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Harry Benson: Perverse incentives. £200 if you marry, more than £7,000 to split up


It should be a flagship policy, launched at us with great fanfare and media blitz.

Yes, the new Marriage Allowance will finally come into force two months before the end of a five-year government. If you’re eligible, you can now apply.

The PM has long been very vocal about his support for marriage. The principle of supporting marriage is right. Our politicians should be shouting about this new policy from the rooftops.

But they’re not. That deafening silence you hear is the sound of embarrassment about the feebleness of a policy they know is a belated and half-hearted attempt to fulfil a long-standing pledge.

Let’s first look at why the principle is right.

If you want family stability, you need to back marriage. Marriage mostly works because it’s all about making explicit a plan for the future into which both partners buy. The result is that couples know where they stand, they’re more likely to put up with the odd setback, they’re more likely to enjoy the journey, and they’re more likely to stick at it. Most marriages last for life.

I and others, notably the Centre for Social Justice, have long argued that our epidemic of family breakdown has been driven by the trend away from marriage.

The scale of the problem is breath-taking. Nearly half of all our teenagers are not living with both natural parents. Picking up the pieces now costs the taxpayer £47 billion per year. That’s more than the defence budget, half of the education budget, and up £1 billion on the previous year.

We desperately need a political consensus that backs marriage without reservation. In order to avoid being in any way judgmental or dogmatic, it must be based on evidence. Successful marriages are the norm. Success outside of marriage is the exception.

Supporting marriage is about going with the grain of human nature. If you want to stay together, you need to make a plan for the future.

All of the main party leaders are married. They know it’s important for them personally. And yet for some of them – no prizes for guessing Nick Clegg – supporting marriage remains “patronising drivel that belongs in the Edwardian era”.

What we’ve ended up with is a policy that actually discredits marriage because it’s so poorly thought through and so obviously a political afterthought.

The Marriage Allowance will cost over half a billion that we haven’t got. It will affect only a quarter of married couples. And the net reduction in tax to those who do get it is the princely sum of £4 per week. Nice, but it’s not quite the scale of incentive that will encourage wavering couples to commit in their droves.

If we could stop with a family policy that was merely expensive but futile, perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad. But there’s a family policy out there that is both expensive and harmful.

Any family on low to mid income is receiving tax credits. Because tax credits are based on household income, couples with one child can be up to £7,295 better off apart – or pretending to live apart – up to £9,417 better off if they have two children; and up to £11,059 better off if they have three.

This is the so-called ‘couple penalty’. The utter perversity of this policy is that most couples are better off apart than together.

The PM even highlighted this nonsense when he launched his five point ‘Family Test’ last summer. Yet within weeks, in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, tax credits went up a bit more and the couple penalty got that little bit worse. The ‘family test’ failed at its first hurdle.

The good news is that there is a way the Marriage Allowance could be effective in its own right and counter the damaging effects of the couple penalty.

It would cost the same money to give a significant boost in child benefit to first-time married mothers with young children. In this way, unmarried couples with a child under three years old – those most vulnerable to family breakdown – could receive a serious incentive to make their commitment formal.

This version of a Marriage Allowance would counter the couple penalty and level the playing field. But to do so, it needs to be worth thousands, not hundreds.

It’s the kind of policy that might actually work and is part of our the Marriage Foundations five-point Marriage Manifesto launched today, aimed at bringing hope that we really can stem the terrible tide of family breakdown.

The real embarrassment is not that our politicians fail to acknowledging the scale of family breakdown and – aside from the PM and some notable others – are so gutless in failing to back marriage.

It’s that our family policy can now be summed up like this.

  • £212 to stay together
  • £7,295 to split up.


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Harry Benson
Harry Benson
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and a PhD student of social policy at University of Bristol.

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