Family values

Anyone who has followed the debates about housing benefit cuts and the Welfare Reform Bill will probably have been thinking the same as me during the debates this week about the mansion tax and child benefit.

Surely we heard exactly the same arguments about ‘fairness’ and ‘family’ in all the debates over the last year about welfare reform and housing benefit cuts?

As an illustration, here’s an edited version of an editorial from yesterday’s Daily Telegraph. I’ve simply replaced ‘mansion’ with ‘bedroom’,  ‘child’ with ‘housing’ and ‘gay marriage’ with ‘weakening security of tenure’ and some of the associated detail. The original wording is marked with a strikethrough and is directly followed by my changes in italics. Everything else is as the Telegraph ran it.

Family values are being undermined

A “mansion bedroom tax”, the withdrawal of child housing benefit from higher-rate tax payers rent families and legislation for gay marriage weakening security of tenure would all undermine the traditional family.

The government’s mindset is anti-aspirational, the impact anti-family – and the proposals un-Conservative

A Conservative government should put the well-being of the family at the heart of its policies. People want to be able to make a good life for themselves and their loved ones without fearing that the government of the day will do anything to inhibit or undermine them in this ambition. Three policies currently causing political controversy threaten to do just that. Proposals to impose a “mansion bedroom tax” on high-value social rented properties, to withdraw child housing benefit from higher-rate rent tax payers families, and to legislate for gay marriage weakening security of tenure have a unifying theme. They all risk undermining the traditional family.

A mansion bedroom tax strikes at the very notion of the continuity of family life. The family home is an important symbol of stability. Imposing an arbitrary tax on expensive social rented homes attacks that principle. As Joan Bakewell Lord Best argues on the opposite page in the House of Lords, such a tax would snare many middling people in London and the South East social housing who have seen the price of often quite modest homes soar in recent decades need extra space for a disabled partner or for their children or because they were allocated a larger home by their landlord. The Centre for Policy Studies National Housing Federation points out that it would hit the “income poor, equity rich poor” many of them older vulnerable people. A third fifth of all properties in London worth over £2 million tenants on housing benefit have been in the same ownership for over 10 years, 15 per cent more than 20 years face making up an average rent shortfall of £14 per week or giving up their home of 10 years or 20 years. These are homes, not investment vehicles. A 1 per cent tax on such properties would leave their owners tenants facing an annual tax bill of £20,000-plus £728 – many people would be forced to sell up move home. Yet it would raise save no more than £1 billion £400 million a year (while being costly and difficult to administer). With government losing more than £30 billion a year through fraud and incompetence, that is not a significant sum.

The unfairness of George Osborne’s proposal to strip child housing benefit from higher-rate -rent taxpayers families was well rehearsed in yesterday’s Commons debate. Its most egregious impact is that it penalises stay-at-home families encourages families to split up compared with dual-income families staying together. How can a Government that professes family values countenance such a measure?

As for gay marriage weakening security of tenure, where is the groundswell of opinion for such fundamental change to society’s central institution? David Cameron’s anxiety to appear a modernising party leader threatens to create a wholly unnecessary political headache while raising profound questions about the meaning of marriage the home and of the family.

These are perilous waters for a Tory-led government. The talk is all of raising taxes cutting benefits: no one seems willing to make the case for lowering maintaining them. The mindset is anti-aspirational, the impact anti-family – yet the projected revenues are a drop in the bucket. Mr Cameron should think very carefully about the un-Conservative course on which he seems set.’

Pretty much the same exercise could be conducted on last night’s Newsnight discussion between Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie and Conservative-supporting TV property pundit Kirstie Allsopp. Montgomerie was making the case for property taxes against objections from the other two. ‘You cannot tax people’s homes,’ said Allsopp in absolute horror, while Rees-Mogg was as usual beyond parody.

What was interesting was that although the mansion tax is a Lib Dem policy proposal it has revealed a fascinating divide within the Conservative Party between people like Montgomerie and MP Mark Reckless who believe wealth should be taxed before income and those like Allsopp and Rees-Mogg who think the party has no business interfering with private property. It’s also opened up a wider debate about taxation and housing and the desirability or other wise of a mansion tax, more council tax bands or even a land value tax. However, it is a debate about economics and the balance between property taxes and income taxes, not the one that is needed about the housing system and taxation.

In the process, and with the Welfare Reform Bill scheduled to get Royal Assent tomorrow, it’s revealed something else that is rarely shown up so clearly: that the entire debate about ‘taxes’ and ‘benefits’ and ‘fairness’, ‘family’, ‘aspirations’ and ‘home’ is not about objective meanings but subjective, politically constructed ones. That was a point well made in the National Housing Federation’s recasting of the housing benefit under-occupation penalty as a bedroom tax because it is a debate in which defenders of ‘welfare’ and ‘social housing’ are almost always on the back foot. Without going into the pros and cons of taxing bedrooms or mansions or how we pay child or housing benefit here now, there are always choices to be made. Political choices.


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