To promote the living wage, we need to reform the tax system

We must end the absurdity of companies being financially penalised for becoming living wage employers.

The living wage is one of the few policies that garners consensus across the political spectrum. Which politician would be crazy enough to speak against the idea of companies paying their low-paid employees enough to live on? Cue Ed Miliband and Boris Johnson giving speeches today to mark the start of Living Wage Week – with David Cameron not letting the fact that he’s in the Middle East prevent him from pitching into the debate.

Yet when it comes to what supporting a living wage actually means, the differences begin to show. The to-ing and fro-ing between the Labour Party and No 10 today highlight the slippery nature of an idea that is – since no politicians are advocating a statutory living wage – in essence about businesses doing the right thing.

Cameron and Johnson – if their contributions today are anything to go by – stand for business voluntarism in its purest sense. Politicians should stand alongside campaigning organisations like London Citizens in imploring businesses to pay a living wage, but there the buck stops. This ignores the fact that early living wage adopters have tended to be City corporations with a very low proportion of low-paid staff – for whom the costs of becoming a living wage employer are relatively low – and values-driven public sector organisations (of which Boris Johnson’s Greater London Authority is not yet one). The idea that a moral campaign led by civil society and government can by itself shift working conditions for millions in the low-paid, low-skill service sector remains a distant prospect.

Ed Miliband recognised this today by floating the idea that the tax system should reward those companies that become living wage employers. This is an idea that merits serious consideration. The idea that we would financially penalise companies for doing the right thing – for using green energy, for investing in R&D, or for supporting local communities, seems ridiculously self-defeating.

Yet when it comes to the living wage, that is exactly what we do. The IFS estimated back in 2010 that the annual cost to the taxpayer of employers paying below the living wage – in terms of tax credits, benefits and foregone tax – is approximately £6bn. Yet we financially penalise companies taking the decision to become living wage employers. An employer would face an extra bill of £570 a year in employer national insurance contributions (NICs) as a result of moving a full-time employee from the minimum to the living wage. This is despite the fact that the cost to the Treasury of employers paying below living wage is around £1,000 per employee. The tax system effectively charges employers to do something that not only is the right thing to do, but which saves the Treasury a substantial amount of money.

A good way to address this anomaly would be to take the disincentive to pay the living wage out of the system – by introducing a new, flat-rate employer national insurance contribution for employees earning below living wage. This would be set at the same level for a full-time employee actually on the living wage, paid pro-rata for part-time employees. The Treasury could recycle the extra revenue this generates through targeted NICs holidays for small businesses taking on new employees.

Of course, the tax bill is only one of a number of factors companies take into account when making decisions about how much to pay their employees. But if the energy invested by business lobby groups into making the case for lower national insurance is anything to go by, it is something that weighs heavily on the minds of employers, particularly in these straitened times.

Politicians are wary of legislating for the living wage, and they are right to be so: the effects of a big increase in the statutory minimum wage for unemployment are untested. But the Tory approach of just asking nicely won’t bring about the change we need. The Labour party is right that we need government to be much more creative in terms of how it encourages employers to pay the living wage. A reform of employer national insurance contributions for low-paid employees would be one pragmatic way of doing so.

Sonia Sodha is a former senior policy adviser to Ed Miliband. She writes in a personal capacity. She tweets @soniasodha.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sonia Sodha is head of policy and strategy at the Social Research Unit and a former senior policy adviser to Ed Miliband. She tweets @soniasodha.

Photo: Getty
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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

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