The UK benefits system is complex and this is just one reason why some people fall through the safety net. There are criticisms that it doesn’t reward work and doesn’t provide sufficient incentives to move off benefits and into work. One rather radical policy that has been discussed in numerous countries is the idea of a ‘Basic Income’.
The Basic Income or Citizen’s Income is a policy where individuals receive a regular payment from the government, essentially for doing nothing. The income is paid and aims to cover basic living costs and on top of this, individuals can then work, earn income and pay tax on it. Experiments of this policy are already in place and over the next few years, we may see many more being trialled and much discussion of the possibility of implementing this in the UK. We tend to be fairly risk averse when it comes to radical policies and so while we may see discussion of it in the UK, I imagine we’ll want to see the relative success of the policy in other countries first!
There are many variations of the scheme and lots of questions that need addressing. Will it encourage people to work more or less? Might it reduce the stigma of claiming benefits, if this is a basic income that everyone receives? Does it simplify the system and hence provide more people with a basic income thus targeting poverty?
Some proposals have this payment as a universal one – non means tested and not conditional on anything. Other proposals, including one in Finland, sees just the unemployed receive the benefit and appears to be a social experiment to see if such a policy discourages the unemployed from taking jobs. Traditionally individuals receive a benefit if they are out of work, but this benefit can be cut (in some cases quite substantially) if they begin to work. This creates a disincentive to supply labour. However, under the basic income scheme, those who moved into work would continue to receive the basic income payment and hence the disincentive effect is removed. The policy thus creates a basic level of economic security. As Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley argue, it would offer:
“…financial independence and freedom of choice for individuals between work and leisure, education and caring, while recognising the huge value of unpaid work”.
There isn’t universal support for this type of scheme and many remain very cautious about such a radical policy and how the incentives will work. Key questions focus around the marginal rate of income tax that might be needed to finance such a policy. Furthermore, there is discussion about the equity of the policy if it is universal and hence non means-tested.
In Switzerland, the policy was put to a public referendum and it was rejected, with 75% of voters voting against such a policy. However, with changes in the structure of economies and, in many countries, technological change increasingly leading to automation, some argue that such a system will help to protect people. Lord Skidelsky, Professor of Political Economy at Warwick University said:
“Credible estimates suggest it will be technically possible to automate between a quarter and a third of all current jobs in the western world within 20 years … It [Basic Income] would ensure the benefits of automation were shared by the many, not just the few.”
Basic Income or Citizen’s Income is certainly something we are likely to hear a lot about during 2017. Whether or not the time has come for implementation is another matter, but it’s a good idea now to look into both sides and the relative success of the upcoming trials around the world.
8 basic income experiments to watch out for in 2017 Business Insider, Chris Weller (24/1/17)
What is basic income? Basic Income Earth Network (January 2017)
Finland trials basic income for unemployed The Guardian, Jon Henley (3/1/17)
Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley, Universal Basic Income: An idea whose time has come? Citizen’s Income Trust (14/6/16)
Is the world ready for a guaranteed basic income? Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner (13/4/16)
France’s Benoit Hamon rouses Socialists with basic income plan BBC News, Lucy Williamson (24/1/17)
Universal basic income trials being considered in Scotland The Guardian, Libby Brooks (1/1/17)
- What is basic income?
- What are three advantages of this policy? If you can, try to use a diagram to explain why this is an advantage.
- What are three disadvantages of moving towards this type of policy?
- Why does the provision of benefits affect an individual’s labour supply decision?
- Do you think that income tax would have to rise in order to finance this policy? Do you think high income earners would be prepared to pay a higher rate of tax in order to receive the basic income?
- If the trials showed that the policy did create an incentive to work in countries like Finland, do you think the results would also occur in the UK?
Lloyds Banking Group has announced that it plans to reduce its labour force by 9000. Some of this reduction may be achieved by not replacing staff that leave, but some may have to be achieved through redundancies.
The reasons given for the reduction in jobs are technological change and changes in customer practice. More banking services are available online and customers are making more use of these services and less use of branch banking. Also, the increasingly widespread availability of cash machines (ATMs) means that fewer people withdraw cash from branches.
