, the new clause is not well thought out.
The Government have got themselves into a bit of a logjam on this. The Prime Minister is clearly committed to this policy. His Back Benchers are now worried that it cannot be implemented because of the coalition agreement. Huge amounts of public money would be used, but would it have any effect on child poverty? No, it would not, and neither would it affect most families. Moreover, it would help people without any children, including pensioners.
Leaving aside couples where there are no children in the household, does my hon. Friend agree that married couples typically tend to come from the better-off social classes and that, while I am sure that this is not what Fiona Bruce intends, a tax break for marriage would therefore benefit the better-off?
My hon. Friend has great experience in this area, and she makes a clear point. People on lower incomes and possibly of lower educational standing than others will not look at the tax system and say, “I’m going to stay married because somehow I will be financially better off.” That is why it is important to simplify the tax system.
If we are looking to help children, this proposal would not do that. Indeed, some aspects would be detrimental to families, especially put alongside the Conservatives’ existing proposals on changes to the tax and benefits system. We need an honest debate on the family, child poverty and how we can build communities. By investing in Sure Start and child tax credit, the last Labour Government raised a whole group of individuals out of poverty. That was the way to do it. If money is tight, it needs to be targeted very carefully.
The approach that has been put forward, which recognises marriage, is not targeted and will not have the effect that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions wants. That is unfortunate, because I think that he is well intentioned and has just come to the wrong conclusions. It will be interesting to see whether the Government accept the new clause. I do not think that they will, because it is not what the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions outlined in the manifesto or in the lead-up to the general election. It will be interesting to see how much pressure the Liberal Democrats can bring to bear to ensure that this proposal never sees the light of day. The coalition agreement says that they can sit on their hands if it is brought forward.
In conclusion, the individuals who are trying to address this issue, including the hon. Member for Gainsborough who is well intentioned and thoughtful in trying to do the best for families, have got it wrong in thinking that the answer is marriage. The root cause of social breakdown is not that people are not married, but poverty. We need to ensure that not only the tax system, but the benefits system and everything else, supports families, whether the parents are married, single, in a civil partnership or whatever. As has been said, and as the modern part of the Conservative party recognises, the modern family comes in all shapes and sizes. One size does not fit all and one solution does not fit all. Giving a pathetic sum of money to support marriage will not relieve child poverty; nor will it ensure that people stay together longer if the taxman will raid their savings or income if they do not. I do not think that this is the answer, and if it goes to a vote I will oppose it.
Only a few days ago, on father’s day, the Prime Minister stated:
“I want us to recognise marriage in the tax system so as a country we show we value commitment”.
I believe that the Government’s commitment to introduce such a provision is genuine. It was in the Conservative manifesto, it is in the coalition agreement, and I trust that the Government will introduce it in this Parliament, just as they are addressing the couple penalty. I warmly congratulate the Government, and in particular my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, on the work being done to address this subject.
I know that the hon. Lady and her colleagues feel strongly about the couple penalty. Does she not accept that the design of the benefits cap that her Government are proposing will bring in a couple penalty—something that I thought they were trying to remove?
Under the previous Conservative Government, Britain recognised marriage in the tax system. The Labour Government did away with that in their first term. Britain’s fiscal arrangements effectively made it more challenging for people to marry than was the case in most other developed countries. Today we still live with that legacy. Apart from those in the UK, only 18% of citizens of OECD states live in countries that do not recognise marriage in the tax system. Most of them live in Turkey and Mexico. Our failure to recognise marriage puts us out of line with fellow developed countries, and that arrangement continues to be a cause for concern, for a number of reasons relating to both fairness and social well-being.
That is not a matter for the Chair, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to read Hansard and work it out for himself tomorrow. As a matter of record, as he knows, it is open to any Member to move a new clause, despite the fact that the Member who tabled it has decided not to move it.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am sorry, but like my hon. Friend Chris Leslie, I heard Fiona Bruce say “not moved”. I think that I saw one of the Tory Whips at her beforehand, so I do not know whether they tried to persuade her not to have this debate, but I think we need to clarify this point before we move on.
Is it fair that when incomes are equivalised, one-earner married couples with children, on the average male wage, find themselves thrust into the poorer half of the population in income?
If I may, I will move on.
On the subject of young people’s aspirations, it is striking that surveys demonstrate that approximately 90% of young people aspire to marry, yet that is not reflected in the marriage figures. I am not suggesting for a minute that fiscal considerations are the only factor, but the Government should at least ensure that it is not more financially detrimental to marry in this country than in other developed OECD countries, if we are to be true to our determination to become the most family-friendly country in Europe.
As a Government, we should send out a clear and credible signal to young people that we value marriage and encourage their aspirations in that respect, particularly as marriage acts as a stabiliser not just for the individuals within it but for the wider community. The prevalence, for example, of the isolation and exclusion of the elderly is influenced by the wider breakdown of family and community networks, as the Centre for Social Justice stated in its “Fractured Families” report.
On social well-being, the current problems in our local communities resulting from our failure to recognise marriage are pressing. As we have already heard, in December 2006 the CSJ’s report “Breakdown Britain” clearly resonated with the public. One of the key drivers of social challenges is family breakdown.
No, I am going to continue now, because I have given way so many times that, as has been pointed out, it has interrupted the flow of my speech.
Family breakdown is an incredibly important challenge for the Government. The cost in human terms, especially in terms of children failing to fulfil their potential, is far too high. Although most single parents do a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances, and deserve support as they do so, the evidence is that on average, the children of married parents do better on significant measures such as educational attainment, health, likelihood of getting into trouble with the law, and alcohol and drug abuse.
The crucial thing to understand about British family breakdown is that the key is not only divorce, but the break-up of cohabiting relationships, which are far less stable than marriage. The CSJ report states:
“While marriage accounts for 54 per cent of births, the failure of marriages—ie divorce—accounts for only 20 per cent of break-ups and 14 per cent of the costs of family breakdown, among all families with children under five. Unmarried families account for 80 per cent of the break-ups and 86 per cent of the costs.”
My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful case. Does she agree that Conservative Members are not denigrating forms of family other than those that involve marriage, but saying that we believe that marriage makes for a powerful start in life for children, and leads to better social outcomes on average?
I agree with my hon. Friend in that respect—nor are Conservatives seeking to take away the support that we give to other family groups such as single parents. We are saying that there should be a tangible affirmation of the very important relationship of marriage.
A child born to cohabiting parents has nearly a one in two chance of living in a single-parent family by the time they reach the age of five, but a child born to married parents has only a one in 12 chance of finding themselves in that situation at that age.
No, because I took interventions from Opposition Members earlier.
The direct costs of family breakdown are variously calculated at between £24 billion and £41.6 billion per annum—a huge amount of money that cannot be ignored, especially in times such as these. When faced with such enormous figures, a provision such as the transferable tax allowance to support marriage, and in turn to support stable families, who in turn form an important element of promoting the stable communities that we all want and that are so very much needed today, is surely worth considering.
I am aware of the argument that the principal cause for those different life outcomes is not marriage but family income, but that analysis is too simplistic. No one is trying to argue that family income is not relevant—it is—but in my view, insufficient recognition has been given in recent years to the importance of family stability in promoting the health and well-being of children.
I did indeed, and I shall refer to that before I close my speech.
The CSJ report “Fractured Families” demonstrates significant differences in family stability between married and unmarried couples in the early years of parenthood, after discounting other factors such as age, income, education and race. Even the least well-off 20% of married couples are more stable than all but the richest 20% of cohabiting couples.
It is appreciated that we do not need to preach or moralise, but if we are to be truly family-friendly we must ensure that choosing to marry is no more difficult in this country than it is in any other developed country.
I will give way—[Hon. Members: “No!”]
