Yes, it’s that time of the year again. The government of the day attempts to drum up media interest in its policies for the coming year with a few hundred precisely-chosen words and Her Majesty treks over to the throne room in the House of Lords to deliver the resulting speech.
Earlier today the Queen presided over the state opening of parliament for a remarkable 63rd time, presenting a policy programme which David Cameron and company claim will be the focus of the coalition’s legislative efforts over the next 12 months.
You would be hard-pressed to spot anything desperately unexpected in this year’s speech. The government assured us that it was determined to make the UK “the most attractive place to start, finance and grow a business.” Fine words but I suspect most lawyers hit not only by the recession but increased taxation all round or whose practice has been decimated by abolition of legal aid would give a wry smile at best.
Some of the measures outlined are all about the broad brushstrokes – a measure to try and ensure that “future governments spend taxpayers’ money responsibly”, for instance, or the decidedly vague:
“A key priority for my ministers will be to continue to build an economy that rewards those who work hard.”
Other measures, meanwhile, are very specific:
“My government will continue to implement major reforms to the electricity market and reduce the use of plastic carrier bags to help protect the environment.”
Family life received just a single mention, with the statement that:
“Measures will be brought forward for a married couple’s allowance, which will recognise marriage in the tax system.”
This is of course the marriage ‘tax break’, something which has been an inexplicably popular talking point amongst the Conservative Party for years now. The idea seems to be that, by allowing spouses who do not work full time to transfer the unused portion of their tax-free allowance to their partner and thereby reduce the couple’s overall tax liability, cohabiting couples will be encouraged to tie the knot. A ‘tax-free allowance’ is, of course, the amount a person a person can earn before having to pay tax.
The trouble with this theory is that the financial rewards are, to say the least, modest – a maximum tax saving of £200 per year amounts to just £3.85 per week: not even enough to buy a single edition of most magazines, and barely enough for a cup of coffee in some High Street emporia. Are people really going to pledge their troth for such a pittance?
Nevertheless, the issue rumbled on and on, until the Prime Minister eventually announced that the tax break would indeed see the light of day in order to ward off a planned Tory rebellion.
As far as I am concerned, this is tokenism at best. It would have been far better to tackle the ongoing and far more urgent lack of cohabitation legislation in the country – a topic I have addressed more than once on this blog. Want to offer people a real incentive to get married? Then even up the playing field so that there are real consequences when a cohabiting relationship breaks down. If you did that, people would be much more likely to think carefully about their situation and not just drift into extended cohabitation without any thought.
I am of course not talking about making cohabitation the legal equivalent of marriage. I mean simply throwing the financial advantages to marriage – for example, preferential taxation rates on inheritance – into sharper relief.