Do you realise you’d be £6,000 per year better off if you divorced me, I asked my wife last week.
Fortunately, her brief and dismissive response suggested that I’m worth rather more to her than that. For a younger couple, however, starting out in life with their first baby, this sort of money presents a real temptation to avoid formalising their relationship.
The money comes from tax credits. Because tax credits are based on household income, if dad’s income is included in the household, mum gets less money. So if dad lives elsewhere, mum gets more. For a couple with one child, the difference can be as big as £7,100 per year. With two children, it can be nearly £10,000.
If you actually live apart, much of that advantage will disappear but if you pretend to live apart, you can have your cake and eat it — albeit illegally. Official figures show that at least 240,000 couples are doing exactly this, proving that money does influence behaviour.
One way to counter this perverse incentive is to focus the new marriage tax break, which has been promised by David Cameron, on first time parents with children under three. Instead of giving £150 of transferable allowance to lots of married couples — amounting to a paltry £3 per week — give a much bigger amount, say £2,000, but only to married parents with their first baby.
The case for supporting married parents in this way is robust. In backing married couples a government isn’t — as some suggest — backing people who would be more likely to stay together anyway, it’s also backing a commitment and institution that changes the people who choose to join it.
It’s true of most spheres of life. Whenever we decide to take something seriously, it changes the way we engage with and respond to that something. We buy into it. If I decide to commit to my job, for example, I’m more likely to stick at it, enjoy it, and be more willing to overlook minor setbacks.
Marriage is all about making a decision to be a couple and to involve others in making that commitment endure. Couples can commit perfectly well without getting married but they are the exception. Almost all (93 per cent) couples who are still together when their children are 15 are married. The best way to counter the marriage penalty, and to help couples stay together during the most vulnerable years, is to give a serious incentive to those who marry early.
Harry Benson is Director of Communications for the Marriage Foundation
For a couple with one child, living apart can be worth £7,100 a year