Planning for a pay rise – could 'forward guidance' work for Britain’s low paid workers?

The Low Pay Commission should consider setting out how the minimum wage would increase over time if the recovery is sustained.

How will the low paid fare should the economy move into a period of steady growth? This question is already creating interest across all three parties and looks set to become ever more central to the 2015 election - especially if living standards continue to decline at the same time as growth picks up.

So we can expect there to be more interest in the nuts and bolts of how the minimum wage is set and whether it is likely to rise much over the medium term. Given that the wage floor has already fallen back below the level it was at in 2004, there are some who would favour an immediate hike, perhaps up to the level of the Living Wage, regardless of the fragility of the labour market. Many others worry about the impact of a higher minimum wage on unemployment (even if it is falling a bit) and future job growth. Faced with these competing pressures, policy-makers remain locked-in to the status quo in which the Low Pay Commission (LPC) takes an evidence-based, incremental, and typically cautious look at the level of the wage floor every 12 months.

One possible route through this bind would be to set out how the minimum wage would increase over time if, and only if, the recovery is sustained. If this sort of conditional approach towards policy-making sounds familiar it’s probably because it echoes the much hyped ‘forward guidance’ for monetary policy which has been introduced by Mark Carney at the Bank of England.

In relation to low pay, forward guidance could mean the LPC setting out the path of future increases in the minimum wage over a number of years so long as the recovery is maintained and unemployment falls. If, however, the economy weakens the LPC would revert to setting the minimum wage a year at a time. This approach would mean a shift from the established pattern of annual uplifts but it wouldn’t be wholly exceptional (the LPC has in the past set out its intention to increase the minimum wage above average earnings over a number of years).

What might be the upside of this sort of approach? Well, it could give the lowest paid workers some much needed confidence that they won’t be locked out of any recovery. It would also give employers far greater certainty over the size of the wage pressures they would need to absorb over the medium term. And, politically, it would be used as a way of demonstrating that the low paid will share in growth whilst also providing an escape route should the economy flat-line again.

Easy, then? No – this would be tricky to get right.

There would be wage-disappointment, or more likely wage-rage, if the economy under-performs and the promised increases in the wage floor fail to materialise. A broken promise (as it would be seen) of a pay-rise that fails to show up may well be worse than receiving no such promise in the first place. Employer groups would doubtless blanch at what will inevitably look like chunky increases over the medium term. And, as Mr Carney’s critics have pointed out in relation to monetary policy, there is no such thing as a perfect proxy measure which can reliably be used as a good guide as to whether or not the recovery is robust.

More specifically, if the LPC set out cash figures for the future level of the minimum wage over a number of years then this would effectively mean that the lowest paid workers in the land would be bearing the risk of inflation rising faster than forecast – hence the future increases might need to be set out as rises relative to inflation (which isn’t so easy to communicate). And, if it looked too much like the government was leaning on the Low Pay Commission, seeking to muscle it into increases that it didn’t want to make, then some members may walk away altogether, which could destabilise an institution that has served us well.

Yet for all these challenges, this and other ideas on how best to tackle low pay need to be very carefully looked at. Objections will be raised against any proposal that leads to an increase in the wage floor, many of them coming from the very same people who opposed its introduction in the first place. Fifteen years on, it’s time to consider where next for the minimum wage and to interrogate these and other ideas that could help make it relevant to the decade ahead (as a Resolution Foundation project is doing).

Despite the rhetoric coming from all sides, there is a real risk that interest in improving the plight of the low paid fails to translate into workable policy ideas that will improve the wages of many of those at the sharp end. As things stand, any recovery could all too easily pass them by. Maybe it’s time to plan for a pay-rise. 

Council workers from the Unison union picket outside Manchester Town Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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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.