The living wage and tax

Does the living wage provide an argument for ending tax on the lowest paid?

Forbes blogger Tim Worstall writes, on his personal site:

Note, and nota bene, that the Living Wage is a pre-tax number. This is before the income tax and NI that is charged to these wages. If you take those off (and I’ve not done it for this year’s number but I have for previous years) you find that the living wage of £7.20 (or whatever) an hour is within pennies of the minimum wage of £6.19 (or whatever) an hour.

We don't actually know what the living wage will be this year (it's announced on 5 November), but I thought I'd re-run Worstall's calculations with last year's numbers anyway.

The living wage is calculated based on a full-time worker working for 38.5 hours a week. It's also calculated first for London, then downrated for the rest of the country according to cost of living differences, so we'll do the same. The London living wage is currently £8.30 an hour, and the living wage for the rest of the UK is £7.20 an hour. The national minimum wage when these rates were set was £5.93, but is now £6.19.

A full-time worker in London on the living wage earns £319.55 a week. A full-time worker out of London on the living wage earns £277.20 a week. A full-time worker on the 2012 minimum wage earns £238.32 a week, and a full-time worker on the 2010 minimum wage earned £228.31 a week.

To assess Tim's point, we subtract the basic income tax and NI charged on those wages. Someone on the London living wage pays £35.11 tax and £20.83 NI, leaving them with £263.61 a week. Someone on the non-London living wage pays £26.64 tax and £15.74 NI, leaving them with £234.82 a week.

So if you are out of London and paid the living wage, your income if you paid full NI and tax would be slightly lower than than the pre-tax value of the minimum wage – and even after the amount is uprated next month, it would only be a few pounds higher.

Does this then mean Worstall is right when he says:

It is not that wages are too low. The minimum wage is almost exactly what they say that poverty level is. It is that taxes on the poor are too high. Which is an easy problem to solve, something well within the government’s power. Stop taxing the poor so much.

Well, there's a few more stats to look at first. For one thing, the minimum wage is itself a pre-tax figure. Post income tax and NI, the minimum wage is £208.37, a solid £26 a week lower than the living wage. It's perfectly reasonable to think that, if the living wage could be lower without taxes, the minimum wage could be too.

Secondly, if there's one thing the whole comparison really highlights, it's that while the minimum wage may be acceptable in most of the country, in London it's grossly low. £55 a week, post-tax, is the difference between what it takes to live out of poverty in London and what you actually earn working 38.5 hours a week on the minimum wage.

But thirdly, and most important, the Living wage isn't actually calculated pre-tax. The Greater London Authority, the body responsible for calculating the London living wage, writes (pdf):

If means-tested benefits were not taken into account (that is, tax credits, housing benefits and council tax benefits) the Living Wage would be approximately £10.40 per hour.

Even with all means tested benefits taken into account, the total tax rate for many on the London living wage is likely to be positive; and it's certainly true that there are likely to be inefficiencies involved in taking money in the form of NI while at the same time giving it back as housing benefit. But simply arguing that ending tax on the minimum wage would make it into a living wage seems incorrect. Few, if any, on the living wage pay the maximum amount of tax as calculated above, for the very good reason that that would be a terrible idea.

This doesn't mean that there isn't still a valuable argument to be made about taking the lowest paid out of the taxation system; and it doesn't mean that it isn't deeply strange that people on the minimum wage have to pay money to the government and then ask for it back in kind; but the living wage doesn't really help us make those arguments.

Campaigners for a living wage in 1972. 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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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.