Moreover, if we rise to that challenge through the provision of a transferable allowance, as suggested by the new clause, we would do so in a way that makes it easier for one parent to stay at home for the children, which parents value and from which children benefit. That is also a matter of women’s rights, for it is often women who will exercise greater choice and flexibility. Women want that choice.
A 2008 YouGov poll found that 88% of parents think that more should be done to help parents who wish to stay at home and bring up their children in the early years, and 97% of them agree that the Government should do more in this area. Furthermore—this is of huge importance—the relative costs of introducing a transferable allowance are small when compared with the huge costs of family breakdown. I quoted those figures earlier.
The transferable allowance would help to reduce those costs, and would therefore be an investment very well made. The £550 million cost of the partially transferable allowance proposed by the Conservatives prior to the general election represents just 1.3% of the direct costs of family breakdown, as calculated by the Relationships Foundation—[Interruption.]And just 2.16% of the direct costs of family breakdown, as calculated by the same organisation—
I fully accept that the Government’s priority has been to clean up the terrible financial mess left by the previous Administration, which has necessarily involved difficult decisions, and I want to put on record today my support for the Government, who have not been afraid to grasp the nettle and make the difficult decisions that the previous Administration were incapable of making. Britain is on a much sounder footing today than was ever the case under the previous Administration, and I pay tribute to the Government’s hard work in this respect. However, even in the current economic environment, I believe that new clause 5 would, as I have outlined, be an investment well worth making both fiscally and socially. The Government have said that they will recognise marriage in the tax system at the appropriate time. I suggest that that time is now, particularly given that it would still take Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs some considerable time to implement a transferable tax allowance, because of the IT and other implications.
Does the Minister agree that the increased tax burden on one-earner married couples on an average wage—it will soon be more than 50% greater than the OECD average burden on such families—commends the early introduction of the transferable allowance if we are to be, as we aspire to be, the most family-friendly country in Europe? What assessment has he made of the time it will take to make the necessary IT and other changes to give effect to the Government’s commitment to introduce the transferable allowance? If he has not made such an assessment, will he do so? I ask the Government to bring forward this legislation not when they are ready, but sufficiently in advance of that, so that all IT and planning changes can be made first, and when the money is available, transferable allowances can become operational quickly, not one or more years later.
The transferable personal allowance was a key election commitment from many of us in the House and an important reason why people voted for the Conservative party. They are now looking for action. I very much look forward to what the Minister has to say, and I will conclude with a quotation from a speech given by the Chief Rabbi in another place earlier this year:
“If the Jewish experience has anything to say to Britain today it is: recognise marriage, not just cohabitation, as in the best interests of the child. Do so in the tax system. Do so in the educational system. Do so in relationship support. Otherwise, our children will pay the price—financial, educational, medical and psychological—for generations to come. Without stable marriages we will not have strong families, and without strong families we will not have a big society.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 10 February 2011; Vol. 725, c. 366-7.]
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak this evening, Mr Deputy Speaker. For the first time in what I suppose is a long time, I will be at odds with some of my colleagues sitting on the Opposition Benches. They are surrounding me at the moment, and I suspect that I will say something that they might not be entirely happy with. None the less, that will not stop me making my point of view heard.
I believe that marriage is good for society. That is my belief, and I am unapologetic about it. Like my hon. Friends the Members for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), I believe that a Christian marriage is good for society. Does that mean that other relationships are not right? No, it does not; but it does mean that marriage has an important part to play in society. Some of the research and the evidence that other Members have mentioned is clear on that too. The evidence indicates that marriage is associated with far better child development and adult well-being—ask those in a married relationship and the children they raise—although that does not mean that other children, from other relationships are not as good.
The evidence from the constituency that I represent would indicate that that is not necessarily the case. Those who are perhaps worse off financially are in stable relationships as well. The reason I am speaking on this issue tonight is that I am reflecting not only my personal views, but—I believe—those of a large majority of the people whom I represent. I am here as the MP for Strangford to put that on the record and ensure that that opinion is well heard this evening. Many people might not like what I have to say, but hon. Members will have to accept that it is my opinion.
I, too, believe that marriage is good for society, but surely what we have to consider this evening is whether the proposals before us would do anything to incentivise marriage and increase the number of people going into wedlock, and I do not believe for a moment that they will.
I do not believe that that is the intention of those who have put these proposals forward. I believe that they are about the unfairness in the taxation system that impacts directly on those in marital relationships. That is the reason. This is not about creating a financial incentive—other Members have suggested that it is about encouraging people to get married for an extra £150—and I do not believe for a second that it is.
Does my hon. Friend agree that these proposals are not about incentivising or encouraging people to get married, but about saying to people who are married, “You will not be penalised financially”? Marriage is good for society, good for relationships and good for children, and it should be encouraged. We should not as a House try to pour scorn on the many married couples out there, whether they are unemployed married couples or wealthy married couples.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for the passion in his voice.
Mindful of those points, it is a minimal responsibility of policy makers to remove all obstacles to marriage resulting from fiscal policy. Indeed, there is a good case for considering what steps could be taken to support marriage. I believe that the proposal before us is one suggestion that we should be considering. In the light of that, I am delighted by what the Prime Minister has said. Some people in this Chamber would say, “If the Prime Minister supports it, we don’t,” but if the Prime Minister says something good, let us support it, whether he is the Prime Minister or not—and if one of my colleagues says that something is good, then that is good as well.
The hon. Gentleman is making the case on behalf of his constituents and presenting his own personal view, but does he also recognise that a strong case has been made in those countries that recognise marriage in a way that this country does not?
“Britain is almost the only country in Europe that doesn’t recognise marriage in the tax system.”
That was his comment back in 2007, but he reiterated the point in 2008 and 2010. There is clearly an issue to be addressed if we are to make comparisons with tax systems in other countries across Europe.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is being extremely generous. I am delighted that he believes that this should not be about incentivising—[ Interruption. ]
My apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has said that this measure is not about incentivising marriage, or about penalising people. Can he therefore explain why, under the proposals, a woman with children who has recently been widowed would suffer a financial loss at precisely the time when the family needed the money the most? That seems to me to be a fundamental flaw in the proposals.
The hon. Gentleman made that comment earlier to other speakers, and they responded to it. I accept that there are anomalies in all systems. In the short time that I have been in the House, I have spoken on many issues, and each one was something that my constituents told me that they wanted me to deal with. I am on record as having opposed changes to the education maintenance allowance, the employment and support allowance and incapacity benefit. I am also on record as opposing changes to the disability living allowance, among other changes in the benefit system. I have done that in this Chamber; if I see something wrong, I will take a stand on it. If I see an anomaly, I will do my best to address it. I cannot necessarily tell the House every detail of the matter, because I might not be aware of them, but if there is a wrong, it must be righted.
Does my hon. Friend also accept that it is all very well to say that there are anomalies, but that sometimes straw men are put up in these arguments? The fact is that if a pensioner, for example, loses a loved one, their tax credits and allowances go up, not down. We should not allow these straw men to be introduced into the debate.
No one is saying that there is anything wrong with marriage. Of course, one should encourage it. My parents were married, and I am married. No one is objecting to people getting married or saying that we should be telling people to get married. However, a fundamental problem with the new clause is that it effectively discriminates against one set of people. Why should a man and a woman who live together and have children be less well off or be discriminated against, compared with a married couple? Why would we wish to create discrimination between those groups of people?
People’s interpretations of these issues are different; we see things in different ways and have different opinions. I do not necessarily agree with what the hon. Lady has said, but there are issues to be addressed.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is inconsistency among Conservative Members, in that they want to support marriage while taking away huge amounts of financial support from ordinary families?
I do not believe that there is an inconsistency in relation to this matter, although, with respect, I would disagree with certain other proposals relating to the benefit system.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend—I regard him as such—for giving way. I share his warmth about marriage, having spent the past 41 years married, although I am not sure that my wife would be quite so enthusiastic. He has, however, strayed beyond his own guidelines. He said that the provision was not about people marrying for a payment, yet he is now arguing that that is what he supports. Surely this should be about the responsibilities that people take on as a couple, especially when they have children, because that is the most burdensome time when they need the most help from the tax system. This is not about whether they decide to have one kind of a relationship or another. Whether they are married or unmarried, if they decide to be together and have children, they will be burdened with other costs.
I can tell the House that when I married, I married for love. I am one of those old-fashioned boys; that is just the way I am.
In the light of the intervention from Michael Connarty, it is important to point out that we are not trying to penalise single-parent families or families in which there are two earners. All we are trying to do is remove the severe penalty on families in which there is only one earner, because our system is totally out of step with most of the rest of the world in that regard.
I thank the hon. Member for his contribution and for providing a bit of focus to this debate.
Given that the agreement pertains to a full Parliament, one ordinarily would not be concerned at the failure to action a commitment in just over a year. What we need is for legislative change to be approved by the coalition Government, to move forward and perhaps see this legislation coming through in two years. The latest publication of the international tax comparison, CARE’s “The Taxation of Families 2009-10” puts things in a very different light. It demonstrates that we are now headed to a place where the tax burden on a married family with children with one earner on an average wage is growing so much that it will soon be more than 50% greater than the OECD average. That breaks new ground, taking us into territory that not even new Labour dreamt of occupying.
Some will no doubt respond by saying that this is a result of the tax burden having to increase on everyone in the context of the debt crisis. I understand that, but it is not exactly the case. Let me quote a director of an influential think-tank, who said:
“Given that it will take some time between changing the law and implementing the actual recognition of marriage in the tax system, it is important that the Government makes this a priority, takes swift action. The change, or at least a recognition of it, should be made”.
I very much hope that that report can be taken seriously, that the Government can look further at the issue and perhaps bring it forward in future legislation.
The think-tank is ResPublica.
As Mr Leigh said earlier, the tax burden on single people with no dependants on the same wage has been falling and far from being 50% above the OECD average, it is now actually below it. That is reflected in the fact that the tax burden on a one-earner married couple on an average wage with two children is projected to rise from 73% to 80% of that of a single person on the same wage by 2012-13, while the equivalent average burden among OECD nations is 52%.
In this context, it is strange that the Government have started investing what will probably end up being almost £12 billion on increasing individual allowances to £10,000. There is a cost factor there and an agreement within the coalition on how that is going to happen. That will cost us all. It is a measure that will have a disproportionately positive effect on single people, yet the Government will not have brought forward a much cheaper transferable allowance policy.
I do not believe that the current situation is sustainable. It is now urgent that the Government introduce legislation to give effect to the transferable allowance. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide robust assurances on this point and a commitment to ensure that as the tax burden increases in the context of the current financial difficulties, it is allocated in a way that is fair, sensitive to family responsibilities and recognises the real strengths that marriage brings to society. I also trust that the Minister will address the important points raised by other hon. Members, including the need urgently to address the IT implications of recognising marriage in the tax system. There are changes to be made, there are costs and a system will need to be set up.
I urge Members to support new clause 5. I believe it is worthy of support. I understand that there are differences of opinion. This is probably the first time that I have disagreed with many colleagues on the Opposition Benches, but I believe in my heart that this is an issue of some importance.
Does hon. Friend accept that no one here needs to apologise for believing that this nation was richly blessed whenever it honoured marriage in legislation?
I thank my hon. Friend for putting the issue into perspective. We have no apologies to make; we believe in the sanctity of marriage; we believe it is important. Long may this House subscribe to that belief; we need to provide help and assistance to support marriage. We urge Members to support new clause 5.
This has been a fascinating debate. It has been broad in its coverage of issues relating to marriage and social policy—although I must say that at times it has been as long as it has been broad—and it has strayed back into recent centuries in examining the institution of marriage. One common factor has emerged from it: Members in all parts of the House recognise the hugely beneficial effect of marriage on wider society in keeping families together and improving the quality of life, although some evidence presented by Members has raised questions about the quality of life during marriage.
There is a legitimate debate to be had about how we, as a society, can support and encourage marriage. Where there has been a history of family breakdown, it provides a role model that can encourage people to invest time in building and strengthening relationships. I strongly believe that our education system could do more in that regard,. Sometimes such subjects are seen as a bit touchy-feely, and some of the supporters of the new clause might resist attempts to include them in the curriculum, but I think it important for us to do so.
Opposition Members have said that if the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) are arguing that the new clause provides an incentive, it is a pretty weak one. That point was made three or four times by Mr Jones during his considerable and weighty contribution. If the new clause is not about an incentive, I do not see how it can belong in a debate about the importance of valuing, encouraging and supporting marriage. There are other ways in which we could do that, and I hope that we will, both as a coalition Government and as a society.
As others have said, however, we also need to send all those who are building and fostering strong relationships, and raising children successfully, the message that they too are valued and valuable. The hon. Member for Gainsborough was at pains to emphasise that, but although I much enjoyed hearing what he had to say—he is a regular visitor to North Cornwall, and I always welcome him back so that he can spend his post-tax income there, just as I welcome the Prime Minister and many other Members—I was not convinced by it. As I said earlier, if the new clause provides a financial incentive it is clearly not a very big one, and if it does not, I do not really see what part it can play in a debate about the importance of supporting, encouraging and fostering marriage.
Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that the transferability for which the new clause provides would enable parents, particularly women, to choose how they spend their time—to choose whether to work or to stay at home to look after children—and does he not think that providing that choice is a good idea?
The hon. Gentleman has raised a useful point. However, given the existing pressures on families I do not think that the new clause is sufficient to allow that to happen, although it may be a step in the right direction. The argument presented by, mainly, Members in a particular corner of the Chamber is that on one hand that this is about incentives and on the other hand that it would make a financial difference, and I think there is a weakness at the heart of that argument.
Members have produced evidence relating to what happened at the time of the change in the tax system. My own marriage took place in 1999 and was not related to tax considerations: I am pleased to say that other factors were operating. I suspect that, given the way in which tax has risen and fallen in every Budget, if such decisions were based on tax policy we would see a huge flux in the nature of relationships and marriage.
The hon. Gentleman is making a perfectly honourable speech and his party’s position is entirely consistent, but, as possibly the only Liberal Democrat speaking in the debate, will he confirm that, given the coalition agreement, he would be perfectly relaxed if our Government produced such a transferable allowance? Surely the Liberal Democrats could simply abstain.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I am generally a relaxed person. We in Cornwall are famed for being laid back and not wanting the hectic pace of life that some other constituencies thrive on. I am focusing on the debate about the Government’s policy in the Bill and whether the Government will choose to accept the new clause that the hon. Gentleman proposed in such an able and distinguished manner. I hope that the Government will not at this juncture look to act on the proposal in the new clause.
I am happy to update the House that during the course of the debate news reached me that Julia Goldsworthy, the former Member for Falmouth and Camborne, has announced her engagement, which I am delighted to hear. Whether she and Chris have been watching the debate and decided that this was it is unclear. I think it is unlikely, but I am delighted that the institution of marriage is taking a step forward in terms of our political life in Cornwall.
Hon. Members’ speeches have made it clear that the new clause is an attempt to send a signal to a group of people in society, but I am not convinced that we should use the tax system to send a signal. There are other ways in which we could support marriage.
I concur that 1999 was a vintage year for nuptials, having been married myself that year. Surely there is a discrepancy in the hon. Gentleman’s argument. By increments, he is seeking to direct fiscal policy in terms of taking poorer people out of tax—it is his party’s policy, shared by many in my party, and it is in the coalition agreement. Surely he must recognise that there are perfectly good fiscal reasons for us to prevail on the Government to pursue the married tax allowance.
There is certainly an important debate to be had, but it is not based on income or the tackling of poverty. It is a different argument, although of course an entirely legitimate one. It is just one that has failed to convince me at this juncture.
In our long debate this evening we have explored the issues in some depth. Despite the excellent speech made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough, he has failed to convince me that the Government should act on his new clause.
This is an important debate and one that I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in. The first thing to say is that it is important that we take great care with what the evidence tells us. That is in two respects.
I merely had the temerity to point out that the hon. Lady did not grace us with her presence until about 20 minutes ago, so she was not in a position to hear the extremely articulate and well-made arguments made by my hon. Friend.
I am very sorry to have missed the contribution of Mr Leigh, but I should point out my own credentials—something that I do not often do. I bring to the House, if not exactly an interest, probably a bias. For four years I was proud to be the director of the National Council for One Parent Families. I worked with hon. Members, including Conservative Members, on what happens when relationships break down and children are involved. I know that I speak for hon. Members across the House when I say that our fundamental concern in this debate must be the well-being of children. I know that we come at that from different positions, but it is the debate that I think it is important we have this evening. The debate is not—however much hon. Members may, with the best of motives, care about it—about the social role of marriage and the societal messages that we send. I am interested in the well-being of children. It is incredibly important that we examine what we know about what marriage means for the well-being of children, what drives the factors that improve the well-being of children and the role of the financial position of families, and particularly of mothers, in the well-being of children.
I have had the pleasure of talking to hon. Members about this over many years, including Conservative Members. It is important for us as a House that we put it on record that this is what we really care about.
I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s considerable expertise, as I have been the beneficiary of some of it in the past. Does she agree that we should not set up a position of false opposition on this matter, and that many single parents are probably passionate supporters of marriage and might well like to get married again? We need to be a bit careful how we relate to this issue.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, because the majority of people, including young people, want to be married. Most people who become lone parents never set out to do so; they did not enter into relationships expecting or wanting those relationships to break down. However, people often find themselves, at least for a time, bringing up children on their own. My point is that the well-being of children when that relationship breaks down must be a priority for this House. He probably feels as strongly as I do about that, and I hope that hon. Members will focus their attention on it when considering the new clause.
I want to say two things about the evidence that has been mentioned and debated by hon. Members this evening, the first of which relates to the cause and effect evidence. I perhaps raised this clumsily in earlier interventions, when I sought to point out that, to some degree at least, married couples are a bit of a self-selecting category. There is a preponderance of marriage among those who already had more financial and social resources before they married. Our policy should adjust to that where children who come from different social backgrounds may be disadvantaged, rather than seek to reinforce some of the societal disadvantages which mean that there is a prevalence of marriage among higher socio-economic groups.
As a minister, I have been marrying couples for the past 42 years and I do not know where the hon. Lady is getting her statistics from, as they certainly do not reflect the reality in the Province. She gives the idea that people who enter into marriage are at the upper end of the financial stability scale, but the vast majority of people who have been married have been at the lower end of the scale or in between. The reality is certainly not what she is describing to the House tonight.
I cannot question the hon. Gentleman’s evidence about Northern Ireland, but I can say that the position across the United Kingdom as a whole is that a higher rate of marriage correlates with people in higher socio-economic groups. We were helpfully reminded by Dan Rogerson of an important question, which relates to the second point about the evidence: even if we could do something to spread the advantages of marriage across wider society, would a tax break do this? I have seen and heard no evidence, either this evening or during the many years that I have studied this subject, to show that a tax break persuades people to get married or to stay married. In that sense, particularly in these constrained fiscal circumstances, it seems extraordinary to spend public money on a mechanism that has no evidence to prove that it works effectively. There are real issues to address in respect of what the evidence shows us. Saying that does not devalue, in any way, the importance of marriage; I merely say that when we spend money, we need to know what outcome we expect it to achieve.
I, too, recognise the hon. Lady’s expertise. It is difficult in these debates to unite on what we are for. She opened her contribution by discussing children’s well-being, and surely she would agree that there is evidence to suggest a correlation between children’s well-being and marriage. This issue should not just be the preserve of the few and the privileged; it should be an issue of social justice and extending it to the poorest, who can benefit from incentives and support in relation to marriage. That is what we are about, so surely we should unite in this House on that issue.
With the greatest of respect to the hon. Gentleman—I understand what he says—we do not know and we have no evidence to tell us that it is the fact of marriage that gives those children that advantage. That is where the evidence falls down, with the greatest of respect to the strongly held views of Conservative Members and of DUP Members, too. The evidence does not tell us that the fact and existence of a marital relationship, if we strip out all other social and economic factors, makes the difference for children. Commitment might be one important factor but there is another important factor: conflict. We know that conflict, in married relationships or outside them, is extremely damaging for children, so it is dangerous for us pick out one aspect of relationships or familial structures and to say that it makes or breaks children’s well-being. The evidence simply does not stack up to tell us that.
I said at the beginning of my speech that my concern was about the well-being of children in the context of the proposal to spend public money on supporting a particular kind of familial structure. I am concerned that we are diverting resources to families who are economically better off rather than to those who face the greatest risk of poverty.
The families who face the greatest risk of poverty today—hon. Members on both sides of the House agree on this point—are lone parent families. There are two possible policy responses to that, one of which is to try to stop those lone parent families becoming lone parent families. Saying that we should have fewer single parent families could be a policy response if we could see the mechanisms to achieve it and if we thought that it would genuinely work for children’s well-being. In the absence of evidence that this tax break or other mechanisms can compel families to stay together, we must also consider the second policy response mechanism, which is how to improve the economic prospects of children growing up in single parent families, particularly in light of the fact that one in four children in this country will spend some time in such a family. I suggest that if we are considering where the pressure of public resources need to be focused, protecting the best interests of those children, irrespective of the marital situation of their parents, ought to be our priority.
The hon. Lady is very generous in giving way, but surely she is avoiding one central fact. We alone in Europe have a tax system that is biased against families with caring responsibilities in which one member chooses to stay at home to look after the children. That is the central fact that she is avoiding.
The hon. Gentleman raises a number of important points. First, I have been struck this evening by the interventions by Government Members about the opportunity for couples to make a choice—particularly that which many of them would like to see, which is for one parent in the couple, often the mother, to take some time out of the workplace to stay at home and care for children. They seem willing to spend money on offering that choice to mothers in couple relationships and to spend more on offering it to mothers in married couple relationships, but not to offer it to single mothers. The economic pressure on single mothers to go out to work to support their children is being ratcheted up by this Government. If it is right for children to have a parent at home for a time, not necessarily just when the children are very young, it must be right irrespective of the marital status of the parents. Government Members must think about the child-focused approach to deploying resources. If we think it right that parents should have the choice to be at home with their children, all parents must have that choice, not just those in married relationships.
In response to the interesting and important point made by Mr Jackson about what goes on in other European countries, let me say that one of the distinguishing factors is that the experience of poverty among lone parent families in this country and the much lower experience of such poverty in other European countries shows that one can design a fiscal system so that lone parenthood need not be a determinant of poverty. It need not lead families and children into poverty. This is about the redistributive choices that we make in our fiscal system. When we have such pressure on the public finances, making a choice to spend money on favouring a group of families, many of whom are already economically advantaged, rather than focusing spending on those who are most economically disadvantaged is a strange priority, particularly given that we have no evidence of the efficacy of spending money on keeping people married as a route to keeping them out of economic disadvantage.
My hon. Friend talks about international comparisons, but does she agree that there is also no evidence in European countries or anywhere else that having a tax system that encourages marriage leads to more stable marriages or more coherent family units?
It is very clear that putting the weight of expectation for supporting marriage on the fiscal system is a very unrealistic and unlikely way of providing adequate support for strong couple relationships. Of course everybody wants strong couple relationships to be sustained and of course it is right to use every instrument of public policy that we can—cost-effectively and in terms of outcome—to do so, but the evidence about what sustains strong couple relationships is not that we should give tax breaks to the already better-off, and particularly not to the already better-off who do not have children, if we are concerned about child well-being. The evidence about what sustains strong couple relationships is about a much broader landscape of social and emotional support. It is about early relationship and social education in schools and ensuring we have strong services to support families in the community, including the universally welcome Sure Start services and the very good-quality child care and play facilities that can be available to support parents in raising their children.
To isolate money and spend it in the fiscal system rather than direct our attention to what genuinely supports strong family relationships and children in whatever family structure they are growing up is in my view a misapplication of public funds, particularly at a time when those public funds are constrained. As hon. Members have pointed out, it is particularly strange to spend money on couples who have no children if we are concerned about child well-being, rather than to spend money in a way that specifically focuses on the well-being of kids. I am very concerned that the new clause would take money from those with higher levels of need and give it to many couples in lesser need. I accept that, as hon. Members on the Democratic Unionist Benches have said, some married couples are in low-income groups and in straitened circumstances, but in general we would be diverting resources to better-off families from lower-income families, and particularly from lower-income families with children.
Finally, let me address the issue of the couple penalty, about which we have heard a great deal and about which I am deeply sceptical. Let us start by remembering that there are economies of scale of living with another adult in one’s household. It does not cost as twice as much for two adults to live in a household as it costs one. The couple penalty that has been much talked about by Conservative Members fails to identify that the material circumstances of children in lone-parent families are measurably worse than those of children in couple families. Whatever the intellectual and fiscal modelling might suggest about a financial couple penalty, the reality—the outcome—is that there is no such couple penalty. Indeed, the penalty works in quite the opposite way. To seek to extend the material advantage that couples enjoy at the expense of single parents seems to me a strange choice for a Government who are particularly concerned about social mobility and improving the prospects of the most disadvantaged children.
I hope that hon. Members will consider the new clause very carefully and the fact that it simply fails to achieve the laudable goals of Members on the Government Benches to improve the prospects of some of our most disadvantaged children. I hope that they will look instead at how best we can direct resources to support parents who are bringing up children on their own, usually through no choice or fault of their own. I hope that they will relieve what is often a burden from the parents who are often proud to take on that burden and who deserve to be rewarded for taking it on, as they are the parents who stay and make the commitment. Surely they are the parents to whom we should be giving extra financial support if there is extra financial support to be made available. I really do plead with Members on the Conservative Benches, and with DUP Members who I think are giving them some support this evening, to think again about the likely effect of such a new clause and about the children who would lose out. I am sure that their intentions are honourable, but I am afraid that the results will be anything but.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Lady, who always makes an intelligent, cogent and reasonable case, but she is completely wrong. I had not intended to trouble the scorers this evening, but it is important that we have a proper debate on new clause 5, that it is not rushed through, and that this is not treated as a procedural issue that the House can dismiss lightly. It goes to the kernel of what my hon. Friends and I believe in. We did not come into politics at any level—in my case, more than 20 years ago—to make people poorer, to embed disadvantage, or to have a tax system that favours some over others.
My party has a strong tradition of small-“l” liberal and progressive social reform, from Disraeli onwards. One of the more depressing aspects of the debate is the straw men—or straw people, I should say—who have been set up, and the caricatures of the Conservative party that have been paraded before us.
Not at the moment; I may do so later. If a reasonable person from any other European country stumbled into the Chamber tonight, they would wonder why we were debating the issue. It is an existential issue of what we believe as public servants—as politicians—about the institution of marriage. That is not to traduce or do down the massive contribution that those who are, for a variety of reasons, single parents make to their family. They love their children and care about their family, and they are a part of the community. However, it is incumbent on us to say what we think is right. I commend the courage and dedication of my hon. Friend Mr Leigh, who is willing to be unfashionable sometimes and speak out on what he believes is right.
This is a totemic issue, because my party put it in its election manifesto. It recapitulated that point in the coalition agreement and has argued for this specific policy, so it is not one that we can lightly cast aside as irrelevant now that we are in a coalition in which there must be give and take. Many of us have always believed that it is vital to take poorer working people out of tax. We heard about a cornucopia of so-called Tory errors, going back to the minimum wage. Let me remind Opposition Members that the gap between the richest and poorest 10% widened under the Labour Government. A former very senior Government member professed that he was
“intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”; that is a fact. No one has a monopoly on care and compassion for people.
It cannot be wrong to look at examples in other European countries, see that their fiscal policy decisions work, and decide to look at a similar policy. I like, respect and trust the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury; he is a decent man of his word. He will have heard the strength of views and the passion on the Conservative Benches. He will also have heard the filibustering by Mr Jones, which reached a nadir when he effectively said in his final remarks that people were essentially too thick to fill in their tax forms. I know that filibustering is an art form, and he has perfected it, but that is gilding the lily and taking things to a ludicrous length. This is not a subject for knockabout politics; it is about real changes to support people.
My hon. Friend makes a good and important case. Many people quite properly raise concerns about the gap between the rich and the poor growing over the years, but why do the same people not also raise concerns about the position of one-earner married couples on an average wage with two children? Their tax burden has increased over the years, too. Why are people not rising up and expressing concern about that discrimination, which will lead to real child poverty if we do not deal with it?
My hon. Friend has a long tradition of concentrating on this issue in his professional work in family law before he came to the House, and he knows what he is talking about. He is right and astute in his observation. The proposal is about ameliorating unfairness, as well as having a progressive tax policy to reward what we think is right. Kate Green, in her usual decorous way, skipped the key issue, which is that European countries are making such tax changes or have established them, and we have not. It is incumbent on her to make the case why they are all wrong and we are right.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in this case the United Kingdom is the odd country out? As he so powerfully said, we need to join the mainstream of Europe on this matter.
My hon. Friend makes an intelligent point, with which I wholeheartedly agree.
Reference was made earlier to the Centre for Social Justice report of May 2011. The hon. Member for North Durham, who is ambling along the Back Benches towards his place, did not refute the causal link and the difference between marriage and cohabitation and some of their negative socio-economic impacts.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening; I said nothing of the sort. I said that a possible reason for marriage break-up was poverty, but the link that he is making by suggesting that marriage break-down somehow leads to poverty is not the point that I was making at all.
The hon. Gentleman is trying the patience of the House. We will have a look at Hansard tomorrow to see what he said. He did not refute the details and facts that I put before the House in my interventions on him and others.
I know the hon. Gentleman is not a good listener. He is drawing the conclusion that poverty, and things such as drug abuse among children of single parents and others, is a result of the fact that their parents are not married. What I said, and what is clear from the work of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is that the root cause is poverty, not whether people are married or not married.
My capacity to listen is in inverse proportion to the length of the hon. Gentleman’s peroration. Given that he spoke for an hour, at the end, like many others, I lost the will to live. I expect better of the hon. Gentleman because he has given some very informative speeches over the years. Sadly, that was not the case tonight. I am sure he is distressed at my observations.
The hon. Gentleman failed to take on board any of the comments that were made or the facts that were presented. A study by the Bristol Community Family Trust in December 2010 demonstrated that cohabiting couples accounted for 80% of family break-ups, whereas divorce accounted for only 20% of break-ups. He did not specifically seek to break the causal link that I was making. One in 11 married couples break up before their child is five, compared with one in three unmarried couples. None of us wants to see the dire social consequences of family breakdown. There is a consensus across this country about it, from the Prime Minister down.
Accepting at face value what the hon. Gentleman says—that cohabiting couples are more likely to separate than married couples—what evidence can he give us that a financial inducement would work to keep those cohabiting couples together?
I expected better of the hon. Lady, who is learned, intelligent and usually erudite, than rejigging the caricature, “Put a ring on your finger and get an extra 20 quid a week.” That has never been our argument. We seek to influence private behaviour with public policy, and I used the example of speeding fines and points on a licence as policies that are likely to influence future behaviour. As I said to Dan Rogerson, who is no longer in his place, the Liberal Democrats made a manifesto commitment, which we have accepted, to take more poorer working people out of tax. That commitment was made on the same basis. The point I keep coming back to, and which I repeat for the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, is that the international comparators support my case and not hers.
I will not give way for the time being.
We all wish to deal with the problem of family breakdown, and I genuinely believe that this would be an important pointer and signal that we are in line with other countries and cognisant of international comparators. The hon. Member for North Durham painted a picture of a wonderful land of milk and honey, a Valhalla, after 13 years of the Labour Government, but it is worth repeating that in 2007, under a Labour Administration, a UNICEF report on child well-being placed Britain bottom in a league table of 21 countries. Members should listen not only to me on that point but to Mr Justice Coleridge from the family division of the High Court, who in 2009 summarised the position thus:
“The breakdown of families in this country is on a scale, depth and breadth which few of us could have imagined even a decade ago… almost all of society’s ills can be traced directly to the collapse of family life… it is a never ending carnival of human misery.”
The Whips are imploring me to conclude my comments—I know it is not my aftershave—so I will do so, as I am always receptive to the admonitions of my hon. Friend James Duddridge. We have had an excellent debate and I believe that my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary has listened. This is an important point of principle for Members on this side of the House and for many others, including hon. Gentlemen and Ladies from Northern Ireland on the other side of the Chamber. It is a totemic issue, and this Conservative-led coalition Government must, and I believe will, deliver on this promise.
In the contributions that I have heard via the live feed and in the Chamber, sadly there seem to have been moral overtones that echo speeches in a Victorian Parliament. If moral judgments are behind those arguments and people think that they this is a moral vote, I am quite sad about that. It might be a political strategy, however. Many political strategies were put forward by the Conservative leadership at the election, but hopefully they will not be reflected in the legislation put though this House. I hope that the contribution from Dan Rogerson is more reflective of the coalition, which means that the Government will not do what the new clause proposes.
It is very important that people listening to this debate realise what the proposals are. After the advances that this country has made, in the recognition of civil partnerships, for example, this proposal is about spouses and spouses alone, not civil partners. It is attacking the progress that has been made, which is now being copied across Europe. It does not relate to people of the same gender in firm and committed relationships, which shows that it is not a forward movement at all. It is an attempt to throw out and make a moral judgment on the things that have been done by the joint agreement of this House to advance society’s value of firm and committed partnerships. That is what is important.
It is not just a matter of putting a marriage partnership or a firm partnership ahead of any other. My hon. Friend Kate Green spoke strongly and has worked hard on single parenthood, but I happen to believe, in most cases but not all, that a partnership provides a much stronger place for children to grow up in than that provided by any single person—male or female—who has to go it alone. Therefore, our society has a lot of value when we can encourage partnerships.
We still have the oddest situation in Europe—and among many other countries outside Europe—because we do not recognise de facto partnerships. De facto partnerships are not civil marriages but agreements by people without either a civil or Church marriage to remain in a relationship and to commit to themselves and to any offspring.
My son lives in Australia, and he shared a de facto partnership for a number of years, recognising that if he or his partner had died their pension would have transferred to the other. In this country I have friends who, like me and my spouse, have been together for 41 years. They have had to get married because they might be coming to the end of their lives—not for a long time, I hope—and their pensions would have died with them.
That was a moral judgment which the previous Labour Government made, and it was shameful, because we should have had civil partnerships for all who wished to have them, and we should have recognised de facto partnerships as much as same gender partnerships. That is how we should have looked at things, but we should not give cash incentives, as the new clause seeks. Indeed, that was the contradiction in the contribution from Jim Shannon, because he said that he was not about incentivising partnerships through finances and then spoke on behalf of the new clause—which would incentivise partnerships.
I have a call from my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne first.
That is what is wrong with the new clause. It is about spouses, it is backward looking and moralistic and it will not help children at all. It is sad that one in five marriages breaks down and that civil partnerships break down, so we must encourage people through the way we finance them and help them to keep their relationships together, because finances as much as personal fall-outs break down relationships.
I agree wholeheartedly that families come in different shapes and sizes, and we need to respect and reflect that in public policy. Is not that why the previous Labour Government were absolutely right to target limited resources on tackling child poverty, irrespective of the child’s family background?
My hon. Friend has made that point before, and he puts it better than I could.
My mother, who now has sadly passed away, was soured by the Labour Government very early on when we took away the additional money for single parents. From then on, every time I went to her house on a Sunday, she would start by saying, “Welcome,” and then she would say, “You and your Tony Blair,” and for the rest of my visit berate me for what we had not got right. She was a great touchstone, however, because she saw that the defence of children and the future of children were important, not the rest.
The new clause is a backwards step, but I am hopeful that the Minister will not support it and that such legislation will never get through. It states that only marriage—not any other relationship—is good enough or as good as we would wish.
The hon. Gentleman is experienced in European affairs, given his chairmanship of the European Scrutiny Committee and his general interest in European matters, so I have a question. Why do France, Germany and Italy all recognise marriage in the taxation system? Indeed, let us widen that question. Why do only 24% of OECD citizens live in countries that do not recognise marriage in the taxation system? Has he ever asked why our European neighbours recognise marriage but we do not?
People must ask those Governments, but many recognise de facto partnerships as well, and their recognition is based on not just the marriage to which the new clause refers with “spouses”. That is the point. This is about one small group that we in this country used to see as a backward thing. We have moved beyond that now, and it is time we put it behind us. Perhaps others will catch up with us soon enough when they realise that it is partnerships that matter, not specifically spouses in a formal marriage.
In making a brief contribution to this very important debate, I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Leigh on getting it going. It came as a bit of surprise when my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce did not speak to the new clause, but I am delighted that she subsequently joined the debate to speak in support of it.
I come at this subject on the basis that the Prime Minister supports exactly what I support: recognising marriage in the tax system. He promised that the Government would recognise marriage in the tax system after the general election, and this debate rightly puts the focus on how that commitment will be implemented. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will say exactly when that is going to happen. Over a year ago, on
“I believe that we should bring forward proposals to recognise marriage in the tax system. Those in our happy coalition will have the right to abstain on them, I am happy to say, but I support marriage. We support so many other things in the tax system, including Christmas parties and parking bicycles at work, so why do we not recognise marriage?”—[Hansard, 2 June 2010; Vol. 510, c. 428.]
Those were excellent words from my right hon. Friend. Then, some three or four months later—
No, I am not going to allow anybody to interfere with the words of the Prime Minister.
“I have always supported the idea of supporting marriage through the tax system, specifically supporting the idea of a transferable tax allowance. The idea of a transferable tax allowance is in the coalition agreement.”
That is where my hon. Friend’s new clause comes in, because it calls for just that. One is entitled to ask why, having had two Budgets since the general election, we still do not have proposals to implement that very important pledge.
Labour Members are trying to misrepresent this proposal as an attempt to build new privileges for those who are in a marital relationship, but, as has been brought out time and again during the debate, the question is what we are going to do to prevent those who are married from suffering disadvantage under the tax system. That is what we are trying to put right with the new clause.
Labour Members would be far more sympathetic to the case that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are making in saying that they do not have negative attitudes towards single-parent families if they had not voted for the Welfare Reform Bill, which requires lone parents to pay to get the services of the Child Support Agency.
