You might think it was impossible for our deputy Prime Minister Mr Nicholas Clegg esquire to do anything to make himself more unpopular than he is. After backing out of his cast-iron pledge to offer us a referendum on EU membership, and backing out of his much-fanfared election pledge to abolish university tuition fees, Mr Clegg then gave his full and public support to the series of EU bail-outs that mean we are pouring billions of pounds into foreign coffers while making swingeing cuts in basic services here.
After admitting in public that he was an atheist, he decided to send his own dear children to a Catholic school, to avoid the comprehensive system (which his party is determined to enforce on everybody else).
Mr Clegg then turned his mind to how he could make life worse for the British family. How about abolishing Child Benefit? Until now this has always been non-means tested. If you have a child, you get it paid into your bank account automatically until they are eighteen. It's now about £20 per week, adding up to a thousand pounds per child per year. Simple, straightforward and for most people very useful. Clegg came up with the idea of stopping payments to all families with a higher-rate tax-payer, that is anybody earning £43,000 p.a. or more. Clegg persuaded Cameron to snatch that money away and pay it in interest to the bankers who lent a fortune to the Greek government.
Cameron being a weak sort of bloke went along with it and announced it, before realizing that it would cause an outcry. A family with three children and one wage-earner paid £43,750 p.a. will suddenly lose three thousand pounds per year, about 7% of their disposable income after tax. It will really make a difference to their standard of living. £43,000 is not that much for four or five people to live on. Not when you consider that the first £10,000 probably goes on their mortgage, the next £5,000 on household bills such as council tax, and a couple of thousand pounds on the ever-mounting costs of commuting to work.
Meanwhile, a family with two wage-earners each getting £42,000 per year will keep their child benefit. How fair is that? They have a disposable income of around £65,000 yet they will still be getting help from the state. They can also pick up generous subsidies from the state to help pay for professional child care!! In short, the whole scheme is going to penalize families with a stay-at-home mother. To care for your own child is now going to be an expensive luxury and (the way we are going) may soon be regarded as a crime.
The Conservatives have tried tinkering with Clegg's bright idea to make it less obviously unfair. They have suggested raising the threshhold to £50,000 or having a salary band in which child benefit is gradually phased out rather than suddenly cut off. They have suggested all sorts of things that are complicated to administer and will cost almost as much money than the clawback of benefit saves in the first place. The beauty of a non-means-tested benefit is that it is cheap to run. Minimum bureacracy. No arguing about who is eligible and who isn't.
What this scheme reveals is that Clegg is a clumsy, ignorant meddler. He really does not understand how the tax system works or how an average family manages its budget. Born into a rich banking family and given a leg-up into banking by his dear parents, he went from there straight into a gilt-edged eurocrat career where the expenses allowance was greater than most ordinary people's earnings. He is now said to be worth about ten million and he has an index-linked pension from Brussels. Every time he opens his mouth, he reveals his abysmal ignorance.
There is no doubt that the Libdems view the family as an institution with distrust. They simply cannot understand the argument that a higher rate tax payer may be MORE entitled to claim something back from the system - because they are putting more in! The non-earners get free housing (exempt from council tax), free prescriptions, and an income from the state. Why are the middle classes not entitled to anything at all? The only kind of family that Libdems are keen to encourage is a same-sex union or an arranged marriage for the purpose of passport fraud.
There really is no reason why the sqeezed middle class should be eager to vote for Mr Clegg at any future election. But for the time being he can settle back in the seat of the ministerial limousine and head off to Chevening, his deputy PM's 115-room mansion, for five years of very comfortable living.
Lenten Meditations: Saturday 25 March
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