Mini-jobs: Will they help?

A new legal category of work might help people into unemployment.

The creation of "mini-jobs", which allow people to take on work without paying tax or national insurance, is being considered by the Treasury as one of a package of measures to make it easier to create employment.

The idea – being promoted by some influential Conservative MPs – is modelled on a scheme in Germany, in which employees can earn up to €400 a month (about £314) without giving up any of their salary, and employers pay only a flat rate to cover pensions, social insurance and wage taxes, making administration simpler.

People can hold several mini-jobs up to the €400 a month tax-free limit, with the only impact on their income being the reduction of unemployment benefit over a certain threshold. Between €400 and €800, workers pay tax on a sliding scale.

As discussed in an ex-ante appraisal of Germany’s 2003 mini-jobs reform by the DIW Berlin, the plan is essentially a subsidy on low earnings so as to increase employment in low wage markets and to ease the long-term unemployed into the labour market.

Firstly, on the supply side, it is argued that welfare recipients are unlikely to enter the labour force when the already low wages they have access to are further depressed by social security contributions. Secondly, on the demand side, DIW argue that:

Given limited downward wage flexibility in the low wage sector due to binding minimum wages, SSC have to be borne at least partially by the employer of low-skilled workers, thus reducing their employment.

The Free Enterprise Institute, which has spearheaded the appeal for "mini-jobs" in the UK, has praised the German reform for lowering youth unemployment, increasing turnover in the jobs market, and increasing temporary work by two per cent in ten years. The report goes on to lament the fact that temporary workers account for just six per cent of the UK labour force, in contrast to Germany’s 15 per cent.

While the merits of increasing temporary employment are at best contentious, German commentators have criticised the mini-jobs model for creating "a massive disincentive for the unemployed".

Rather than bridging the gap between the labour market and the marginalised, they argue, mini-jobs have further ostracised the peripheries of the labour force by trapping them in low-wage jobs that offer no margin for progression. It is held that the subsidies, by inflating the value of low-wage jobs (as is intended) will lead people to substitute longer-term, more stable sources of income with mini-jobs. This, one can argue, while soothing unemployment in the short run, can have hazardous effects for income inequality, as well as stifle the development of a skilled labour force. Similarly, employers will be encouraged to fragment existing full-time jobs into series of mini jobs, thus extending the potential evils of the reform beyond those that are currently excluded from the labour market.

Consequently, the subsidy (as predicted by the aforementioned DIW paper) may reduce tax revenue without actually reducing welfare subsidies. This is confirmed by Johannes Jakob of the Federation of German Unions, who contends that the most viable option consists in combining welfare with a tax-free mini-job.

While the initiative may induce some people to temporarily seek employment, it is likely that mini-jobs will prove an expensive and structurally venomous distortion of the labour market.

John Lennon in a Mini Cooper. Well how would you illustrate mini jobs? Photograph: Getty Images
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496