Vince: minister for almost being on the left

The Business Secretary's review of "zero-hours" contracts is hardly distinguishable from Labour policy.

A couple of newspapers have today reported that Vince Cable wants a review of "zero-hours" contracts – a system accused by trade unions (among others) of being exploitative.

Around 200,000 British workers are estimated to be tied into these deals, especially in the fast food and other high street retail sectors, which require a commitment to be available for work without any guarantee of shifts. In other words, you can be on call enough to make it hard to look for or do another job and yet get to the end of the week with barely a penny to show for it.

The TUC has welcomed the new review. It isn’t often that union leaders have kind words for coalition ministers, but then again, this is Vince, Secretary of State for tantalising proximity to the left. The terms of Cable’s investigation aren’t all that different from official Labour policy, which is also to review zero-hours contracts, tighten rules and and clamp down on abuses.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham recently told the BBC his party should look at banning the practice (which has its own specific and pernicious impact in the NHS) but Labour sources today confirm that a ban is not the official line. The reservation comes from recognition that at least some employees like the flexibility of a zero-hours deal.

The Business Secretary has also clearly picked up that ambivalence. In parliament today, Cable’s response to a Labour question on zero-hours deals was markedly more neutral than this morning’s newspaper briefings. He would not be drawn on whether they represented healthy flexibility or mean exploitation:

"We do indeed have anecdotes about abusive practices in that area. We also have a lot of other anecdotes to show that the system works very well for a large number of workers and companies. I am not jumping to any conclusions; I am just trying to gather the facts."

Labour people I have spoken to are pointing to that as a retreat from the tougher-sounding headlines. They are keen to raise the question of whether Cable’s intervention represents a new government position or an out-riding Lib Dem position within government – the two aren’t necessarily the same thing. Reviews can be commissioned and come to nought. Recommendations can be implemented or ignored or, indeed, shelved with a view to being inserted in a future party manifesto.

On which subject, some Lib Dems are increasingly of the view that the party can and should show a little more flexibility on economic policy so as not to preclude any future partnership with Labour by marching too briskly to the beat of a Conservative drum. Such "equidistance" has become much more plausible now that Ed Balls has accepted the broad fiscal parameters of austerity into the next parliament. The big argument is shifting away from the question of whether the time is right to impose budget discipline (where the Lib Dems and the Tories are locked in consensus) to questions of how to impose discipline in a way that is fair and protects public services (where there is more room for Lib Dem flirting with the opposition).

Crucial to that conversation will be an argument about the appropriate balance between tax rises and spending cuts and in that debate I gather there is a movement afoot in the Lib Dem ranks to move the party much closer to Labour by supporting a restoration of the top 50p tax rate. There is even talk of formalising that position as early as this year’s annual conference. (Labour has yet to commit to doing the same but, given the fuss the two Eds have made about tax cuts for millionaires, it seems unlikely they will fight an election accepting Osborne’s gift to the rich as a fait accompli.) Labour, meanwhile, has already embraced the mansion tax – a policy very close to Lib Dem hearts.

If Labour has a mansion tax in its manifesto and the Lib Dems have a top rate of 50p and both are committed to cracking down on zero-hours contracts, the first morning of coalition negotiations in a hung parliament will break for an early lunch. 

Business Secretary Vince Cable arrives at 10 Downing Street on May 20, 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: whatever you hear, don't forget - there is an alternative

The goverment's programme of cuts is a choice, not a certainty, says Jolyon Maugham.

Later today you will hear George Osborne say there is no alternative to his plan to slash a further £20bn from lean public services by 2020-21. He will also say that there is no alternative to £9bn cuts to tax credits, cuts that will hit the poorest hardest, cuts of thousands of pounds per annum to the incomes of millions of households.

But there is.

As I outlined here the Conservatives plan future tax cuts which benefit, disproportionately or exclusively, the wealthy. Suspending those future tax cuts for the wealthy would say, by 2020-21, £9.3bn per annum.

I also explained here that a mere 50 of our 1,156 tax reliefs cost us over £100bn per annum. We don't know how much the other 1,106 reliefs cost us - because Government doesn't monitor them. And we don't know what public benefit they deliver - because Government doesn't check.

What we do know, as I explained here, is that they disproportionately and regressively benefit the wealthy: an average of £190,400 per annum for the wealthiest.

And we know, too, that they include (amongst the more than 1,000 uncosted reliefs) the £1bn plus “Rights for Shares Scheme” - badged by the Chancellor as for workers but identified by a leading law firm as designed for the wealthiest.

Simply by asking a question that the Chancellor chooses to ignore - do these 1,156 reliefs deliver value for money - it is entirely possible that £10bn or more extra in taxes could be collected without any loss of  public benefit

To this £19bn, we might add the indiscriminate provision - both direct and indirect - of public money to wealthy pensioners.

Those above basic state pension age enjoy a tax subsidy of up to 12% on earned income.

Moreover, this Office for National Statistics data (see Table 18) reveals that the 10% of wealthiest retired households - some 714,000 households - have gross pre-tax and pre-benefit private income of on average £43,983. Yet still they enjoy average cash benefits from government of £11,500 per annum.

Means testing benefits to exclude that top 10 per cent of retired households would save £8.2bn per annum. And why, you might wonder aloud, should means testing be thought by the government appropriate for the working age population, yet a heresy for retired households?

Add in abolition of that unprincipled tax subsidy and you'll save even more. 

So there are alternatives. Clear alternatives. Good alternatives. Alternatives that enable those with the broadest shoulders to bear some share of the pain. Don't allow yourself to be persuaded otherwise.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.