And it’s not just outside branches that technological change is impacting on bank jobs. Much of the work previously done by humans is now done by software programs.
One result is that many bank branches have closed. Lloyds says that the latest planned changes will see 150 fewer branches – 6.7% of its network of 2250.
What’s happening in banking is happening much more widely across modern economies. Online shopping is reducing the need for physical shops. Computers in offices are reducing the need, in many cases, for office staff. More sophisticated machines, often controlled by increasingly sophisticated computers, are replacing jobs in manufacturing.
So is this bad news for employees? It is if you are in one of those industries cutting employment. But new jobs are being created as the economy expands. So if you have a good set of skills and are willing to retrain and possibly move home, it might be relatively easy to find a new, albeit different, job.
As far as total unemployment is concerned, more rapid changes in technology create a rise in frictional and structural unemployment. This can be minimised, however, or even reduced, if there is greater labour mobility. This can be achieved by better training, education and the development of transferable skills in a more adaptive labour force, where people see changing jobs as a ‘normal’ part of a career.
Lloyds Bank cuts 9,000 jobs – but what of the tech future? Channel 4 News, Symeon Brown (28/10/14)
Lloyds Bank confirms 9,000 job losses and branch closures BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (28/10/14)
Lloyds job cuts show the technology axe still swings for white collar workers The Guardian, Phillip Inman (28/10/14)
Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions Cabinet Office (July 2009)
Fair access to professional careers: a progress report Cabinet Office (30/5/12)
- Is a reduction in banking jobs inevitable? Explain.
- What could banks do to reduce the hardship to employees from a reduction in employment?
- What other industries are likely to see significant job losses resulting from technological progress?
- Distinguish between demand-deficient, real-wage, structural and frictional unemployment. Which of these are an example, or examples, of equilibrium unemployment?
- What policies could the government pursue to reduce (a) frictional unemployment; (b) structural unemployment?
- What types of industry are likely to see an increase in employment and in what areas of these industries?
At a cost of €1 trillion to EU states, tax evasion is undoubtedly an area in need of attention. With government finances in deficit across the world, part of the gap could be plugged by preventing tax revenues from going unpaid. Well-known companies and individuals have been accused of tax evasion (and avoidance), but part of the problem is the existence of countries that make such activities possible.
Tax havens not only offer favourable tax rates, but also have in place regulations that prevent the effective exchange of information. That is, they are able to keep the identity and income information of depositors a private affair and are not required to share that information with other governments. This means that other tax authorities are unable to demand the tax revenue from income earned, when it is held in some of these countries. This can deprive the government’s coffers of substantial amounts of money.
In 2000, the OECD produced a report naming so-called ‘uncooperative tax havens’, including Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein and Liberia. Since then, all nations on this list have pledged their cooperation and been removed and in a recent step, Andorra has announced a proposal to implement its first ever income tax. This move is partly in response to pressures from EU governments to tackle tax evasion. Furthermore, talks between the finance ministers of tax havens, such as Switzerland and Liechtenstein have been agreed with the aim of improving the flow of bank account information and thus combating tax evasion. The Council of the European Union said:
The decision represents an important step in the EU’s efforts to clamp down on tax evasion and tax fraud”
Countries, such as Switzerland (a non-EU member) are likely to find requests for information difficult to ignore, if they want to have access to EU financial markets. However, any concessions on information provision will come at a significant cost for a country that has long regarded its banking secrecy as an ‘honourable policy.
Reforming policy on tax havens is essential, not only to help tackle tax evasion and thus government deficits, but also to generate investment into countries that don’t offer such favourable tax rates. Investors naturally want to invest in those countries with low tax rates and as such, could it be that countries like the UK suffer from a loss of investment and that the only way to encourage it is to offer similarly low tax rates? International agreement is certainly needed to tackle the worldwide issue of tax evasion and at the moment, it seems as though pressure is building on secretive countries. The following articles consider this controversial issue.
