The golden rule is that any policy initiative involving Nick Clegg is likely to be a mistake. This truth was highlighted to devastating effect by Dominic Cummings’s account of the Great Clegg Free School Meals Fiasco. The policy was announced at the Liberal Democrat party conference – having been agreed without the Education Department’s knowledge, according to Michael Gove’s former special adviser. (It was formalised in a “quad deal”, he writes.) “There was no time to find out which schools have no kitchen and therefore need the money.” Clegg’s “funding numbers were junk”. Extra money has had to be found. Even so, “Clegg has had to drop his promise everyone will get a ‘hot’ meal”. The Curse of Clegg strikes again!
This principle is worth bearing in mind when reading today’s reports of how working parents are to receive up to £2,000 per child “under Budget plans to ease the cost of child care”. The original proposal was for parents to receive “the equivalent of their basic rate tax payments on up to £6,000 spent on child care for each child, worth £1,200 a year. The Daily Telegraph reports that “After a year-long consultation, ministers have now decided to increase the eligible total to £10,000, meaning a payment worth £2,000 for each child. Ministers will present the scheme as delivering “tax free child care”, although it involves direct payments to working parents rather than a rebate through the tax system.”
As the paper says, working parents face “some of the highest child care costs in the developed world”, so it’s right for some form of help for them to be provided. But these are not the only ones that families have to meet: paying a gas bill or filling a car tank, for example, have hit family budgets hard in recent years. When the Government freezes fuel duty or reforms green levies, the benefits to families are not confined to those that have only one parent working in the labour market. In the majority of other European countries, the tax system recognises the financial interdependence of couples with children, and makes some allowance for the extra costs they face. But it is not so here: the new child care plan will do nothing to ease the costs of bringing up children for those families.
Some will argue that this doesn’t matter, or that families with children shouldn’t have any tax help at all. But they – as well as everyone else – will surely agree that it makes no sense to restrict child benefit to basic rate taxpayers (the Government’s original plan, with which it has now tinkered), but to declare two earner couples earning up to £150,000 eligible for the new child care tax break. Either higher earners with children should get tax breaks, or they should not. But, either way, it is unjust to extend it to only one class of them. The finger of blame hovers over George Osborne, who shows zero interest in one-earner couples, and seems to view them as an anachronism – thus providing another example of the way in which the Conservative leadership has needlessly antagonised its base.
But the Chancellor is not fronting this morning’s publicity push. Instead, Clegg and David Cameron are leading the charge – doubtless in an attempt to head off the Mail/Telegraph joint campaign on behalf of 40p taxpayers (joined today by the Times (£)). This is a reminder that childcare falls within the Deputy Prime Minister’s remit, and that he is determined to squeeze the last drops of publicity out of this dodgy orange. The deal between the Prime Minister, who is more sympathetic to helping all families than Osborne, and his deputy has long been that Cameron gets the tax break for marriage that he wants, while Clegg gets his tax break for childcare. The Deputy Prime Minister presented a bad policy for free school meals. He is now presented a badly flawed one for helping families.
The last word goes to Cummings, reporting Clegg’s words at the start of “every meeting”: ‘I haven’t been able to read the policy papers, but let’s talk about the politics’.