Minister: Undersecretary …
Undersecretary: Yes, Sir?
M: What did you think of the Chancellor’s conference announcement?
U: Which one, Sir?
M: The one about Child Benefit.
U: Masterful, Sir.
M: I agree. Saves money, and it’s good for our social justice image.
U: We’re very pleased.
M: You are?
U: Revenue and Customs is very pleased, Sir.
M: How so?
U: We’re going to have to collect huge amounts of information on who’s living with whom. TheDWP has been doing that amongst the lower classes for years, but we’ll now be able to do it for the wealthy as well. That will be interesting. And then we’ll have to connect that information with data on who’s paying higher rate tax, and on who’s receiving Child Benefit. Do you think we should ask the company which tried to computerize means-tested benefits if they can do it?
M: Shouldn’t it go out to tender?
U: Of course. I’ll see if anyone knows how to write a specification.
M: But do you think we need to do all that? Can’t we just ask Child Benefit claimants to tell us if they’ve got someone in the household who’s paying higher rate tax?
U: Yes, we could. But then we’ll need to check up on them. So we’ll need a wonderfully large fraud department; and we’ll need to ask the DWP to train some snoopers for us. Now that will be really interesting.
M: O dear, do you think so?
U: And we’ll need to collect millions of changes of circumstances every year. And we’ll need a department to look after underpayments and overpayments. The Child Benefit department doesn’t have to worry too much about that at the moment.
M: Don’t we have all that trouble with tax credits?
U: We do, Sir. We like trouble. It gives us lots to do. And we’ll need tribunals, too. They take quite a bit of admin. So we’re really very pleased; and so are the unions, because we’ll be able to redeploy all the people we were going to have to get rid of.
M: I wonder if I should have a word with the Chancellor?
U: I think it was the Prime Minister’s idea, Sir. And they both thought it was a good one. But don’t worry. I’m sure we can manage it. I’ll have a note of the extra admin. costs for you by tomorrow so you can tell the Chancellor how much he won’t be saving.
M: It hope it won’t be too embarrassing.
U: I’m afraid it already is quite embarrassing, Sir. But at least we won’t need to employ consultants. We’ll have most of the expertise we’ll need in the tax credits department.
M: I suppose that’s a help. … But the argument’s right, isn’t it? That it’s wrong for low earners to be paying for Child Benefit for the wealthy?
U: Of course, Sir.
M: Do you really think so? … You don’t, do you.
U: It’s as good as the argument that we should stop higher rate taxpayers using the NHS.
M: O dear … You’re really quite keen on universal benefits, aren’t you.
U: If I can speak in a personal capacity and off the record … It’s much more efficient to give Child Benefit to everyone. The wealthy are paying far more in tax than they receive in Child Benefit, so there’s really no problem. But we would rather you didn’t make that argument too clearly, Sir.
M: I can see that.
U: On the other hand, if you’re interested, there is another strategy. You could tell them how cheap Child Benefit is to administer and suggest that they turn both tax allowances and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions’ Universal Credit into a universal benefit and give it to us to administer. Employment incentives would improve, the labour market would become more flexible, there would be more people in employment and self-employment, and we could then take over what was left of the DWP.
M: Do you think the Chancellor would understand that?
U: I think he can.
M: That’s not what I asked.