Labour unveils jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed

Ed Balls announces new policy to be funded by reducing pension tax relief for those earning over £150,000.

Ever since the coalition began its programme of welfare cuts, Labour has argued that the best way to reduce the benefits bill is to get more people into work. Now, ahead of next Tuesday's debate on the Welfare Uprating Bill (which will enshrine in law George Osborne's pledge to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for the next three years), the party is seeking to show how it would achieve that goal.

In one of the most significant Labour policy announcements since 2010, Ed Balls has said that the party would introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee for long-term unemployed adults to be funded by reducing tax relief on pension contributions for those earning over £150,000 from 50p to 20p. The guarantee would initially apply to those who have been out of work for 24 months, but over time Labour would seek to reduce this limit to 18 or 12 months. The party has already proposed a compulsory youth jobs guarantee (one component of Balls's "five point plan") to be funded through a £2bn tax on bank bonuses. The new policy would apply to the 129,400 adults over the age of 25 who have been unemployed for 24 months or more, an increase of 88 per cent since the same month last year and a rise of 146 per cent in the last two years. All would be paid at least the minimum wage.

In an article for PoliticsHome on a "one nation" approach to welfare reform (note Balls's adoption of his leader's favoured motif), the shadow chancellor writes:

Ed Miliband, Liam Byrne and I are today calling for a compulsory Jobs Guarantee for the long-term unemployed.

This is the One Nation jobs contract Labour would introduce right now: the government will ensure there is a job for every adult who is long-term unemployed, and people out of work will be obliged to take up those jobs or face losing benefits.

Our Jobs Guarantee for adults will build on the model of the Future Jobs Fund with government working with the private and voluntary sectors to ensure there is a job paying the minimum wage for every long-term unemployed person.

Labour's aim is to appear both compassionate - the long-term unemployed will not be left to languish on the dole - and tough - those who are out of work must take accept any job they are offered or lose their benefits ("no ifs or buts," says Balls).

As I said above, the policy would be funded by limiting pension tax relief for the highest earners, a change announced by the last government but reversed by the coalition before its scheduled introduction in April 2011. At present, additional rate taxpayers enjoy relief of 50 per cent (45 per cent from April) on their pension contributions. Balls's proposal would see their tax relief limited to the 20 per cent received by basic rate taxpayers, meeting the £1bn-a-year cost of the policy. He writes:

When times are tough it cannot be right that we subsidise the pension contributions of the top 2 per cent of earners at more than double the rate of people on average incomes paying the basic rate of tax. £1 billion a year would fund a compulsory jobs guarantee initially for all those out of work for 24 months or more – which we would seek to reduce to 18 or 12 months over time.

It's worth recalling that before the 2012 Budget, Danny Alexander called for the government to adopt a similar policy, noting that "If you look at the amount of money that we spend on pensions tax relief, which is very significant, the majority of that money goes to paying tax relief at the higher rate". However, rather than scrapping higher rate relief, George Osborne used his Autumn Statement to reduce the annual tax-free pension allowance from £50,000 to £40,000 (having already reduced it from £255,000) and the lifetime allowance from £1.5m to £1.25m (having already reduced it from £1.8m). As a result, basic rate taxpayers are still subsidising the pension contributions of the highest earners in the country. Balls's proposal is a neat way of reopening this particular coalition divide.

Labour can no longer be accused of lacking positive proposals but the coalition will continue to challenge the party to say how it would meet the cost of uprating benefits in line with inflation, rather than the 1 per cent increase proposed by Osborne. In an article for the Times (£) earlier this week, Nick Clegg wrote: "Labour must show how they’d pay for it. Would they cut hospital budgets? Schools? Defence?"

Balls and Miliband are fond of pointing out that the coalition is simultaneously reducing the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p (worth an average of £107,500 to the country's 8,000 income millionaires) but they are reluctant to commit the revenue from a reintroduced top rate so early on in the parliament.

Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.