But there is a core message, an important one, directed ever more stridently at the poorest people in Britain and designed to deny hope and resourcefulness. If you are poor, the Government\’s message is simple: “You are not in charge of your life and prosperity. We are. Trust us. Keep on voting for us or you\’re stuffed.”
The means by which the message is transmitted is the creaking tax and benefit system. Looming changes in income tax mean that those earning more than £18,500 a year, which is lowish but not too uncomfortable, will be better off when the basic tax rate drops by 2 per cent. But given the abolition of the 10 per cent tax rate, coupled with the continuing feebleness of the personal allowance (you can earn £104.51 a week before you start paying a fifth of it to the exchequer – whoopee!), the lowest earners are hit. Those on £10,000 a year will now pay two or three quid a week more in tax. However, says the message, that\’s OK because they can promptly apply for “working tax credits”, “family credits” and other benefits.
However doughtily and responsibly you work for your 200 quid a week, even if you need every penny of it to survive, the Government will make you hand over a lump and then give it back, ceremoniously, via its huge and expensive bureaucracy. The message is that if you are poor, you must be kept in the status of client and petitioner. It would presumably save billions in administration if you just let low earners hang on to their wages; it would also fortify that sense of personal and family responsibility that government claims to like. Applying for state benefits as a fit person of working age makes everyone feel lousy, unless – or until – they are so desensitised and deprived of pride that they no longer care. But the abolition of the low tax band and the feeble personal allowance has made benefit-claiming inevitable for more people, for longer.
In which case, why is it right to send poor Britons the message that they can\’t trust themselves but only the State? Alistair Darling could ramp up the personal allowance, make it transferable and turn his mind to ways of letting people keep earnings rather than claim benefits. Pigs could fly.