To boost wages, alter the balance of power in offices

Publishing income tax records could help predistribute wealth.

Publicly posting tax returns is an idea that's mostly been explored in the context of tax avoidance. The idea is that if the amount of tax the rich and famous pay were made public, "the might be motivated to fill out their taxes correctly", as the New York Times' Anna Bernasek put it in 2010. It ought to be supported by small-statists, too, since the disclosure of the myriad loopholes used by the wealthy to avoid tax would lead to support for a simplified tax system.

But public disclosure of income tax filings also has a role to play in political sphere: that of redistribution – or, to use the Labourite buzzword of the year, predistribution – of wealth.

A TUC pamphlet, published today, looks at how to boost the wage share [pdf]. That's the proportion of GDP which is paid to employees, as opposed to ending up in the pockets of shareholders (or, to a lesser extent, small business owners – official statistics record them as a separate category from shareholders or employees, because they share characteristics with both), and it appears to have seen a permanent drop since the 1970s:

Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley, the authors of the pamphlet, examine a few different ways to counteract that trend, from raising the national minimum wage or boosting take-up of the living wage to extending the role collective bargaining. They argue that could be done through a re-establishment of the Wages Councils, which were empowered to set minimum wages in various industries until John Major's government abolished them in 1994.

But one of the strongest ways to boost the wage share of income is to make it easier for individual employees to negotiate their wages up; and that can be helped greatly by making income tax returns – and thus, incomes – public.

When it comes to negotiating wages, employees are usually at a disadvantage. That's largely because, for all but the smallest companies, being one person short on headcount is much easier for a business to live with than having no job is for a person.

But there's also an information asymmetry. You both know publicly available salaries (for jobs similar to yours which are being advertised), but your employer also has access to a second pool of information: they know what they're paying your co-workers. That's information they can cite when it's in their interest and hide when it's not. Over time, that adds up, to lead to wages lower than they ought to be.

One of the purposes of unions is to overcome this information asymmetry; so in my profession, for example, the NUJ maintains a list of reported rates for freelancers, to help people fight for fair pay. But that's only useful to a certain extent; being able to cite the pay of the person who sits next to you when arguing for a raise is far more useful than being able to cite an average for the industry.

The balance of power within corporations is one of the hardest aspects of our lives for the state to affect, but one where it could do the most good. Publishing income tax records, as is already done in Finland and Norway, could well be a first step on that road.

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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.