Deborah Orr: Drink with a clear conscience. It will help the poor

Those of us who have benefited from the plenty of the past 10 years ... will just have to carry on drinking
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The Independent Online

At long last – a Budget that provides a useful purpose for us champagne socialists. We may not, under Current Global Economic Conditions, be able to do very much, fiscally, to help the poor. (Not while all those spoilsport champagne capitalists continue to declare that they will leave the country if they are taxed any more at source, anyway.) But at least wealthy bleeding-hearts can – and indeed must – carry on necking back expensive alcohol, safe in the knowledge that, with every drop they drink, a child is being ever-so-gently lifted out of poverty. Who says political activism isn't any fun?

Alistair Darling pretty much declared that the extra tax on alcohol – and fags and gas-guzzling cars – is hypothecated.

Without this revenue, he stated, there would be no cash in the pot to continue with the Government's grand, crusading, plan to end child poverty in a generation. And, as a bonus, the more the tax hikes curb the drinking and smoking habits of the poor – the logic goes, no doubt – the better off their children will be anyway. Only an unrepentant alcoholic – or a florid pusher running licensed premises – would have the lack of social responsibility necessary to complain.

Not that I wasn't intrigued by David Cameron's assertion that the Conservatives would tax binge-drinkers only. I think the idea is that binge-drinkers confine themselves strictly to alco-pops, super-lagers and fortified tonic wine.

In truth, of course, binge-drinkers on a budget opt for whatever is strongest and cheapest, while binge-drinkers with no such fiscal constraints plump for the fluid that they have found is least likely to give them a hangover. Only by fitting us all with alcohol meters can any government genuinely target binge-drinkers. A tax on binge-drinking is an opposition promise, if ever there was one.

Unhappily, though, wealthy, bingeing, lovers of social justice would have to drink themselves to death before their nasty habits could even being to plug the hole in the public finances. Poor Mr Darling's concern for poor children – and poor anyone else – is by necessity, in this Budget, represented in aspirational rather than practical terms. Certainly, recent lack of funding has concentrated minds a little. Whatever else may be said about this Budget, it cannot be denied it is a good deal more careful than some we have seen in recent years.

There may not be much extra cash to spend on education, but at least that has resulted in it being directed to the schools that "attract" the most problematic of pupils. There may not, any more, be much money to invest in Gordon Brown's beloved tax credits. But what little there is will be strictly concentrated on the "child element" of child tax credit. All in all, the latest efforts to lift children out of poverty, will leave a family on £28,000 a year with two children £130 a year better off. It's a tiny buffer at a time when the cost of living is absolutely guaranteed to carry on rising sharply, but better than no buffer at all.

Those on low incomes, but without dependent children, will very soon understand exactly what that means, if they have not quite grasped it already. They will simply have to tighten their belts, unless they are key workers keen to purchase half a home, and advance the cause of the property-owning democracy, or pensioners so hard up that a one-off increase in winter fuel payment is enough to inspire gratitude. If you're on only the state pension – £124 a week from April, or a scary six-and-a-half grand a year – then I guess you will be grateful. Sort of.

Those of us who have benefited from the plenty of the past 10 years, but regret that the largesse failed to deliver much in the way of social justice, will just have to carry on drinking. The Budget has offered nothing in the way of celebration. But at least there are plenty of excuses for us to set about the splendidly redistributive task of drowning our sorrows.

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