Picture credit: Peter Dazeley
Artillery Row

How to make marriage less taxing

We should let young couples keep more of their own money

“Should the government be paying for people to get married? Or do you think they should keep their noses out at that level of people’s private lives?” That was the framing from the presenter ahead of a discussion last night about the Centre for Social Justice’s new report, “Lonely Nation”. I was part of that discussion, and it was a more provocative opening than I expected. After all, are there that many people opposed to the principle of encouraging marriage, putting aside the policy implications for one moment?

Brits, as a whole, are very pro-marriage. 66 per cent of respondents to a YouGov survey disagreed that it’s an outdated institution; just 22 per cent agreed. But these stated preferences are increasingly out of whack with revealed preferences which show a continuing decline in the number of marriages. Earlier this year, the proportion of married people in England and Wales fell below 50 per cent for the first time. 

And as the CSJ and others have pointed out, the fall in marriage rates has several negative consequences. This latest report focuses on rising loneliness, with data showing that a married person is “much less likely to be lonely than a single person, or even someone living with a partner.” But plenty of other data suggests that society would be better off if more people were married, most notably when considering the impact on children

The real focus of the report, though, or at least of the headline-grabbing policy recommendations, is the low-marriage rates among those on low incomes. And the “marriage gap”, as it’s known, is startling, particularly when children are considered. The CSJ cites the Marriage Foundation, which found that among parents with children under five, 87 per cent of those in the highest income quintile were married, compared to just 24 per cent of those in the lowest income quintile. There is a double tragedy in this, not only in the fact that low income families are less likely to be married, but they’re also the families least able to afford to separate. 

So, it’s understandable that researchers want to address this problem. Pointing to data showing that over half of respondents from the lowest socioeconomic group said that “the financial cost of a wedding would put me off getting married” even if they met the right person, the report makes the case for the government to “discount the administrative, legal and booking fees of weddings for married couples in relative or absolute low income up to a total of £550 per couple.” They estimate a cost to the Treasury of around £24.2 million. Other policies include a new Office for Family. 

This all sounds a little statist: if only ministers simply set up another quango or announced another handout, our problems would be solved. Is this really the role of government? Hence, the presenter’s request for the government to “keep their noses out” of people’s private lives. For the last couple of decades, the government has taken on an increasingly paternalistic tone, often manifesting in absurd authoritarian policies. The peak of this was the COVID-19 lockdown when we were told not just what to eat (no sugar or fat, please), but also who to eat it with (no more than six people outdoors, please). But things haven’t got better. We’re now banning smoking for future adults, for example.

But given the numerous costly government programmes that don’t achieve their stated objective, regardless of whether the objective is worth reaching, or worth reaching at that cost, this certainly wouldn’t be wasted money, at least in the traditional sense. Every £550 discount handed out would mean another married couple. Nor is it really paternalistic. It wouldn’t increase the cost of being unmarried, or act coercively to getting married. It simply removes a barrier for those on the very lowest incomes. 

But there might be better ways of encouraging marriage, for everyone. The UK has one of the least generous marriage allowances in Europe. In this country, an individual can only transfer up to 10 per cent, or £1,260 of their personal allowance to their husband, wife or civil partner. Even then that only applies if the higher earner only pays the basic rate. At most, this will take off £252 from the tax paid by a couple.

Compare this to enlightened France, where each nuclear family in a single household submits just one tax return. When calculating tax liabilities, this joint income is then divided by the number of “shares” in the household, with the married couple composing two shares, the first two children composing half a share each and a full share for each subsequent child. In short, married people pay less tax. Married people with children pay much less tax. A married couple in France would have to earn the equivalent of over £47,000 before paying any income tax. An equivalent couple here would pay about £7,000. This is similar to what the TaxPayers’ Alliance proposed in our Single Income Tax report, a Family Transferable Allowance. This would entail an adult transferring up to 50 per cent of their personal allowance and each child being able to transfer up to 30 per cent of their allowance.

Given inflation and frozen thresholds, the personal allowance now doesn’t cover even that

The philosophical underpinning is simple. The personal allowance is a recognition that a certain income level is required just to cover the absolute bare necessities. Given inflation and frozen thresholds, the personal allowance now doesn’t cover even that. But it’s still based on the philosophy that government shouldn’t tax incomes that struggle to cover the basics. But why, then, shouldn’t children have personal allowances? They can’t work, of course, but they still need to be fed, housed, clothed and cared for. This costs less than an adult, but it’s still been calculated at £12,400 per year for the average child. Someone, namely their parents, needs to work to cover those bills. 

This may not help the poorest couples — those at whom the CSJ recommendations are focused. So maybe this is a genuinely worthwhile government programme. But at all ends of the income scale, marriage is not as financially worthwhile as it should be, and having children is far too expensive. One of the prime culprits is the tax system.

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