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Laura Perrins: The war against marriage is a war against social mobility and social justice

Laura Perrins is a former barrister turned stay at home mother. She campaigns for Mothers at Home Matter.

Screen shot 2013-07-07 at 20.32.04Marriage is back on the agenda. This hottest of political potatoes has been tossed around from vigorous supporter (Tim Loughton MP) to a lukewarm “let’s placate the masses’ David Cameron, with various groups – including Labour and the Liberal Democrats – in opposition. So why should marriage be ‘supported’ in the tax system?

The first point is that marriage is currently penalised in the tax system. If you are a mother lower down the income scale and move in with a partner, the extra income they bring into your household means you stand to lose most or all of the £3,270 you otherwise receive in child tax credits. Harry Benson of The Marriage Foundation estimates that there are at least 300,000 families that pretend they live separately, but in reality are together. Similarly, higher up the income scale, if you have children and are in receipt of child benefit you will lose it if you marry a higher rate tax payer. You can hide your relationship from the tax-man, as some do, but you cannot hide the fact you are married.

So this is the starting point - that marriage is penalised in the current tax system. The second issue is to ask: why should any person be able to transfer some of their tax-free allowance to his or her spouse? Every adult has a tax-free allowance, but in the UK – uniquely amongst large OECD countries, bar Mexico – it is on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. This proposal says that because marriage is distinctive, a non-working spouse can transfer a small sum (about £150 a year) to their spouse.

There are two grounds why the state should allow this transfer:

The first is that the reason why one spouse is not using their allowance is because they have sacrificed a salary to care for their children at home. This is why Loughton’s amendment, which would only apply to married couples with at least one child under five, is to be preferred to the original proposal that would apply to all married couples whether they had children or not. The state has always recognised that raising children is a unique contribution, not just to each individual family, but to society as a whole. With this contribution comes great responsibility as well as financial expense which in the past the state always – literally – made allowance for by the ‘child tax allowance,’ later child benefit.

As the Labour MP Frank Field explained in the House of Commons on 2 July 2013: “By abolishing child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers, the Government forewent the one instrument at their disposal to maintain tax equity for higher-rate taxpayers between those who have no children and those who do have children.”

In fact, when debating the proposed transferable tax allowance, Mr Field asked “ … will they extend it and rectify the injustice whereby in abolishing child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers they abolished the tax-free income for higher-rate taxpayers if they had children and therefore put them on the same level as people who do not have children? We never had that in the tax system before; we have had it in the past couple of years.” (My emphasis).

The second ground is that marriage is the most secure environment in which to raise children. By a child’s seventh birthday, 31 per cent of the couples who were cohabiting when their child was nine months old had separated, compared to only 12 per cent of married parents. The Marriage Foundation found that by the time children become teenagers a full 45 per cent are not living with both parents. Of the 55 per cent who are living with both parents 51 per cent are married. As children have a right to be cared for by both parents the state should be improving the overall chances of this happening, rather than stacking obstacles against this outcome as the current tax system does. So yes, separation and divorce happen, but marriage is the gold standard.

Opponents of the tax allowance complain that it does not benefit single parents or widows, but both of these groups are already supported within the tax system. The only group who can rightly complain are cohabiting stay-at-home mums, as they are in a similar position to married stay-at-home mums yet will not benefit from this allowance. Although statistically these partnerships are less stable than married ones, it must also be the case that many are committed.

But the key to the marriage allowance is that the state knows a couple are committed because the couple themselves have told them through the formal signing of that ‘piece of paper’ opponents say is so unimportant. The state cannot guess at the commitment between couples that are cohabiting, therefore they cannot transfer their allowance to their partner. Those who do not wish to marry on principle (because it is seen as a patriarchal or religious institution) could have been offered the choice of civil partnerships, but this amendment was scuppered in the House of Commons by the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

A further complaint is that the marriage allowance is ‘out of date’ and harks back to the 1950s or to the ‘Edwardian era’ (opponents do not seem too sure how old it is). Well, it is a lot older than either of these two periods. Marriage predates all of the main religions and all nation-states. The words of the Church of England marriage ritual, “To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part”, date back to 1552. I find them inspiring. Nick Clegg, on the other hand, believes that favouring marriage is ‘patronising drivel'. Not so inspiring.

The wording from the Jewish wedding contract have remained unchanged for at least two thousand years. So this is something that has been around for a very long time. Furthermore, marriage is something that young people aspire to: 70 per cent of young people say they want to get married in the future (if the Government do not make it next to impossible for them to do so). So opponents are not only bad at history, but are ‘out of date’ and out of touch with the desires and wants of young people.

If the opponents of the transfer were so vocal in public one would assume they are not married in private. Yet when it comes to marriage for the gilded ruling elite it certainly is a matter of do as I say and not as ‘I do’: all four Liberal Democrat Cabinet members as well as the Deputy Prime Minster himself are married. Not only that, but there is now a growing marriage gap between high-income couples who marry each other and lower income people who do not.

Highly educated women on very high incomes almost always marry before having children, as they know it has better outcomes for their children as well as their careers. The latest US Census shows that a full 94 per cent of college-educated women who do have children do so within marriage. In his book ‘The Coming Apart of America’, Charles Murray explains how reduced social mobility is linked to high-income couples that always marry, reside in ‘super-zips’ (postcodes) and who pour all their resources into their children. They and especially their children pull away from those at the bottom.

Alison Wolf in the ‘XX Factor’ similarly found that of the educated women who do have children they nearly always do so within marriage; births outside wedlock amongst highly educated men and women are tiny. This group marry each other and form what Wolf calls 'superfamilies', further exacerbating the gap between the very rich and everyone else.

These trends are less pronounced in the UK, but they are real nonetheless. Marriage rates decline with both lower income and education. Thus any party that is interested in social mobility should be interested in promoting the transferrable tax allowance. The benefits of marriage are still strong among lower income couples who do marry. The millennium cohort research revealed that the poorest 20 per cent of married couples are more stable than all but the richest 20 per cent of cohabiting couples.

It is fast becoming the case that the tax system is structured in the such away that it will become very expensive not just to care for your own children at home (should you choose to do so) but to get married in the first place. The current tax system, which operates to penalise marriage, is having a disastrous impact not only on children but also on couples lower down the income scale, as well as the majority of young people who wish to marry in the future. Marriage and caring for ones children should not be preserve of the rich – it should be a realistic option for all. It is time for a fair and transferrable allowance. 


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