Clock ticks on Swiss banking secrecy BBC News, Imogen Foulkes (21/5/13)
Andorra bows to EU pressure to introduce income tax The Telegraph, Fiona Govan (2/6/13)
Andorra to introduce income tax for first time BBC News (2/6/13)
Andorra to introduce income tax for the first time Economy Watch (3/6/13)
Swiss have no choice but to bow to US ultimatum – Ackermann Reuters, Katharina Bart> (3/6/13)
Austria out front as EU zeroes in on tax evasion The Budapest Times (29/5/13)
EU to start talks with non-EU countries on tax evasion BBC News (14/5/13)
- What is tax evasion?
- Using game theory, explain why an international agreement on tax evasion might be needed?
- When an income tax is imposed in Andorra, what will be the impact on government revenues?
- How might the labour supply incentive change once an income tax is imposed?
- How do tax havens affect investment in other countries?
- Is there an argument that countries such as the UK should cut its tax rates to encourage investment?
The pensions crisis is one area of social policy that has been the focus of attention for some years. With an ageing population, more people entering higher education and a rather substantial deficit facing the government, pension reform has been high on the agenda and not just in the UK.
A number of factors have contributed towards the so-called pensions crisis: rising life expectancy; the ‘baby-boomers’ retiring; more people staying in education for longer; an ageing population. All of these have led to a dependency ratio that is becoming worse – fewer workers to support every pensioner. Over the past few years, strikes have taken place in protest to government pension plans, especially for public sector workers, who see the proposals as making them worse off once they retire. Doctors are the latest group to strike in protest over having to work longer before retiring and having to pay higher national insurance contributions.
So, are the doctors justified in their protests? They are currently on a final-salary pension scheme, which is a very generous scheme, although it is being phased out and replaced with a career average scheme, which will have big implications for doctors’ pensions. Furthermore, there was an overhaul of their pensions in 2008, thus the criticism that further changes are now being made to make them even worse off. Doctors do pay higher national insurance contributions than other occupations, such as teachers and they will naturally receive a higher pension than other NHS workers, such as nurses simply because they earn more. However, this does have big implications for their future.
Inequality is a big issue across the UK and this doesn’t only refer to income. Those earning higher salaries are more likely to live longer than the average worker. So, we see life expectancy inequality as well. The consequence of this is that once an individual retires at say 60, if your life expectancy is 85, then you have 25 years to live in retirement receiving whatever pension you have accumulated throughout your working life. If, however, your life expectancy is only 75, perhaps because of your background, your occupation, your health, then you will only spend 15 years in retirement. The person that lives longer therefore receives significantly more in pension payments and if this differing life expectancy is related to your occupation and thus your salary, then inequality of income clearly has some very wide implications for pension schemes and rates of contribution.
There are, of course, wider effects of any industrial action by doctors. Whilst some may agree with their view that this further pension reform is unfair, if any strike action does take place there will be wider economic effects. Those in need of treatment may have to delay it and if that means more people taking sick days, then the economic cost to the economy could be significant. The following articles consider the latest controversy in public-sector pensions.
Independent Public Service Pensions Commission Final Report HM Treasury, Pensions Commission March 2011
Doctors’ strike: how the cost of NHS pensions soared Telegraph, Matthew Holehouset (21/6/12)
Are doctors’ pensions too generous Guardian, Hillary Osborne and Jill Insley (21/6/12)
Lansley: ‘Doctors’ pension scheme is generous’ BBC News (21/6/12)
Doctors get a nasty taste of Gordon Brown’s pension medicine Telegraph, Philip Johnston (18/6/12)
Doctors wrong on pensions, says Hutton Financial Times, Sarah Neville and Norma Cohen (19/6/12)
BMA ‘Inherent unfairness’ in doctor pensions BBC Radio 4 Today (21/6/12)
Reluctant move against intransigent government Scotsman, Dr Brian Keighley (21/6/12)
Will you be affected by the doctors’ strikes? BBC News (15/6/12)
- Explain the main factors that are contributing towards the so-called pensions crisis. In each case, is it a demand-side or supply-side issue?
