How the Autumn Statement hit "the strivers"

Sixty per cent of welfare cuts made in this parliament will fall on the working poor.

For a Chancellor who prefaced his Autumn Statement with a declaration that he was "on the side of these who want to work hard and get on", George Osborne has made some rather inconsistent announcements yesterday.

Consider, for example, his decision to uprate tax credits at below-inflation levels for the next three years. Both working couples and lone parents look set to lose over £23 of their working tax credit (WTC) in 2013-14 as a result of this move. Not so bad, one might think, but remember that this comes on top of a prior freeze in value of other key elements of WTC which will remain in place, and which will shave an additional £60 off a working family’s entitlement next year.

The changes being made to the personal tax allowance will do little to offset this shortfall. Extending the threshold potentially leaves basic rate taxpayers £47 better off in 2013-14. But for low-income working families, much of this gain evaporates as other forms of support are tapered away in response to their higher post-tax income. While those further up the income scale will keep the full £47, a working family eligible for both housing and council tax benefit will gain only 13p a week extra as a result of extended allowances.

Osborne is fond of the notion that there is a group of hard working "strivers" out there who throw "those with their blinds down" into sharp relief. In truth, the vast majority of those who rely on benefits and tax credits for part of their income have worked, are in work, or will be back in work very shortly in the future.

And with estimates suggesting that around 60 per cent of welfare cuts made in this parliament will hit the working poor, the Chancellor must do much more to show he understands the problems that those on low incomes face. Rather than glib words, Osborne needs to start providing real, rather than merely rhetorical, support for hard-pressed working families and individuals.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith leaves 10 Downing Street on 5 December, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.