Page last updated at 14:42 GMT, Sunday, 17 January 2010

Tory plans for married couples tax breaks under fire

Ed Balls says marriage is an 'important institution' for bringing up children

Conservative plans for tax breaks for married couples have come under fire from both Labour and the Lib Dems.

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague defended the proposal, saying: "It has got to be right to support families and supporting marriage is part of that."

But Schools Secretary Ed Balls said the policy was "unfair" and amounted to "social engineering".

And Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said it was an expensive "bribe" that would prove unfair to many good parents.

Family policy is shaping up to be one of the key battlegrounds at the general election as the parties clash over how best to spend increasingly scarce government resources.

Stable relationships

Conservative leader David Cameron has been under pressure to spell out when and how he would begin to recognise marriage in the tax system if he wins power, after Labour claimed the policy was in disarray.

The Tories had planned a transferable tax allowance, but have now conceded that will not be affordable.

But in an interview with the Mail on Sunday, Mr Cameron said he remained committed to tax breaks for married couples, saying a Conservative government would send out a signal that "if you take responsibility you will be rewarded, if you don't you won't".

Leave families, married or unmarried, to live their own lives. There's far too much government interference
Peter Short, Birmingham

Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague said Labour was guilty of "social engineering" itself, through the "couples penalty" in the tax credit system, which the Tories say they would end because it encourages parents to live apart.

He said the "main thing is to support families" in order to combat social problems such as crime and drugs and encouraging marriage in the tax system was part of that.

He told Sky News Labour's criticism of the tax breaks policy was "wrong in principle and a great mistake in the run up to a general election".

Labour has attempted to change its tone on marriage - after previously saying stable relationships were what mattered, whether couples are married or not.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Schools Secretary Ed Balls said he believes marriage is the best way to bring up children.

'Supportive fathers'

Tackled about these comments on BBC One's Politics Show, he said: "Marriage is a really important institution in our society for bringing up children."

But he said the Tory proposal for supporting it was "hugely expensive and unfair" as it would only help couples with one wage earner, discriminate against women who had to leave their husbands due to domestic violence and stigmatise children whose parents were not married.

"What we are saying is let's support all relationships, strong relationships, because that's the best way to help children," he added.

Mr Balls was backed up by Communities Secretary John Denham, who told Sky News: "I am not sure we should be using taxpayers' money to reward marriage and the institution."

Mr Denham said he was divorced, but that did not mean his children suffered.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg also criticised the Conservative plans in an interview with BBC One's Andrew Marr show.

He said: "David Cameron is plain wrong, totally wrong, to say that we, the country, should spend billions of pounds providing a tax bribe for people simply to hold up a marriage certificate.

"It is immensely unfair. What does is mean for the poor woman who has been left by some philandering husband who goes on to another marriage and gets the tax break and she doesn't?"

The Lib Dems propose allowing mothers and fathers to share 19 months of parental leave in a bid to get fathers more involved in children's early development.

The row comes ahead of the government's Families Green Paper this week, which will say services should support "the modern family in all shapes and sizes".

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