How Labour can offer something for something on welfare

A two-tier system of benefits for job seekers, with higher entitlements for those with strong work records, could be funded by reducing spending on mortgage interest.

This is set to be a big week for Labour. Today Ed Balls launched a foray into pensioner benefits, later this week Ed Miliband is set to address the question of working age welfare. The question is what principle (or combination of principles) should underpin any new approach. The shadow chancellor’s announcement today points towards more means-testing but in January, Miliband defended universal benefits and since then Liam Byrne has promised that Labour would "strengthen the old principle of contribution". 

Means-testing and the contributory principle are, of course, uneasy bedfellows; one judges eligibility by what people need to take out of a system, the other by what people have put in. Labour should plump for more emphasis on the latter. This matters most for working age welfare, which has been haemorrhaging support in recent years. International evidence shows that the UK has one of the least generous welfare systems for the unemployed –and one of those with the weakest relationship between what people have paid in and what they get out. The two are linked: people tend to support systems with a stronger contributory element.

In a paper published today Demos argues that the government should create a two-tier system of benefits for job seekers, with higher entitlements for those with strong work records. This would end the ‘nothing for something’ system, in which many people contribute over a number of years, only to find themselves entitled to very little when they require help. This would be paid for by reducing spending on the Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) scheme, which currently covers the interest on up to £200,000 of loans or mortgages for homeowners out of work, up to a maximum of two years.

The principle behind this is that if people make the choice to take on a mortgage, they should also insure themselves against the associated risks. Homeowners losing their entitlement to SMI would instead be auto-enrolled into mortgage payment protection insurance, leaving them to choose to not cover themselves or to purchase insurance for mortgage interest payments at a cost of £33 a month at most - less than the price of an average mobile phone bill. The money saved from this change would allow for a higher payments for those with strong work records – roughly £95 a week compared to the £71.70 that all job seekers currently get for at least six months.

These changes would promote personal responsibility, through homeowners insuring themselves against risk incurred by their own choices. They would engender reciprocity, through a system which rewarding contribution. And they would avoid increasing the deficit by reallocating existing spending, rather than adding new commitments. 

Duncan O'Leary is deputy director of Demos

A street cleaner passes the Jobcentre Plus office on January 18, 2012 in Bath, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Duncan O’Leary is deputy director of Demos

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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.