Speaking for myself, I do not have negative attitudes towards single-parent families, but I do feel that single-parent families should not be advantaged in the tax system as compared with married families. That is the problem that we have at the moment, and that is what we are trying to put right in the new clause.
“Married couples in East Dorset stick together. Latest…figures show that 65 per cent of marriages in the area last, well above the national average”,
with the seventh highest rate of marriage survival in the country. Even so, fewer than two out of three marriages survive, but that is a lot better than in many other parts of the country.
I am not suggesting that the tax system is causing marital breakdown, but I am saying that we should follow the very strong lead of our Prime Minister and put pressure on the coalition Government to implement their commitment to recognise marriage in the tax system.
Is not the real issue the calibration of the compromise? Most new Government Back Benchers recognise that in a coalition there has to be compromise. At the same time as we see moves forward on the individual allowance for our Liberal Democrat colleagues, we need to see some progress along the lines that my hon. Friend is setting out. The key issue is that there appears to be an imbalance in the compromise.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are seeking a route towards a destination. The Prime Minister set out the clear destination, but so far we do not seem to have made any progress towards achieving it. What was set out in detail on the Conservative website at the time of the election was a very modest proposal, which talked about a small proportion of the tax allowance being transferable, with quite a tight maximum income threshold in order for people to be eligible. Even that modest proposal has not yet been put forward by the Government in the Finance Bill so that we can support it and implement it.
The hon. Gentleman has talked about the Prime Minister’s support for this proposal. Does he recognise that the Prime Minister included civil partnerships in what he said? If we agreed to this proposal tonight, civil partnerships would be excluded, which is clearly at odds with what the Prime Minister wants.
I am happy to make the concession to Michael Connarty, who spoke at some length on this point, that if the new clause is defective, I am happy to withdraw it and for the Government to bring back a new clause that includes civil partnerships. I make it absolutely clear that we have nothing against civil partnerships.
My final point is that there is a read-across between the new clause and the conundrum that the Government face in the debate about the withdrawal of child benefit from families that comprise at least one higher rate taxpayer. That issue is causing a lot of angst among our constituents, particularly for parents in single income households in which one parent stays at home to look after the children. As I have said in correspondence with the Minister, in some cases one parent stays at home to look after a disabled child. If there is one parent who is the breadwinner and he is a higher rate taxpayer on an income of about £45,000 or £50,000, he will be above the threshold and will be deprived of his child benefit.
I will give way in a minute.
In comparison, a household with two people earning between £35,000 and £40,000 each, which has a much higher income, will keep its child benefit. That is not fair. In response to correspondence, the Minister has said that there has to be a bit of rough justice and that to introduce a system of transferability of allowances and entitlements would be very complicated. However, that is exactly what was proposed by the Prime Minister with the transferability of tax allowances, and that is what is proposed in the new clause. That is of significance, because there is a read-across from this other thorny policy issue that faces the Government.
I hope that we will have a positive response from the Minister, and that he will spell out in detail when and how the Prime Minister’s pledges to the country will be implemented.
What on earth is going on with the Tories this evening? It is a perplexing situation, because Conservative Members usually accuse Labour Members of filibustering in an open-ended Finance Bill debate, but not at all this evening. Instead we seem to have a private family dispute breaking out.
There could be, who knows? We had the unedifying spectacle, at the beginning of the debate, of Fiona Bruce, in whose name the new clause was tabled, not moving it, and Mr Leigh swiftly getting to his feet and deciding to move it. Three hours later, here we are. I am not quite sure whether the hon. Member for Congleton had reached some sort of deal with the Whips—it did not look like a particularly friendly deal at the time, but maybe she had a concession from Ministers and they are going to announce, finally, some movement on their election pledges. It is all very strange behaviour.
As my hon. Friends have said, it is very peculiar, at a time when millions of families, pensioners and others are being hit hard by deep spending cuts and tax rises, that the first priority of so many Conservative Members is to advocate an unfair tax cut with no apparent benefit to society. It would be a multi-billion-pound marriage tax break that would penalise those who are separated, widowed or divorced, many of whom are already being hit hard by cuts to tax credits and child care.
On the subject of unfairness, would the hon. Gentleman like to apologise for the fact that in the financial year 2007-08, under his party’s Government, the tax burden on one-earner married couples with two children, on the average wage, rose to 44% greater than the OECD average? That is a matter of fairness. Does he think any responsible party should ignore it?
I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman’s point is. Maybe in the cool light of day that intervention will have more light shed on it. In his contribution earlier, he asserted that there was a causal link between marriage and the socio-economic well-being of society, child well-being and so forth. He may well have a set of statistics in which he sees a correlation, but I am sure he understands the difference between causal and correlative effect. It may well be that car ownership has a similar correlation with child well-being, but that does not mean that setting up the tax system to the advantage of a particular institution will necessarily have the outcome that he seeks.
My hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for North Durham (Mr Jones) and others have overwhelmingly proved that we need a tax and benefits system focused on need and on poverty alleviation, particularly poverty among children. That must be the driving force behind a sane and rational tax system. We do not want a system with the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies that Conservative Members advocate.
Absolutely. Of course that is the case. It is so obvious that it is surprising that Conservative Members cannot see it. What is worse is that the new clause that they have moved—or rather, that one of them has moved—would cost more than £4 billion. It would cost £4.1 billion to create a personal allowance transferable between all couples, married and unmarried. That would be the price tag of new clause 5. That is the equivalent of a penny on income tax, a penny on employee national insurance rates, a 1% increase in VAT or putting VAT on fuel and power, as we know the Government sometimes like to do. If Conservative Members advocate spending that amount of money, surely it would be better to target it on the basis of need and where it would have the best and most direct benefit to society.
There is a long history of the transferability of personal allowances, and I will not go through it.
I know that many of my hon. Friends would like to me to elucidate some of that history, but we have already been through various centuries in this evening’s debate. Suffice it to say that it was a Conservative
Government who eventually phased out the married couple’s allowance, and indeed the current Lord Chancellor who said:
“Now that husbands and wives are taxed independently—one of the best taxation reforms in recent years—the married couple’s allowance is a bit of an anomaly.”—[Hansard, 30 November 1993; Vol. 233, c. 935.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston was absolutely right when she highlighted Labour’s policy shift towards helping the children and families in greatest need, particularly through the tax credit system. That was one of the greatest changes made by the previous Labour Government, and one that we should be proudest of.
The Conservatives have made a number of manifesto commitments on the transferability of personal allowances: they made such a pledge as far back as their 2001 election manifesto, and the Work and Pensions Secretary reiterated it in Centre for Social Justice reports. It comes up again and again, even as recently as the most recent general election, when a similar, albeit smaller, measure was proposed.
The Liberal Democrats, however, have always been firmly against such a measure; at least, that appeared to be the case. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham said, no less a person than the Deputy Prime Minister said that the proposal was
“a throwback to the Edwardian era”,
“Miriam and I got married for love, not for three quid a week. It’s patronising drivel.”
This is one of those rare occasions when I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister.
Mr Chope highlighted child benefit and taxation for higher earners. The two issues are inextricably linked, because when challenged about his decision at the Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister said, “Oh well. Don’t worry. We’re going to be making moves on a transferable married couples allowance.” Of course we never saw such a proposal then, and we still do not know how the child benefit taxation arrangement will be implemented. That would be a major change to the independent taxation system.
The hon. Gentleman could have speeded that up by not intervening.
I shall finish by saying that, clearly, there are major problems with the transferable allowance. It is costly and not targeted, and it is unfair to those without a marriage certificate, whether they are divorced, widowed, single or in a couple. There are a host of anomalies and unintended consequences, as several of my hon. Friends have said. For instance, if a husband is killed in a tragic road accident, his widow and children will be left without support, and so on. The proposal undermines the principle of independent taxation, but most of all, we should focus our tax and benefits system on need and on the alleviation of poverty. I sincerely hope that the House will reject new clause 5.
