Politicians should have nothing to do with encouraging marriage through the tax system, says Conservative shadow business secretary Ken Clarke.
Mr Clarke, recently restored to the senior ranks of the Conservative Party, got rid of the married couple’s allowance when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Now he says plans by his party to introduce marriage-friendly tax reforms are “social engineering”.
But critics say Mr Clarke is looking at the issue from a middle class perspective, and that the real experiment in social engineering is a tax system which rewards family breakdown.
Speaking at Nottingham University in December Mr Clarke said: “My view of Conservatism is that it’s not for us to tell you [what to do through] the tax system – my wife didn’t put up with me because I was getting £150 by way of tax allowance.”
However, he said he was glad the party was “pointing out all the social problems” like family breakdown, crime and poverty.
There are increasing concerns that social problems associated with family breakdown are being perpetuated by the fact that couples benefit financially in taxes and benefits if they split up.
Mr Clarke has been accused of looking at the marriage issue “from a very middle class perspective” by Tim Montgomerie, editor of the ConservativeHome website.
Mr Montgomerie points out that “the incentives to live apart within the tax and benefits system are significant for lower income people”.
Commentator Janet Daley wrote on her Telegraph blog that when Mr Clarke joined the Conservative Party “it accepted the principle of a married couple’s allowance without question, as did all the mainstream parties.
“The true experiment in social engineering was its abolition and what followed it: the tax and benefit advantages system being skewed heavily in favour of single parents.
“The perverse incentives of this exercise have now accomplished what might been predictable all along: poorer parents who choose to marry before they have children and remain together while they are raising them are penalised, while the rate of births to single mothers soars.”
Earlier this month, a report from think-tank Civitas said that parents are effectively penalised for living together under the current tax and benefits system, with some left more than 20 per cent poorer.
Government policies have led to the “perpetuation of single-parent families”, the report claimed, with one in five of those who stop receiving benefits doing so because they move in with a partner.