Is red tape killing the recovery? Probably not, no

The idea that regulation is the problem is simplistic, overstated, and misapplied.

The argument goes like this: Our wealth creators are chomping at the bit to hire more people, produce more output, and sell more stuff. The only problem is that nasty government regulations are stopping them from doing it. Scrap those regulations, and bust turns to boom!

It's an appealing argument to many in the Conservative party, because it has the side effect of shifting the blame for slow growth from macroeconomic policies—particularly the historic failure of austerity. It also lets Tories express sympathy with the aims of policies like a minimum wage, health and safety regulations, or employment protections, without actually committing to keep them.

Small wonder that Conservatives as diverse as Louise Mensch, party donor Adrian Beecroft and the Institute of Directors think-tank have all expressed a desire to slash "red tape", particularly when it comes in the form of regulations protecting employees against their bosses.

But their starting premise is wrong. Business executives—the archetypal "wealth creators" if any are—aren't chomping at the bit to deregulate. In fact, they're far more concerned about their inability to borrow and the difficulty they have paying taxes, as they tell the World Economic Forum:

It's not just big businesses. In August 2012 the Department for Business, Enterprise and Skills asked 500 heads of small and medium sized enterprises about what they considered the main obstacle to success. “The state of the economy” was the biggest issue, listed by 45 per cent and “obtaining finance” was next, mentioned by 12 per cent. After this came taxation, cashflow, competition and regulations—just 6 per cent listed regulations as their main concern.

In Britain, part of the reason businesses don't care about red tape is that it's all part of the level playing field. The minimum wage doesn't hurt small businesses if all their competitors have to pay it as well. But, as Louise Mensch points out, there's the international context to take into account as well:

"The left think they're helping working people by providing more rights", she told the Observer in 2011. "But all that actually happens is you create poverty and despair, because jobs go to your competitors who have fewer rights for workers."

In fact, you have to look hard to find competitors to Britain who have fewer rights for workers. By international standards, the UK is not heavily regulated at all. In fact, when the OECD assessed the strength of employment protections across all its member nations, the UK was third from the bottom. Apart from the US and Canada, we have the least employment red tape in the developed world:

And when we look at the protections workers have against unfair dismissal – a specific protection attacked by Adrian Beecroft’s 2011 report on employment law – the UK is even closer to being the “freest” nation in the world. Only the US has fewer protections than us:

But the most important aspect of regulations is frequently missed in discussions of whether they hurt businesses: regulations have direct benefits. It's a point made alarmingly infrequently in a climate where the burdens of regulations are brought up on a monthly basis.

For instance, the minimum wage has costs—to businesses, which have to pay higher wages, but also theoretically to workers, who may find that they aren't employable for that much. The minimum wage also has benefits. It boosts the income of the lowest paid and as such is a very effective way to boost aggregate demand. It can also increase productivity in a number of ways.

None of this should obscure the most important point: the poorest paid people in society suddenly have more money. That's not a by-product; it's the entire aim. And discussing what businesses think about the burden without acknowledging that benefit will always result in a skewed conclusion.

For more, take a look at our article produced with nef and the Tax Justice Network as part of their "Mythbusters" series, addressing the myth that "red tape" is preventing the recovery.

Some red tape. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Exell is a senior policy officer at the TUC and Alex Hern is the New Statesman's economics reporter.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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