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Harry Benson: The marriage tax break could still make a difference


The government’s proposed introduction of a tax relief for married couples ought to be welcome news. It’s the first clear policy in support of marriage in a generation.

And boy do we need it. Government after government has presided over a relentless increase in family breakdown. Thirty years ago there were one million lone parent families. Today there are just under two million.

Support for lone parents makes up the bulk of the direct cost of family breakdown, estimated at £46 billion. That equates to more than the defence budget or half of the education budget.

I don’t begrudge this for one second. Lone parents come in for a lot of stick and I’m not about to add to that. Any parent who looks after children single-handed needs and deserves our praise and support.

But it makes sense to ask whether any of this maelstrom of family breakdown is avoidable. In particular, is there anything government is doing to make things worse and could be doing to make things better?

One important way government can influence families is in running a tax regime that supports stability. Alas the current system is a disaster.

Previous chancellors, until Nigel Lawson, supported a tax break for married couples. This was more a reflection of political preference than any particular evidence base. The difference now is that we now have overwhelming evidence that family breakdown has been driven by the trend away from marriage.

There is a very simple equation. Unmarried couples are far more likely to break up. Therefore more cohabitation + less marriage = more family breakdown.

Consider that out of every 100 teenagers in UK schools today, 51 live with intact married parents, just 4 with intact unmarried parents.

Knowing this, it is grossly irresponsible for our Deputy Prime Minister to reject support for marriage as “Edwardian”? And it is feeble of our Prime Minister to qualify his support. “Naturally”, he says, “there are people across the country who have never married and are just as committed to each other”.

But where are all these ‘stable long term relationships’? The answer is that 93% of them are married.

Government has a vested interest in supporting marriage. But the relative success of marriage comes in spite of a perverse tax credit system that rewards couples for living apart by up to £7,100 per year if they have one child. This is the so-called ‘couple penalty’. Quarter of a million couples pretend to live apart as a result.

In the face of this huge anti-family bribe, giving married couples a tax break of £200 per year isn’t going to persuade anyone of anything.

Half of all family breakdown occurs during the first two or three years of a child’s life. Three quarters of that involves parents who are not married.

If the marriage tax break were concentrated only on married mothers with a first child under three, it could be worth several thousand pounds. This would offset much of the perverse ‘couple penalty’ and might actually encourage some unmarried couples to live together and, heaven forbid, marry.

Now that would be government making a difference.

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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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