Smart move, Mr Brown: tax people with no income at all

The Chancellor insists on finding extra money for children by taking it from mothers
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GORDON BROWN wants to tax child benefit. It is not that he doesn't like children. On the contrary, for all his beer and football image the Chancellor of the Exchequer is said to be fond of the little ones. He has even found some money for a national childcare strategy.

No, Mr Brown's problem is not children but women. In a masterpiece of illogic, he insists on finding extra money for children by taking it from mothers.

The plan to tax the child benefit paid to well-off families currently being floated by anonymous Treasury officials in the run-up to the 9 March Budget is the latest example of this madness. In a cunning wheeze, extra money for the children of women who do not have much income is to come from women who do not have any.

On the face of it, the proposal seems reasonable. As a universal benefit, child benefit goes to all women regardless of their income or their partners'. So the high-flying City lawyeress receives as much as the stay-at-home wife of a hospital porter, and is free to spend it on the latest toys for her little darlings or even the odd glass of champagne if she so wants.

Not surprisingly, Mr Brown does not like the idea of the welfare state subsidising this Nintendo and champagne habit. Nobody could blame him for wanting to include child benefit in the taxable income of female high-flyers, and reclaiming a tenner a month from them.

The trouble is that there are few women who pay top rate tax, and this move would raise just pounds 70m a year. Stretched among the millions of women with low incomes, it would amount to just a few pence more a week. To raise a more useful amount of money, the Government will have to tax the child benefit received by mothers who do not themselves pay tax at the higher rate - because they do no paid work - but are married to or living with men who do.

Mr Brown's logic is plain. These women do not need the money for necessities any more than their income-earning sisters, because the household is well off. Their children do not lack computer games. Let them pay pounds 10 a month tax too!

Logical, but clueless. Child benefit has always been a universal benefit that goes to women for their children by simple virtue of the fact that they are mothers. It recognises that the nation has an interest in the well-being of all children, and it recognises that mothers need some income independent of the whims of their partner. Even in a loving relationship there is an extra value to income that is yours by right and not yours by the generosity of the family breadwinner.

If the amount of child benefit is to depend on how well-off the father of the children is, the Chancellor may as well abolish it altogether and use the cash to top up other means-tested benefits. If it is not universal, it is pointless.

Worse, the practical implications of taxing child benefit on the basis of the man's as well as the woman's income are simply outrageous. Currently, husbands and wives are taxed as individuals. In order to assess the family income, the Inland Revenue will need to know what the male partner earns, whether he is married to the woman claiming child benefit or not. The income of both partners will determine whether or not the mother pays the extra tax.

It was the fact that so many couples cohabit that led Nigel Lawson to abolish joint taxation in the first place. It had turned into a tax on marriage, because the second earner - almost always the wife - started paying tax on the first pound of her income. To return to joint taxation would mean a pounds 10bn tax rise on women's incomes and would force many out of the workforce - a catastrophe for the economy, as well as an injustice.

Besides, the Inland Revenue has no business asking me whether I'm married to the father of my children or living with the milkman. We all go through life shedding youthful ideals, making compromises on what we would once have seen as matters of principle. But like many other thirtysomething women I will never, ever, let anybody, even Gordon Brown, get away with considering me to be an adjunct of a man.

That this is what he thinks about women, though, is also demonstrated by the new Working Families Tax Credit. It replaces Family Credit, a benefit paid mainly to the woman in the case of couples claiming it. The WFTC will go through the main earner's pay packet - usually the man's. Although ministers claim that there will not be a transfer of resources from women to men, neither researchers nor MPs on the Social Security Committee believe the assurances. But for Mr Brown the need to give the male breadwinner higher take-home pay outweighs the fact that it will leave women and children in low-income families with less money.

The Chancellor is welcome to take away more of my income in tax. He should do it, though, because I earn an income. More money is needed for poor families. But why must he take it from some mothers to give it to others? The only fair way to raise tax revenues is to raise tax for those who can afford it most, male and female.

Given that the Labour Government has outlawed the fairest option - a higher top tax rate - my suggestion for the Budget is a new tax on corporate entertainment at sporting events, the revenues to be earmarked for higher child benefit. This would take money mainly from affluent adult males to give it to children. Well, it's no dafter, and much fairer, than Mr Brown's idea.