We need to enable welfare contribution, not just enforce it

Is there a place for the contributory principle in the 21st century?

Liam Byrne’s article in the Guardian over the weekend re-opened the debate about what a more contributory system of social security might actually mean. Stating that "we must do more to strengthen the old principle of contribution: there are lots of people right now who feel they pay an awful lot more in than they ever get back," Byrne gave an example that doesn’t have much to do with the benefit system: giving priority in social housing allocations to those who "work and contribute to their community".

But how much scope is there for a revived contributory principle? And how far might this go to increasing public support for social security? We looked at the options for a more contributory system within social security in a report for the TUC last May. Here’s four things we concluded:

No system of social security can be based only on contributions

There’s a lot of confusion about the role of contributory benefits.

Allegra Stratton tweeted yesterday:

This is clearly a false choice. Any system of social security needs to meet different functions, and different models will be appropriate for each.

Let’s concentrate on working age benefits, as neither government nor opposition seems to be willing to discuss cutting pensioners’ entitlements. Universal benefits are appropriate for meeting additional costs faced by a particular group – those with children (Child Benefit was universal until recently), or those who face extra costs because of disability; the Government’s new Personal Independence Payment, like its predecessor Disability Living Allowance, is a universal benefit in that it’s not means tested, and applies universally to those meeting the conditions.

Tax credits primarily serve to top up wages for families with children – to ensure the politician's goal of ensuring that "work always pays" (something they’ve done pretty successfully to date). There’s a debate to be had about the extent to which tax credit expenditure could be reduced by increasing earnings – but it would be clearly absurd to base wage supplements on previous employment records (and we don’t think anyone is actually suggesting this).

Where the principle of contribution comes in is in the "insurance" functions of social security: preventing poverty during periods of either unplanned absence from work (sickness or unemployment) or planned absence (maternity leave). This is where the contributory principle has always functioned, and where its revival or enhancement looks most promising (of which more below).

A more contributory system isn’t a magic bullet

We know that in the long term, the more insurance based, earnings related systems prevalent in continental Europe are in general more popular than our own more means tested system. But we can’t assume that introducing more contributory elements into the UK system would instantly restore credibility to the social security system, for two reasons.

Firstly, as we argued in the report, and with Ben Baumberg in Benefits stigma in Britain, the widespread perception that the system is allowing people to gain "something for nothing" is based more on political and media representation of social security than experience. Prior to the recession, out-of-work benefit receipt was falling steadily; in contrast, media coverage depicting claimants as "scroungers" or using the vocabulary of non-reciprocity was rising sharply.

A more contributory system might offer a peg on which to hang a rhetorical strategy that seeks to convince people that the benefit system is largely doing the job it’s supposed to, but it’s unlikely to be enough on its own to restore credibility to the system. As we argued in the report, in everyday life people generally have very little information on which to assess whether claimants are "deserving" of support or not, or whether they have made contributions, and there is compelling evidence that they supplement this limited information with media stories. There is good reason, both empirically and theoretically, for suspecting that the default setting for views on social security in the UK is strongly negative.

Secondly, the idea that the UK might move rapidly to a fully-fledged contributory system seems implausible. The proposals for making contributions more important which have emerged so far, including ours, are pretty modest and wouldn’t constitute fundamental changes to a system which relies heavily on means-testing. As a long-term ambition, a rebalancing of contributory, universal and means-tested elements may be attractive, but as a way of dealing with the immediate perceived problem of legitimacy, we shouldn’t expect too much.

A contributory system could be used to break down some of the distinctions between employment and caring, rather than reinforcing them

A frequent critique of contributory systems is that they fail to recognise forms of contribution other than employment – caring for children or relatives for example. The current contributory system, National Insurance, actually does recognise these activities: recipients of Carer’s Allowance receive National Insurance credits, as do those on paid maternity leave.

We think that the key challenge for social security in the future should be to encourage employment. But we proposed a way that a more contributory system might do this by making combining employment and caring more compatible. As we put it in a previous blog for Touchstone:

We take our cue from the Belgian "time credit" system, in which contributions build up to the right to take up to a year off from employment, with financial support, to enable a range of activities including childcare, caring for a sick or elderly relative, or training. As a step towards this, we suggest that parents’ current entitlement to a period of unpaid parental leave could be supported through a contributions related payment. This model could also be extended to workers who need to provide temporary support for elderly or disabled relatives.

Thinking about our current system of parental leave and payment structures might also give us some clues towards how we could design a revival of the contributory principle in areas such as unemployment and sickness benefits. Statutory Maternity Pay at present is earnings related for six weeks, providing a cushion when people first exit employment, and then reverts to a flat rate payment, recognising that over time, most people’s needs will be broadly similar. If we wanted to think in the long term about how to embed a more earnings related system, this might be one model.

Social security exists in context: policies to promote employment will largely exist outside the social security system

Perhaps the most encouraging part of Liam Byrne’s article was the statement of a Labour commitment to full employment, one of Beveridge’s original "fundamental assumptions" underlying his design for National Insurance (alongside the establishment of the National Health Service and the introduction of Family Allowances, now Child Benefit). We argued in the report that this needs to be a commitment that takes into account the reasons why many people remain unemployed: a lack of childcare (now thankfully receiving attention from all sides), and the failure to design an employer-based strategy to enable disabled people to fulfil their potential in the workplace. In this way, "enabling contribution" could be as much a focus of policy as enforcing it through the social security system.

Photograph: Getty Images
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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.