Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Tory confusion on family policy

I was reading a rather confused and defensive article on Conservativehome this morning (yes, I am a voyeur) about the clash at the top of the Tory party between David Cameron and George Osborne about 'family policy.'

Once or twice the article flips between family and marriage as if they were inter-changeable terms. In fact, the entire article seems to be talking about marriage but keeps referring to 'family' instead. No-one, left, right or otherwise believes that the tax and benefits system should not recognise family. It does and in a major way. Labour has expanded support for families through tax credits and child benefits. This is a very good thing.

It seems to me that Conservatives are not engaged in a row about 'family' at all. They are engaged in a row about marriage and whether that should be recognised in the tax system. There are many families, many very successful families that do not have a married couple at their core. Does this mean that marriage is irrelevant? No, we should support marriage as it does provide a wider base of support to children.

Should the tax system recognise marriage? No actually for two reasons. Why should the children who are in non married families be penalised just because of their circumstances? That is wrong. Just as importantly, other than through enormous levels of compensation, it is unlikely that the tax system will have anything other than a negligible effect on whether people get married and even less an effect on whether they can stay together. These are personal and emotional issues.

There is a case for looking at the impact that marriage has on the taxes that people pay and benefits they are able to claim. If there is a negative impact of marriage or even cohabitation on the income that people are able to secure then that needs to be looked at. While the tax system won't promote marriage in any meaningful way, nor should it penalise it.

I'm afraid I agree with George Osborne (and the Labour Government!) not David Cameron: marriage is good, we should celebrate it, but we can't promote it through the tax system, certainly not without penalising children who happen not to have married parents. That is unjust.

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