Canary Wharf skyscrapers on the Isle of Dogs. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why "skin in the game" could be the key to reforming markets

Those with the power to make decisions on your behalf should share in the risks, not just enjoy the rewards.

"We are all in this together" has become the political catchphrase of this parliament. The phrase has come back to haunt a government that has introduced tax breaks for millionaires in an era of austerity, but Labour’s critique runs wider than this. Our argument at the next election will be about the way our economy works so that we tackle the causes of the cost-of-living crisis, not just the government’s priorities on tax and spend.

The campaign for a living wage embodies this idea. The question is not just whether tax credits can be protected, but whether companies will pay people a wage they can get by on. The debate on energy prices is another example. The job is not just to fund winter fuel payments but to reform the energy market so that customers are not taken for a ride. Occupational pensions typify the challenge: the difference between a 1 per cent and a 1.5 per cent charge from a provider can be tens of thousands of pounds more in a pension pot at the end of a working lifetime. Sharing in prosperity is about how our economy works, not just what the government spends.

In this context, a new paper by Duncan O'Leary published this week by the think-tank Demos is a welcome contribution to the debate. The paper explores a new idea for reforming markets: "skin in the game". The phrase comes from Warren Buffet, who demands that people investing his money have some of their own money at risk. They must have some skin in the game. The principle is that people who have the power to make decisions on your behalf should share in the risks, not just enjoy the rewards. Only then can they be truly accountable.

In the US, the government is already experimenting with the skin in the game idea. Banks can no longer package up and sell on all the debt from the mortgages they offer. They must retain some skin in the game: 5 per cent of every mortgage must stay on their balance sheets. The idea is that lenders start to consider not just whether they can sell a loan on to others in the market, but whether the loan itself is a good one. The hope is that more skin in the game will encourage more responsible lending.

O'Leary explores what this idea might mean in different policy areas. Is it right, for example, that half of FTSE 100 chief executives are not invested in the pension schemes that more than 90 per cent of their new staff are auto-enrolled into? Would companies pay more attention to pension charges if they were coming out of the CEOs pocket too? Is it sustainable that ratings agencies are paid by the organisations whose financial products they are rating? Should at least some of the fees be held back and paid according to how accurate the ratings prove? Perhaps some skin in the game would lead to greater accuracy.

The idea has the most obvious applications in finance. Is it fair that all financial services companies should pay the same industry levy to fund debt advice, regardless of their lending practices? Shouldn’t the lenders who drive people to debt advice, through hiking up rates when people miss payments, contribute more? Some skin in the game might encourage lenders to adopt a less adversarial approach with their customers.

But O'Leary also examines what it might mean in other areas too. Could companies be given more of a stake in whether the staff they make redundant find work when they leave? Could the skin in the game idea improve back-to-work support for those who find themselves off work through illness or accident? In Holland, for example, companies must pay up to an extra year’s sick pay if they do not take reasonable steps to reintegrate staff who suffer illness or disability. Here we have around 300,000 people flowing from work onto state benefits each year because of health-related issues, adding to the welfare bill.

The value of the skin in the game idea is twofold. First, it avoids the kind of top down micro-management that belongs to the politics of the last century, not this one. The task is to ensure that we really are "all in this together", but through reforming the incentives within markets, not tying business up in complex rules and regulation. The skin in the game idea has a simplicity to it that is attractive. Second, the principle seeks to prevent problems occurring and to align power and accountability where they have become detached from one another. Both are organising principles of Labour’s policy review that I lead, whether in the public or private sectors.

For Britain to become the global standard for an inclusive economy we must create a system that is fair from the start. The policy review will need to look at the skin in the game principle in more detail. But at first sight it looks like a key ingredient in the "recipe for responsible capitalism".

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity