Huhne scorns tax breaks for married couples as “flag-waving”

by Stephen Tall on October 9, 2010

Today’s Telegraph has an in-depth interview with the Lib Dems’ climate change and energy secretary Chris Huhne, in which he expertly steers the tightrope of punchily sticking up for party policy while sticking well within collective responsibility.

Somewhat bizarrely, both the BBC and the Torygraph are leading on the least contentious part of the interview, in which Chris points out that the Coalition will adjust economic policy according to circumstances and forecasts:

“I’ve never known one Treasury Red Book to be exactly like the last one. There is always a change. It is a bit like setting sail. If the wind changes, you have to tack about to get to [your destination]. Global growth could be either higher or lower. We just don’t know, and it’s not sensible, outside the Budget period, for governments to make speculations about what is going to happen.

“The right time to look at that Budget judgment is when we come up to the Budget in the spring. The key thing then is to look at things in the round and remember the overall objective is to stabilise and begin to reduce the public debt to GDP ratio.”

So far, so, erm, uncontentious. The same cannot be said for Chris’s disdain for married couple tax breaks, resurrected by David Cameron this week in response to the hostile reception in right-wing newspapers of the Government’s withdrawal of child benefit from high-rate taxpayers:

“It’s been put back on the agenda … I am very sceptical. [As with] all other issues, I’m quite happy to be open-minded and talk it through. But in the current circumstances, when we are very constrained in … terms of tax breaks, then I think we need to make sure that what we’re doing is real value for money and not flag waving. If it is just flag waving, then frankly it’s probably not something that the Government ought to be doing.”

Married couple tax breaks was, of course, one of those handful of issues on which the Lib Dems secured an ‘opt-out’ in the Coalition agreement, so Chris’s comments are not off-message. Still, there will be plenty of Tories not entirely happy with one of their totemic policies being scorned as ‘flag waving’ — and plenty of Lib Dems very happy to see Chris speak out.

Chris also flags up that this week’s move to strip away universal benefits from higher-rate taxpayers is unlikely to be restricted only to child benefit — the winter fuel allowance is also within the Government’s sights:

“We have a statutory duty to tackle fuel poverty. How does the winter fuel allowance fit into that? Is it a sensible approach, given that we have … very large numbers of people still in fuel poverty, and more if oil and gas prices go up?”

And he re-iterates the Lib Dems’ Trident scepticism:

“Given all the other bridges we have to cross, I don’t think we should gambol across that one years before we have to.”

You can read the interview in full here.