Zoe Williams makes a good point in the Guardian when she questions why the taxpayer effectively subsidises companies like Tesco by paying out tax credits which would be unnecessary if they paid decent wages, whilst executives reward themselves massive bonuses from the profits they make as a consequence. There is clearly something wrong here.
But she only tells half of the story.
Yes, allowing highly “profitable” companies pay low wages is a scandal, but so is artificially increasing those wages by imposing income taxes on low incomes. This is effectively a dead weight cost on labour; neither the employer or employee benefits from it. It artificially raises the minimum wage which, in turn, strengthens the hand of those who would have you believe that the national minimum wage is an unacceptable burden on employers. And it undermines Zoe’s argument; that subsidy she alleges is at least in part coming out of the very low wages she is so critical of.
For this reason, it is absolutely crucial that personal allowance is raised to ensure that, eventually, no one on a living wage should be paying income tax. The coalition government has already made a start on this, and should be encouraged to move as swiftly as possible.
It would be nice to think that such a policy measure would be entirely uncontroversial; sadly it is not. In 2010, Left Foot Forward teamed up with the Fabian Society to produce a series of articles designed to prove that such a policy was one of the least fair and most regressive policies ever devised. On the narrow point about higher income earners gaining more from the policy than lower income earners, they had a point – although their manufactured outrage rings hollow in light of the new Labour orthodoxy about sticking up for the “squeezed middle”. In any case, this could e easily solved merely by lowering the higher tax rate bracket by the same amount as the personal allowance increase, which is indeed what George Osborne has done.
But it represents a wider failure of imagination on the part of Labour thinkers; that is to restrict their definition of fairness to purely one of income distribution. I strongly agree this is an important factor, but it would be a profound mistake to make this the only fairness test in public policy. Any tax policy which has the effect of making it more affordable for employers to pay people a decent wage should be championed; the public purse should indeed be used as a safety net, but it is simply madness to create a system such as the one built by Gordon Brown in which money unduly paid out on low incomes is recycled to top up the pay of people on low incomes. This is Alice in Wonderland economics – and that is even before you consider the billions in unclaimed benefits that this shockingly complex system effectively deprives people of each year. Surely even the most staunch statist cannot rationally argue against the inland revenue butting out at this point?
In short, we have a right to expect corporations like Tesco to pay decent wages to their employees – but Tesco have a right to expect the state not to have policies in place which actively discourage them from doing so. Both the government and corporate sector need to take action here, while Labour needs to decide which side they are really on.