Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Reform of benefits must be fair to all

George Osborne's plan to cut child benefit payments to the well-off has run into an immediate, unfair anomaly.

A single parent earning above the £44,000 threshold would lose benefit, but two parents with a combined income of say £80,000 would still be eligible. While this does not invalidate the Chancellor's ambition to reform benefits, it shows the need for extreme caution when implementing change.

Child benefit is one of the few universal benefits and, as such, is jealously guarded by all who receive it, apart from those too wealthy to notice. If the Chancellor's proposals do one day become law, it will be seen as yet another tax on the middle-classes that doesn't inconvenience the rich. Mr Osborne has chosen an arbitary level at which to pitch this new 'tax' which is simply trying to reduce public expenditure by denying some families a payment they regarded, rightly or wrongly, almost as a birthright.

As it stands, some 36,000 families in Northern Ireland would lose out if the cuts in child benefit went ahead. The very well-off won't notice it, but for many normal middle class families it will sting. It would have made more sense to set the bar at a fairer level, using total family income a the key.

The suggestion for simplifying all benefits is fine in theory, but in practice it will be a difficult task. However, many people will welcome Mr Osborne's pledge to ensure that people cannot earn more from benefits than by working. The sight of feckless families raking in thousands of pounds in benefits while making no attempt to find employment is one of the most galling to the hard-earned taxpayer.

Capping benefits to the level of what an average family could expect to earn in legitimate employment seems entirely fair - especially since those with disabilities will be exempt from this limit. Making work more attractive than living on benefits has been the aim of many governments. If Mr Osborne can succeed in so doing, then he will have scored a notable victory. Again, however, fairness is the key - simply playing to the Tory gallery by punishing the poor would be as misguided as an unjustified soaking of the middle classes.

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