As we have heard, new clause 5 would introduce transferable personal allowances for married couples, allowing one spouse in all married couples to transfer unused personal allowance to the other. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce for tabling the new clause. It highlights an important point: that marriage is a positive institution, and one that the Government are committed to support.
We are keen to send a clear message that family and marriage matters, and that strong and healthy families help to create a strong and healthy society. In little more than a year, this Government have proved our determination to tackle the wider issues that can affect family stability.
It is of course important that we, as a society, do everything that we can for a woman in the circumstances that the hon. Lady describes. However, the Government also believe that the institution of marriage provides something to society that should be recognised. That is the thinking behind our policy. Of course we must help those in abusive relationships and do all we can to support them, but that does not preclude taking steps to support the institution of marriage. The Government recognise that.
If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to be patient, I will set out the Government’s position.
If we are to address poverty, it is important that we address not just poverty but the causes of poverty—to coin a phrase—and ensure that work pays, which our welfare reform programme is designed to do. It is also important that we take steps to ensure that the family and marriage are recognised, and that we do what we can to support stable relationships.
Under the Minister’s proposals, if a man abandoned his wife and children and got remarried, would he continue to receive the tax allowance? If a woman was widowed, would she lose it?
Let me set out—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Let me set out the point. As has been said many times during this debate, marriage is recognised in the vast majority of countries. The previous Government introduced the transferable nil-rate band for inheritance, which was specifically designed to assist married couples and civil partnerships. If the Labour party is against any kind of recognition of marriage within the tax system—
Let me finish this point. If the Labour party is against any kind of recognition of marriage within the tax system, why did it introduce the transferable nil-rate band for inheritance tax?
As I sat down to give way to Ian Austin, the shadow Chancellor said, “You don’t have to be married to benefit from the transferable nil-rate band.” He is absolutely right. As I said, it applies to married couples and those in a civil partnership. That is exactly what I said earlier. As the hon. Member for Dudley North pointed out, it is important that we support widows in the circumstances he mentioned. Does that mean, though, that we should never do anything for married couples? It does not necessarily follow.
I want to put this in the wider context of what we are doing to help strong and stable families. For example, the Department for Education has announced plans to spend £30 million on relationship support to deliver better support for couples in relationship distress. However, as hon. Members will be aware, the Government have made it clear that we intend to introduce proposals to recognise marriage and civil partnerships in the tax system. As the Prime Minister said recently, this will show that as a country we value commitment. I certainly agree, therefore, with the intentions behind the new clause.
Although the Government support the principle behind the new clause, now is not the appropriate time to bring forward such a measure. It would entail significant and immediate costs to the Exchequer, its scope is wider than the Conservative party manifesto pledge and the cost, we estimate, would be more than £4 billion. It would also necessitate substantial implementation costs.
Will the Minister comment on what message this sends to teachers planning to strike on Thursday? On the day when the Secretary of State for Education was dragged to the House to explain what he was doing to avoid the strike, the priority of Back-Bench Conservative MPs is to propose a motion that would cost more than £4 billion a year, yet teachers are being told that the Government will not negotiate over increases in their pension fund contributions. What message does that send to those teachers?
We have heard a lot in this debate about single parents. One group that will be affected if teachers go on strike and schools close on Thursday will be single working parents, who will face substantial disruption in dealing with child care. I hope that Members in all parts of the House will strongly urge teachers to go to work on Thursday.
I am quite prepared to accept that we are only Back Benchers and that the new clause may be defective, but I would be prepared not to force it to a vote if my hon. Friend now gives a firm and solemn pledge that during this Parliament the Government will honour our manifesto pledge to recognise marriage in the tax system. If my hon. Friend gives me that pledge, I will not force the new clause to a vote; if he does not give that pledge now, I will force it to a vote.
As always, my hon. Friend is very forceful in the points that he makes. Let me make a little progress; whether he considers it to be sufficient progress we shall wait and see.
I am going to make some progress.
Clearly, £4 billion is a significant amount of money. Any decision to introduce a mechanism to recognise marriage in the tax system will need to be taken in the context of the wider public finances, so whatever proposals the Government make will balance the benefit to society with the cost to the Exchequer. We will consider a range of options.
There are also some issues with the drafting of new clause 5. Some seemingly minor elements, such as the lack of a commencement date, make the new clause administratively difficult for two reasons. First, lead-in times for an effectively implemented mechanism will be lengthy because HMRC will need to design and put in place new processes—a point that a number of hon. Members have recognised. We will factor that into our thinking. The Government and HMRC understand the need for a workable way of delivering this, and we are actively engaged in that process. Secondly, the lack of a commencement date means that those who qualify could, technically, claim for at least the last four years, which could substantially increase the cost.
As we have heard, the new clause also makes no mention of civil partnerships, which we believe must be included. There is much that HMRC will need to prepare before the Government are able to meet their commitment, but hon. Members can rest assured that the Government are considering all those points. Let me say to my hon. Friend Mr Leigh that the Government remain committed to exactly what we said in the coalition agreement. I support the principle behind the new clause.
Labour introduced a mechanism in the tax system to recognise the advantages of cycling to work, and although I have nothing against cycling to work, it seems to me that marriage is more important to society, so the idea that the proposal before us would somehow represent a strange or unusual element in the tax system is, I am afraid, wrong. However, it is not practical to implement it at this time, and such changes need to be made within the boundaries of improved fiscal stability. Therefore, although I will reluctantly ask my hon. Friend to withdraw new clause 5, I can assure my hon. Friends that this is not an issue that we have forgotten about; rather, it is a commitment that we will keep.
I am afraid that the Minister has not answered the specific question that I asked him. It is not good enough to say that we will honour a commitment, but then give no date for when that commitment will be honoured. I am very sorry, but there is not a cigarette paper between what my hon. Friends and I are proposing in new clause 5 and what the Prime Minister said, which I shall repeat:
“I believe that we should bring forward proposals to recognise marriage in the tax system. Those in our happy coalition”— notice that he mentioned the coalition, because this is about now, in this Parliament; he was not talking about some time in the future—
“will have the right to abstain on them, I am happy to say, but I support marriage. We support so many other things in the tax system, including Christmas parties and parking bicycles at work, so why do we not recognise marriage?”—[Hansard, 2 June 2010; Vol. 510, c. 428.]
I repeat: why is politics held in such contempt? It is because politicians go to the people at general elections and promise things—
I will not be shouted down by the hon. Gentleman. He was not here for most of the debate anyway.
We made that pledge, and we should now respect it. I was hoping to be able to say that the new clause was defective, and that we would be quite happy to withdraw it and to redraft it to enable civil partnerships to be recognised. We would be quite happy if the Minister then said that it could be introduced during the course of this Parliament. However, he has not said that. I am afraid that he has not answered the points that we have put to him. We had an hour’s speech by Mr Jones, most of which did not address what we are trying to say. I want to end by saying that none of us is trying to penalise two-earner families or single parents. We are simply trying to remove the severe penalty that this country imposes on one-earner families. The United Kingdom is completely out of step with most of the world in that regard. Nothing in our proposal is radical; it is sensible and it is right, and I think that we should now have a Division on it.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
The House proceeded to a Division.
I see no reason for it to be taken again, but I am strikingly impressed by the fact that, although it is three minutes past 11 o’clock, the sense of humour for which Mr Bone is renowned throughout the House has not deserted him. However, it is only fair to say that the Chair has discretion to allow the vote to continue for slightly longer in particular circumstances. A very large number of Members were seeking to get through one Lobby so I extended the time. I think we will leave it there, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the manner in which he has raised his point of order.