Government lays groundwork for slashing minimum wage

The Government has instructed the Low Pay Commission to consider the impact of the minimum wage on “employment and the economy”.

The Telegraph suggests that the government is considering freezing or cutting the minimum wage if it starts to cost jobs or damage the economy. Christopher Hope reports:

The minimum wage for millions of people could have to be capped or frozen in future if it risks damaging jobs or the economy, the Government has said.

It has told the Low Pay Commission, which sets the minimum wage, that it must formally consider its impact on “employment and the economy”, before agreeing future increases.

The change, which will be written into the Commission’s new terms of reference, raises the prospect of the first ever across-the-board freeze or cut in the minimum wage for everyone if the economic uncertainty continues.

Let's leave aside, for the moment, the fact that the minimum wage has risen below inflation – and thus faced an across-the-board cut in real terms – every year since the recession. The Low Pay Commission is, it seems, perfectly capable of examining the level of the minimum wage and deciding it's too high, and has done that four years in a row.

When you look at the actual history of the minimum wage in the UK since its introduction in 1999, the key thing that stands out is how few negative effects it has had at all. As Tory MP Matthew Hancock told the Resolution Foundation last week:

The standard argument against the minimum wage is that a minimum wage would price people out of jobs. But the academic analysis doesn’t back it up. The analysis of the impact of minimum wages is one of the most studied areas of economics.

There are so many studies that economists now publish studies of studies, bringing all the data together. Two of the most recent, which together analysed 91 studies, found that “the minimum wage has little or no discernible effect on the employment prospects of low-wage workers.”

Many reasons are cited by the study, including increased pay raising the efficiency of the workforce, and the very small impact of minimum wage increases on the total pay bill. After all, work is a team effort. Working out how much of a firm’s revenue is down to which member of the team is an imprecise art at best. Just as with high pay, the question of just rewards is important.

A phrase favoured by right-wing economists is that it is "economics 101 that the minimum wage increases unemployment". Going by the available evidence, it seems like there's a reason economics 101 is followed up by economics 201 and economics 301.

But while the information we have suggests that the Low Pay Commission has handled its task well, that doesn't mean we should ignore the possibility that a minimum wage set too high might damage employment. Indeed, that's clearly something the Low Pay Commission examines, as it explains the real-terms cuts coinciding with the recent spike in unemployment. The Government telling the Commission to "formally consider" employment and growth is just an emphasis on areas formerly implicitly covered.

But the minimum wage would have a strong rationale even if it did slight harm to growth and employment. After all, all expectations were that there would be a slight increase in unemployment after we introduced it in 1999, and although that didn't happen, it wouldn't have been the wrong decision if it did.

You can rationalise a minimum wage which slightly harms employment by asking what the role of the welfare state actually is. If it's to help people of low incomes across the board, then the key thing is to get everyone into work no matter how badly paid, and top their quality of life up to an acceptable level. If, conversely, it's a safety net to help those out of work, then there's not much to be said for the prospect of people in work still needing help. To put it in the Blairite language with which it was promoted, the minimum wage is about making work pay. If work doesn't pay, and is subsequently made unviable by a – still very low – minimum wage, then it's not the biggest hit ever taken.

Similarly, a slight hit to growth caused by the minimum wage can again work out OK, especially if redistributionist policies ensure that the paid from that hit is taken by the rich. Compare it, for instance, to tax. It is widely accepted that there is a deadweight loss to taxation – that is, the act of taxing people reduces their incomes by more than the amount of revenue received. Nonetheless, we do it, because we think it might be worth turning a pound in a rich person's pocket into 90p in the hand of someone poor. And the same is true of the minimum wage – the unambiguous winners of it are working poor people, and if the hit is taken by people richer than them, that might be a decision worth taking. Every policy has trade-offs, and requiring the minimum wage to have absolutely no negative effects is holding it to a standard no other policy could live up to.

The Government's instruction to the Low Pay Commission to do something they are already doing will hopefully remain just that. But if it becomes the start of a whispering campaign to suggest that minimum wage laws are making us all worse off, remember that they aren't; and that even if they were making some of us worse off, it might well be worth it given those whose lives they improve.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle