How Labour can redefine the public sector debate

Reform will get nowhere if it starts and ends with confrontation with the workforce.

The public sector now looks set for months of bitter confrontation between the government and the unions. The doctors have announced a day of industrial action  -  their first in more than 40 years. Meanwhile teachers are set to strike in the autumn over changes to pensions.  Earlier in May tens of thousands of public sector workers including police and prison officers, lecturers and civil servants took part in a day of action and union leaders have warned of more to come.  It is clear that the mood among public sector workers is one of anger – and in their fight against the coalition’s programme of cuts and reforms the unions are looking to Labour for strong, unequivocal backing. 

How should the Labour leadership respond?  According to the former cabinet minister, Charles Clarke in a new article for IPPR’s journal Juncture, by adopting its own radical reform strategy for  public services. Clarke's prospectus is bold and much of it controversial: he calls for tight control over pay and spending, greater hypothecation of tax and an extension of user charging and competition.  He acknowledges that many of these reforms are unlikely to win the support of the industrial wing of the labour movement but argues that Labour shouldn’t allow "vested interests, even including some of its own members and supporters" to stand in the way of change. He does however offer new forms of institutional dialogue with unions and professional bodies to get agreement over areas such skills development, pensions and working arrangements.

Clarke is right that a future Labour government would have to make tough decisions. This is underlined in a new briefing published by IPPR today in conjunction with the CBI. The report highlights the fact that long-term trends, especially an ageing population, will increase demand on public services, while reducing future tax revenues.  The analysis is based on projections from the Office for Budget Responsibility showing how Britain’s budget balance is likely to move from a surplus of 1.3 per cent of GDP in 2015-16 to a deficit of 0.6 per cent of GDP in 2030-31 and then to 3.2 per cent of GDP in 2060-61: a deterioration of 4.5 per cent of GDP or £66 billion in today’s terms. 

These pressures are not unmanageable, still less an excuse for cutting back on providing high quality universal services. But they mean that any future government will have to make very difficult choices. The way forward is to create a broader, more sustainable tax base, take big strategic decisions about which services we as a country should prioritise and get serious about raising public sector productivity over the long term.

In terms of prioritisation we should be investing in universal affordable childcare: the success of the Nordic countries shows that this has massive long term pay offs in terms of reducing educational inequalities, as well as helping to expand the tax base by raising the female employment rate. In short, investment in early years is a massive win/win. But if we put our eggs in that basket it means that other services will face a tighter funding settlement over the long term.

That brings us to productivity. The electoral success of New Labour was built on the idea that social justice and economic efficiency could go hand in hand. It is my contention that the success of a future Labour government would depend on making public service productivity and the values of social justice, association and democratic empowerment go hand in hand.  

Lets be clear: being serious about productivity means being hard headed about reducing costs. In particular that means looking at where new technology can deliver services in a less labour intensive way. For example, new technologies in health mean that people will be able to monitor their own conditions much more actively without the need to consult a doctor. In another example, increasingly universities in the United States are opening up their degrees to the public by allowing online access to teaching material.  This could radically transform the nature of a university education by allowing wider access at lower cost. 

But delivering better value also requires the engagement and enthusiasm of those who deliver our public services day to day.  An agenda that seeks to marry the values of cooperation and employee participation to the need to improve efficiency has the potential to secure the buy-in of public service professionals. 

For example, could staff be rewarded by collective bonuses when a service improves? Or for example could we create new forms of not for profit service delivery organisation in which staff and users are jointly in control? The prospect that social care users could mutualise their personal budgets to create community led care providers is an enticing one. 

Of course user and producer interests will still clash and it is for that reason that we need robust forms of accountability in public services. We should also be realistic: it will be impossible to achieve agreement on every reform. And Clarke is right that before working out how it can better engage staff in the process Labour will need to be much clearer than it has been about its overall strategic approach to reform and the kind of changes that are necessary.  But it is important to remember that reform will get nowhere if it starts and ends with confrontation with the workforce.

Rick Muir is IPPR's associate director for public service reform

A future Labour government would have to make tough decisions on funding. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rick Muir is associate director for public service reform at IPPR.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.