Minimum wage: The only way is up?

On Britain’s low paid workers.

Tomorrow sees a 15 pence per hour pay rise for Britain's lowest paid workers. Of course, every penny helps, but don't expect to hear much gratitude. With RPI inflation running at 5.2 per cent, this year's VAT increase still being absorbed, tax credits being stripped back and any number of other pressures on the cost of living, this year's increase won't allow Britain's low paid to stand still, never mind move forward. The best that can be said is they will be getting poorer (given inflation) at about the same rate as those on average pay.

But before we rush to judgement on this apparently stingy increase, bear in mind that the Low Pay Commission (LPC), which oversees increases in the minimum wage, had a truly tricky job on its hands. Given anaemic growth and rising unemployment it's no surprise that they decided to err on the side of caution -- they couldn't risk making a tough labour market worse.

Whether or not precisely the right balance was struck this year, now is a good moment to consider the role the minimum wage has played in lifting living standards to date, and what more it might do in the future. Turn back the clock fifteen years and there were of course plenty of doom mongerers predicting the devastating impact on jobs if workers were unlucky enough to be afforded protection through a legal wage floor. Things turned out differently. As an authoritative study of the experience of the minimum wage to date concluded: "there is little or no evidence of any employment effects". Even those groups who were thought to be most vulnerable don't appear to have experienced a negative effect -- indeed the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently found that employment rates are actually higher for those aged 22 (who get the full minimum wage) compared to those who are 21 (who get a lower rate), as the higher wage appears to have drawn more of them into work.

Nor can we put these findings down to the fact that the minimum wage has been pegged at rock-bottom levels. If we look at the period from its inception in 1999 up to 2010 it went up by around 65 per cent; massively outstripping CPI inflation (25 per cent) and RPI inflation (37 per cent), as well as out-performing median pay (hence the gap between those on low pay and those in the middle has fallen modestly).

At a time when most forces in our economy have been serving to squeeze the share of income going to the bottom, the minimum wage has pushed back in the other direction.

And there is evidence that the minimum wage may have benefited many people who actually get paid above the legal rate. A pay raise at the bottom can have a knock-on effect on those slightly higher up the earnings ladder, as these workers seek to protect their earnings relative to those below them. The implication is that many modestly paid workers may indirectly (and probably unknowingly) have benefited from the minimum wage.

We also know following a recent study that those firms and sectors most affected by the minimum wage have experienced significant increases in productivity as a result. Businesses don't just meekly absorb higher wages: they seek to change working patterns and investment decisions to enable them to succeed given higher costs (though admittedly larger firms find this easier than smaller ones). The Low Pay Commission was pipped to the post in arriving at this finding by a certain Sidney Webb who had precisely this insight a century ago -- armed with little more than economic intuition and precise prose, rather than today's econometric models.

In a world where few policies have a straightforwardly positive impact -- where even apparently benign measures often have malign side effects -- the minimum wage stands out as something of an exception. Its success is all the more noteworthy given that it embodies many of the attributes that, according to the current zeitgeist, make for Bad Policy. Regulation not de-regulation. National not local. Top-down not bottom up. Overseen by corporatist committee not small platoon. It has all the perfect characteristics to make it the pantomime villain in today's Whitehall.

Yet given its record, all parties feel the need to proclaim support (even if there is some sniping from the Conservative right).

Despite this apparent consensus there are still questions to ask about its future role. Over recent years the level of the minimum wage has fallen backwards relative to that of median earnings. Indeed, as the chart below shows, if we wanted the lowest paid in Britain simply to recover the ground they've lost relative to the "middle" since 2007, we'd need to see a steep climb in minimum pay over the next few years -- and all this in a period when overall wages are not expected to go up by much.

 

Whether or not this is remotely tenable obviously depends in large part on what happens in the wider economy. If we slip into another recession then calls for a rapidly rising minimum wage will be given short shrift. But if that doesn't happen, and the jobs market gradually recovers, this will itself prompt an important question: should the minimum wage really just be about maintaining a wage-floor in the difficult decade ahead, or should it seek to ensure that, at the least, Britain's low paid workers don't fall further behind everyone else? This question is likely to grow in salience.

For in an era of mounting cuts to tax credits for those in work, if the minimum wage doesn't play this wider role, it's not clear what else will.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”