Leading Article: Beware of a moral agenda

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It Looks as though 1998 is to be the Year of the Family. The Prime Minister has set up a task force designed to make sure that families should be strong and stable so that children can be properly brought up. A Green Paper is to be produced; legislation will follow. But, if 1997 is a reliable guide, the Government's new moral agenda will require careful scrutiny. After all, single people and gay couples have rights too, and the rights of married women are not always the same as those of men.

This week, the Government faces its first real parliamentary revolt, over the cutting of lone parents' benefits. The Government has found extra funds for health and education since the election, but Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman have been unable to come up with alternative means of saving pounds 400m in the social security budget. The Government has made this one of its hard choices, but the fact is that 1.28m of the country's 1.4m single parents are mothers. The suffering it causes will be overwhelmingly felt by women - and their children - not men.

But the pain is not confined to single women. Married women do not benefit from the Chancellor's proposal to replace the present Family Credit with a working families' tax credit. This would cause a more significant shift of income from women to men than is widely realised. At present some 300,000 poorer women, whose partners are working, collect Family Credit in a social security giro. The Chancellor's plan is give the family breadwinner the credit in the pay packet, and the fact is that in three out of five of the eligible families the breadwinner is a man. Despite its other advantages, the measure hands back more control over the finances of poorer families to the man of the house. Is this really what the Government wants?

The tilt towards men is further emphasised by the New Deal to bring jobless young people into the labour market. Because around three-quarters of the long-term unemployed due to benefit from the scheme are male, by far the largest share of the money from the windfall tax which finances the New Deal will go to men between 18 and 24. The Government expects to spend pounds 26,000 per head on those young people, compared to the pounds 350 per head at present earmarked for helping single mothers into jobs. That sounds like a serious misallocation of resources.

Women of all ages are potential victims of another of the Chancellor's tax plans because there is evidence that he is thinking of deserting the principle that men and women should be taxed independently. This is a complicated consequence of Gordon Brown's interesting proposal to replace Family Credit with the earned tax credit since it would almost certainly require a return to joint taxation of men and women for those low-paid couples eligible for help. Another proposal is to tax child benefit for higher rate-payers, which would require joint taxation for the well-off. The net does seem to be closing in on one of the most progressive tax measures of recent times.

That does not make all the new thinking wrong. There is plenty to recommend, in terms of the self-respect of the poor, the replacement of social security handouts with advantageous rates of income tax - though the Chancellor may not have found the right way to do it. If a partial switch back from separate taxation of men and women does redistribute income by taxing the child benefit paid to families who don't really need it, then there may be a great deal to be said for it. But the Government should consider the consequences of bold new taxation policies for single people and for women as well as for the family.

There are strong indications that the Prime Minister does see taxation as part of his programme to bolster the stable and secure family. We know, for example, that his task force is currently studying tax advantages for married couples. There is a moral agenda here, and it is fraught with danger for politicians. One of the proposals being studied by the task force is that couples will be required to undergo counselling before marriage, and again before divorce. How would Mr Robin Cook have felt if he had been required to interrupt his duties as Foreign Secretary to attend a series of counselling sessions before he left his wife? Backbench Labour MPs of both sexes would do well to recall the horror visited on the Conservatives as a direct consequence of "back to basics". Basics involve individual behaviour, and Mr Blair and Mr Brown should be required to give a more coherent account of the social and moral agenda behind their fiscal and economic policies.