Politics by polling; we’ve seen a fair amount of it recently. First, the Conservatives commissioned a Populus opinion poll into Ed Miliband’s prime ministerial qualities (or his lack of them) on the eve of the Labour conference. And today they — or perhaps, more specifically, Georg Osborne — have used that same polling company to back up the Government’s policy on child benefit for higher earners.
I haven’t seen the specific questions asked by that poll yet — which should always be an important consideration in these matters — but the results are still quite striking. Apparently, 82 per cent of respondents support the Government’s plan to withdraw child benefit from higher income earners. And that includes 74 per cent of those households earning over £69,000. As a result, Treasury spokespeople are spread all across the papers this morning. “In a period when the government is having to reduce welfare spending, it is very difficult to justify continuing to pay for the child benefit of the wealthiest 15 per cent of families in society,” says one to the FT.
I suspect this poll, and those HMT quotes, are directed at certain Tory backbenchers as much as anyone else. With letters currently being dispatched to those taxpayers who will be affected by it, disgruntlement about this child benefit measure has suddenly flared up again. Only a few days ago, Mark Field described the policy as “a tax on aspiration”.
Myself, I can understand the concern at how the child benefit cuts are being implemented: particularly in its original incarnation (see point 6 on this old post of mine), this policy was messy and inconsistent, although later tweaks have remedied some of that. But I do agree with the Treasury on the broad policy and on the principle: given the fiscal situation, it is right to curb a benefits system that had sprawled far beyond those most in need — particularly as less well-off people face child benefit cuts of their own. As Tim put it yesterday, the next Tory manifesto should prioritise those on average, and lower than average, pay.
Which is why it’s a persistent shame that the Government doesn’t deploy the same thinking in the case of other universal benefits. If it’s “very difficult to justify” paying child benefit to the wealthiest families, then why justify paying Winter Fuel Allowance to all of the 81.5 per cent of its recipients who aren’t in fuel poverty? I know, I know, there was David Cameron’s “read my lips” moment in the run-up to the last election. But it’s still rather inconsistent.