Whose benefit?

Luckily, my favourite ever good-bad film was on last night. Doubtless it says something awful about me, but The Day After Tomorrow never fails to cheer me up. There is something about the Hollywoodisation of even a global apocalypse; meteorological disaster on a monumental scale ending happily in an emotional family reunion and Damascene conversion on the part of (boo! hiss!) a politician, which makes everything feel that bit better.

I needed it last night. I sat, tears of utter fury pouring down my cheeks, and opted-out of receiving my Child Benefit. I’ve never had to willingly sign away £2.5k per year before, and it stung like hell. It also equates to a sizeable cut to our household income.

We still haven’t received anything from HMRC, so could quite feasibly not have known anything about it. The tiny crumb of comfort I had derived from the whole shabby fiasco was that I would bank the money and pay it back, salvaging a modicum of interest, and complicating the taxman’s life. But the hassle involved wouldn’t have been mine, and my husband – stretched to his limit with a fiercely stressful and demanding job – really could do without the additional grief of Self Assessment.

There is nothing noble in this renunciation. Like probably thousands of others, I have cravenly done Mr Osborne a huge favour, out of terror of falling foul of a complicated system of returns and penalties which, I have no doubt, will be turned to demonise hapless families as “tax cheats” for failing to make sense of a nightmarishly complex scenario. It sticks in the craw to know that I will be one of the statistics trotted out to spin the story that this is working.

I am, in general, a happy little socialist at heart. High tax rates are no bugbear of mine; provided that they fund a society which is equitable for all. Great personal wealth has never been my ambition, but I am bitterly angry at the idea that slightly above average household income means we are fair game to be targeted for political gain. I am scared stiff, too, that the enthusiastic seal-clapping which has greeted this measure will encourage the government to link all sorts of other entitlements to this threshold.

Universal child benefit had lots of opponents, I know. I do understand, and fundamentally agree with,the argument that low income or child-free people should not be transferring their money to those much better off. At least, though, everyone knew what it (or the old Family Allowance) was for.

Low income and child-free people are STILL paying Child Benefit to the wealthy (whose assets, creative accountants or other circumstances mean, for whatever reason, that they don’t have a single income over the arbitrary £50k), as are those who no longer receive it themselves. Anomalies and cliff-edges are a perennial problem in any tax or welfare system, but what kind of government chooses to pay a benefit to those who manifestly don’t need it, while applauding itself for fairness?

Much has been made of the 2 earner versus 1 earner scenario, but – as well as single parents, who are probably clobbered the hardest – I feel sorry for families where both parents work, but one earns too much to qualify. They have all the childcare costs, along with all of the additional tax burden, but still lose out. On what possible grounds can that be fair?

I could go on. Why choose January to start this? Why implement it when even the HMRC website acknowledges that it can’t work. I hope that someone with plenty of money and energy mounts a challenge on any of the grounds which are patently obvious. Sex discrimination? Single parents, predominantly women, will be disproportionately hit by this. Confidentiality? What happens where one partner (who may well not be a parent) refuses to declare his/her financial details to the other? Inequity? Breach of government duty to tax or make benefits according to fundamental principles?

There will be no U-turn, I know. I do so hope that the arguments around this leads to some kind of fairer treatment of families. Roll Child Benefit into the tax credit system, so that it’s targeted at those most in need. A transferable tax allowance would be a wonderful gift, although I suspect that the most we can hope for is a married couple’s allowance (which is the only reason I can see for David Cameron blundering ahead with his ill-thought through – though praiseworthy – attempts to force through SSM) – and which would still be grossly unfair to single parents.

PS – I KNOW that this is not even in the same book, let alone on the same page, as what this government is doing to the disabled, those dependent on benefits, those trapped in nightmares of unemployment or ill-health. The loss of the money hurts; seeing friends with fabulous lifestyles still getting it rankles, but fundamentally we are still incredibly lucky in life. I still stand by a firm conviction, though, that this shouldn’t preclude calling out the government on a lousy policy and a very dangerous precedent to set.


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