- What are the main proposals to tackling the pensions crisis (not just for Doctors)?
- What is the difference between a career average and a final salary pension scheme? Which is better for (a) those on a higher salary at the end of their career and (b) those who are on a relatively lower salary at the end of their career? Make sure you explain your thinking!!
- What are the arguments both for and against this new round of pension reforms for doctors? Do you think the doctors are justified in taking strike action?
- What are the wider implications of industrial action? Think about the effect on individuals and on the economic performance of the wider economy.
- To what extent is it equitable that public sector workers should pay more in contributions and retire at the same age as the state pension age?
- How might higher contributions affect the incentive to work? What could we see happen to labour supply? Think about both income and substitution effects.
Calls for a simplified tax and benefit system have been ongoing and many see the Coalition’s plans for a Universal Credit as a step in the right direction. However, a second suggestion set out in a report by lobbying groups is to introduce a single rate of income tax at 30%. The argument is that it will simplify the system, help lower income earners and boost growth.
As well as the introduction of a single rate of income tax, The 2020 Tax Commission’s Report also suggests an increase in the personal allowance to £10,000; scrapping National Insurance Contributions, stamp duty, inheritance tax and air passenger duty, as well as cutting fuel duty by 5p. For the typical tax payer, it may sound great – the difference between your gross and your net pay would narrow, but the wider consequences must be considered. Although a single rate of income tax would undoubtedly simplify the system, the impact on government finances must be considered. The commission predicts that overall borrowing would fall by £35bn after 15 years, but that the national deficit would increase by £49.1bn in the first year. Perhaps not an ideal solution given the current state of the national deficit!
The report does contain some radical change, but the idea of simplification is well-recognised as a necessary principle of any tax system. As the Chairman of the Commission, Allister Heath said:
It is time for Britain to make a vital choice between tweaking the status quo and letting our economy continue to be crippled by complex and punitive taxes, and drastically changing course with a radical but realistic plan for a tax system fit for the 21st century.
The 2020 Tax Commission has set out that plan and would ensure that income is taxed once at a single, much more reasonable rate. It could create the conditions to establish the UK as a global trading hub, generating renewed prosperity for all those who live and work here.
The current system is complex and many people end up paying an extremely high rate of tax, once everything has been paid. The Guardian article below gives a nice illustration. “If you earn income from shares, first corporation tax is taken out of the profits. Then you pay taxes on the dividends. Then because those profits drive up the share price you pay capital gains tax as well.” With a simpler and fairer tax system, the Commission argues that it will boost the competitiveness of the UK economy and help boost its struggling growth rate. How many, if any, of these proposals will be incorporated into the government’s plans is anybody’s guess, but it definitely presents an interesting solution and problem.
The Single Income Tax The 2020 Tax Commission (May 2012)
Why it’s time for a single income tax Guardian, Matthew Elliott (21/5/12)
Business backs income tax rate of 30% Financial Times, Martin Sandbu (21/5/12)
Calls for single 30% income tax rate BBC News (21/5/12)
Single 30% tax rate ‘essential’ for growth Sky News (21/5/12)
Osborne urged to introduce 30pc income tax for all The Telegraph, Tim Ross (20/5/12)
Tax shake-up urged to empower consumers and kickstart growth Independent, Russell Lynch (21/5/12)
The Tax Reform Britain needs Wall Street Journal, Matthew Sinclair (20/5/12)
- What are the key principles of a tax system?
- Explain why simplicity is so important when reforming a tax system. How can it affect the incentive to work?
- Would a 30% single rate of income tax be equitable?
- If the reforms set out in the report were to go ahead, what do you think would be the impact on goods and services provided by the government, such as the NHS, education, roads?
- Using indifference analysis, illustrate the effect of a cut in the basic rate of income tax. How does it affect the decision to work more or less? You should consider the income and substitution effects in your answer.
- Why does the report argue that the reforms they suggest would help boost growth?
- How might the proposals affect government finances in both the short and long term?