I find myself wishing, not for the first time, that I could draw.
In my head, I have a cartoon image of a sweaty-browed, flour-bedecked David Cameron, bursting forth from a kitchen brandishing, proudly and a little nervously, a silver salver on which languishes a solitary, small, rather unappetising looking…biscuit.
Before him, ranks of ravenous, slavering backbenchers and Conservative party members.
Behind him, through the open door of the kitchen, bags and bags and bags of shopping, furious sous-chefs and an ominous hint of smoke.
I can’t, however, draw, so I’ll have to trust you can see the same picture I can. Bear with me here.
The news yesterday brought reports that the married tax allowance, a pledge in the Tories’ 2010 manifesto and a darling of the party’s grassroots, could be introduced as early as this autumn (if one is to ignore the strength of opposition which makes its likely progress through Westminster about as straightforward as a table plan for a Game of Thrones wedding).
On the one hand; yay! A policy which was actually in a manifesto having its day in Parliament? Can’t be a bad thing, surely. It gets better! What could be more timely than an announcement of support for the Hard Working Families©, highlighted last week as having endured their five worst years in living memory as costs rise and incomes stagnate or shrink?
On the other hand: let’s go back to that biscuit. Produced at great cost and trouble by chef Cameron (I entirely support the introduction of equal marriage, but remain unshakeably convinced that the forcing through of some rather shoddy legislation was at least partly in order to ensure that the ingredients for this policy were, so to speak, in the parliamentary larder), the real battles before it can be served still lie ahead.
Because, of course, it doesn’t really support families at all. I am as poster-girl as it gets for the traditional domestic set up: husband working, ex-professional wife at home, three scrubbed children at the village school; and even I don’t like it. Marriage in my opinion is a Very Good Thing, but I am not so blinkered as to think that it is so for everyone, or even that everyone has the option of making that choice in the first place. Children cost a fortune, and although I understand that many people without children are struggling terribly, I (perhaps naturally) will always come down on the idea of supporting families, regardless of their marital status or whether they’re in a relationship at all. Channel support to children who need it, whether by tax credits, decent Sure Start services, creating a climate in which family stability is more possible, not on some arbitrary people-pleasing basis.
That biscuit again. For all the family-focussed appetite of those calling for it, it’s likely only to be available to a third of couples, those who meet the fairly narrow criteria of a single spouse working, but with earnings falling neatly in between the personal allowance and the threshold for higher-rate tax (which, itself, is creeping downwards in real terms year-on-year). Even those who can claim will recover a relatively life-unchanging sum of £150; welcome, yes, but not enough to radically alter a family’s circumstances or even, at a most cynical level, encourage them to tie the knot in the first place.
The hoops to jump through are so convoluted, at a time when increasing numbers of people are juggling short term, part time, freelance and generally insecure employment, that applying and claiming seem barely worth the effort. What if the “non-working” partner suddenly is offered a small amount of work? What if their “working” spouse earns an unexpected bonus which spikes them above basic rate?
Even that most ardent of supporters, Tim Loughton, concedes that it is a “symbolic” step, a rather wistful nod to what he wishes would be, rather than a genuine measure of support for what is. To me, it’s more of a token; an expensive, hurtful and fundamentally unjust waste of effort and resources which ultimately satisfies no-one.
The campaign Don’t Judge My Family has launched a petition – if you want to support their call for this not to be introduced, you can find more information here