January 11, 2013 8:06 pm

Undeserving affluent, unite!

If I disguise myself as triplets and rent out two more addresses, I can keep the whole £33.70… Robert Shrimsley considers the loss of his child benefit
Illustration of a man reporting a family who opted to keep child benefit, by Lucas Varela©Lucas Varela

We said goodbye to our child benefit this week. We turned ourselves in to the authorities and joined the ranks of the dispossessed. There was a touch of the Cultural Revolution about the need to report ourselves and admit our guilt of the crime of earning too much. Admittedly, the only sanction for failing to turn ourselves in was that we’d have to repay the money later, but it seemed like a confession of unworthiness.

It just doesn’t feel right turning yourself in like that. I suppose I want an equivalent to the fifth amendment whereby I refuse to answer questions on the grounds that I might impoverish myself. However, once I’d started my confession it occurred to me that perhaps there were other offences we could have asked be taken into consideration; other crimes against society such as journalism, friends in Chipping Norton or tendencies to wear red moleskin trousers at weekends. (Actually I’d be with them on the red trousers thing – a male-menopausal cultural cry for help if ever I saw one.) Initially I got one of those automated answering services where you are advised to press 1 for ending child benefit; 2 for a self-assessment form; or 3 if you are an MP looking to redesignate your second home. But eventually it found a human being loitering around the call-centre. She was jolly polite and, no doubt, pleased with our contrition. We were lucky to escape with such leniency. I heard that those who fail to confess and are later caught by the authorities will be tattooed with the words “we’re all in this together”.

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Robert Shrimsley

The thing is that now I’ve turned myself in I’m wondering whether to go the full Stasi and start reporting others too. I have to say I’m feeling pretty damn public-spirited at the moment. There’s a family a few doors down with two Chelsea tractors that have to be over the income limit and who once parked across my driveway; it must be worth a call to the authorities to be on the safe side. How inventive of the government to create a whole new class of benefit cheats for us to split on. Now it’s a game that anyone earning more than £50k a year can play. Perhaps there could be incentives in which you keep 10 per cent of the benefit for every tip-off that leads to a clawback.

But that’s for the future. For now, our last cash benefit from the state has gone. Henceforth, we are no longer net benefactors, we are simply benefactors. But truthfully, I cannot complain. The money lay untouched in a bank account for the spawn. I recognise that there are others who will feel the loss and that the implementation mechanism of this policy could be better, but if cuts have to be made it is better they fall on people who can better afford them. I did reflect, however, that our full allocation would have met the full tuition fees for at least one of the spawns’ university education. When the boy was born, three years of college tuition fees were £3,000. Now they are up to £27,000. The loss of benefit will cost us – or rather them – more than ten grand. Then again, they’d probably have snaffled the cash to pay for a first car.

Personal finance columns are full of advice on how to keep the cash. I could, for example, turn myself into a company. Or I could treat the benefit as an interest-free loan and stick it in an Isa till forced to repay. Some of these ideas are pretty inventive. Apparently, if I disguise myself as triplets, rent out two more addresses and hide my true income among myselves I can keep the whole £33.70. We’ve considered divorce but once you factor in legal costs and second homes, it’s a bit of a false economy.

Of course, this is just the start of my dwindling benefits. Not even old age is likely to deliver any respite from the means-testing. So be my guest, George, help yourself to my free TV licence and heating allowance. I’d only waste them watching Danish crime thrillers or on a case of claret – my idea of a winter warmer. You’ve heard of the undeserving poor. It seems I’ve joined the ranks of the undeserving affluent. I always knew I was undeserving, but affluent ...?

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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