Memo to Duncan Smith: low wages are not an argument for cutting benefits

The fact that benefits have risen faster than wages is an argument for higher wages, not lower benefits.

The latest argument deployed by Iain Duncan Smith in favour of the government's plan to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for the next three years (below the rate of inflation) is that benefits have risen faster than private sector wages. The Work and Pensions Secretary is highlighting figures showing that the former have increased by an average of 20 per cent over the last five years (in line with inflation), while the latter have increased by 12 per cent. The statistics aren't new but the government's decision to publicise them shows that it fears Labour, which has denounced the policy as a "strivers' tax" (60 per cent of the real-terms cut falls on working families), may be shifting public opinion against the bill. While the polling results are mixed, one recent survey by Ipsos MORI found that 69 per cent believe that benefits should increase in line with inflation or more. (Conversely, a YouGov poll found that 52 per cent believe Osborne was right to increase benefits by 1 per cent, while a ComRes poll put support at 49 per cent.)

Duncan Smith said today: "Working people across the country have been tightening their belts after years of pay restraint while at the same time watching benefits increase. That is not fair. The welfare state under Labour effectively trapped thousands of families into dependency as it made no sense to give up the certainty of a benefit payment in order to go back to work."

In response, Labour has rightly pointed out that over the last ten years, as opposed to five, wages have risen faster than benefits. Jobseeker's allowance, for instance, has increased from £53.95 a week to £71, a rise of 32 per cent, while wages have increased by 36 per cent, from an average of £347 a week to £471. The current trend is a temporary quirk caused by the recession.

But even if we accept Duncan Smith's baseline, his logic is profoundly flawed. The fact that benefits have risen faster than wages is an argument for increasing wages (for instance, by ensuring greater payment of the living wage), not for cutting benefits. Many of those whose wages have failed to keep pace with inflation actually rely on in-work benefits such as tax credits to protect their living standards. The government's decision to cut these benefits in real-terms will further squeeze their disposable income. In the case of those out-of-work, ensuring that benefits rise in line with inflation is essential both as a matter of social justice - cutting support for the poorest means forcing even more families to choose between heating and eating - and of economic policy. Most claimants can't afford to save, so spend whatever they receive and stimulate the economy as a result. If anything, the government should be considering above-inflation increases in benefits to maintain consumer demand.

When Duncan Smith complains that benefits have risen faster than wages, he is really complaining that wages have risen more slowly than inflation (and are expected to continue to do so until at least 2014). But rather than prompting the government to slash benefits, this grim statistic should prompt it to pursue a genuine growth strategy that ensures more people have access to adequately paid employment. That, however, remains a distant hope.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said it was "not fair" that benefits had risen faster than wages. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.