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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.