Full employment and rising wages are the key to welfare reform

Iain Duncan Smith was once right about the need for drastic change - then he got everything else wrong.

When Iain Duncan Smith starting visiting to Easterhouse and steered the new Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) towards a Tory-analysis of poverty, he was hailed by many as a prophet. Finally, wrote breathless commentators, the ‘nasty party’ had found a route-map to Compassionate Converatism. Five years later, IDS is part of a government that is plunging one million children into poverty and is ramming through the House of Lords new laws that will cut help for 3.5 million disabled people. The Saint of Easterhouse has become the punch-bag of the Treasury. The route-map, is turns out, was a chimera.

But IDS is still standing in part because he stands on the foundations of the CSJ’s study. I might disagree about lots of their conclusions but I can respect the fact that they actually bothered to look at the problem. Reform of social security – currently one-third of public spending – is a big question. It demands and deserves deep thinking not a casual look. And that’s why the launch on 14 February of the Commission on the Condition of Britain is so welcome, and why I’ll be following its work so closely. Back in the 1990s, the Commission on Social Justice at the IPPR was critical to Labour’s social security reforms in office. I hope we’ll learn just as much from the IPPR’s second big look two decades later.

The truth is major reform of the welfare state is mission critical to rebuilding Britain after the global financial crash; it’s crucial to creating a country where we end the trauma of the living standards crisis, and it’s crucial to renewing a shared sense that we really are all in this together. This is the frame that Jon Cruddas set out for One Nation Labour in an important speech at the Resolution Foundation this week; ‘earning and belonging’.

When the Beveridge Report was published seventy years ago in the middle of World War Two, it was swept off the shelves by a British public thirsty for a vision of what would come when peace was won. At the heart of Beveridge’s argument was the idea we needed social insurance to help working families deal with the exigencies of life that caused new pressures (like the costs of children) or caused a loss of earnings , like the mass unemployment of the 1930s.

Today, the challenge for social security is not simply to minimise disruption to earnings, it is to help families maximise the potential of earnings. Beveridge’s world-view was set during the Devil’s Decade of the 1930s. Our world-view must be shaped by the gigantic squeeze on earnings that means living standards for ordinary working families might not recover, according to the Resolution Foundation, until the 2020s.

The reality for Britain today is that right now, productivity is going up; corporate profits are going up; companies are piling up cash in their bank accounts at a rapid rate of knots. Yet real wages are falling. In other words, workers are producing more and earning less. If we’re to reverse this giant trend, we are going to need new strategies for full employment – because full employment is the best guarantee of rising wages. We’re going to need new strategies to help working parents – especially mums – juggle childcare and sustain their careers. We need new ways to help the over 50s stay in work. And we need a radically new approach to disability policy so that government actually puts a team behind disabled people helping them get on in life, not a bureaucracy against them locking away help.

The IPPR’s work couldn’t come at a better time. Half way through the Parliament it’s now clear, the Conservatives so-called welfare revolution is collapsing in chaos. It doesn’t help working families get on. Its making poverty worse. The DWP is no longer even able to organise work experience in Poundland, never mind complex change like Universal Credit. We’re determined to offer a bold alternative, that staunches the cost of failures and puts social security once more, back on the side of working people.

The Easterhouse estate, Glasgow. Source: Getty

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

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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.