What does it mean to make work pay?

Increasing the amount of better quality jobs in the UK is key to addressing low pay.

A key argument in the welfare debates this week has centred on ‘making work pay’. The Government argues that changes to tax and welfare will improve the lot of low and middle income working households. Though curiously, this came as suggestions surface the minimum wage could be frozen or cut.

Alongside others, we have shown that the increase in the personal tax allowance is roughly cancelled out by reductions in tax credits and other benefits. But there is a more fundamental flaw in the way this argument has been conducted.  It has focused purely on the role of the tax and benefit system with no discussion of how to make work itself pay.

This flaw was also evident in two other inputs into the debate in the last couple of weeks, both of which were otherwise useful and interesting.

First, a report on Improving Progression in the UK labour market by Policy Exchange. It’s encouraging to see work addressing the core issue of how we support people to not only get work but keep it and progress in it. This will let them end up earning enough to live decently, ideally without needing tax credits. The introduction of Universal Credit gives the opportunity for the Welfare to Work system to address this issue for the first time.  The report estimates that, under the new system, around 1.3 million people will become subject to some kind of in work requirements and support. 

This is a diverse group, with a mixture of ages and family types. Most work between 15 and 24 hours a week and over half are in fairly stable employment. Some have characteristics which will restrict the amount of work they can do: around a third have dependent children, over half are over 45, some are likely to have some health or caring related issues. Nearly 45% also have relatively low or no formal qualifications.  Most are apparently not actively looking for more or better work, although the reasons for this are not clear. The report makes some very sensible recommendations for improving the incentives for Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme providers to give real attention to progression in work. It also suggests piloting various other measures, including greater sanctions, to persuade more people to actively try to increase their hours and pay. 

However, the report seems to assume that there are abundant opportunities for more hours and progression, if people could only be motivated to look for them. This contrasts with our research showing that there are already 1.4 million people who want to work full time but are working part time because no full time job is available, the highest figure in 20 years.

At a Resolution Foundation seminar, Conservative MP and Skills Minister Matthew Hancock set out his agenda for tackling low pay. He argued that actively tackling low pay was vital and set out three ways of doing so: defending and strengthening the minimum wage; creating a tax system which supports low paid workers; and increasing productivity - by freeing businesses to compete, having good matching of jobs to applicants and increasing skills and human capital.

Both Mr Hancock and the seminar respondents (Allister Heath, City AM editor, Nicola Smith of the TUC and Ryan Shorthouse of Bright Blue) agreed that increasing the amount of better quality jobs in the UK was key to addressing low pay. But there was almost no discussion about how to do this. The debate was all about supply-side measures – tax, benefits, skills. All this is vitally important, but is highly unlikely to work without getting to grips with the demand side.

Only then can work truly pay – giving the ‘hard working families’ politicians talk so much about a real chance for independence and security.

Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Barnard is a Policy and Research Manager for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR