As the minister who brought in the Universal Credit and sowed misery among people with disabilities, there are millions of people who would see Iain Duncan Smith’s attempt to portray himself as a warrior for social justices as a bad joke.
However, while saying so involves being much fairer to him than he ever was to those who felt the impact of his policies while at the Department for Work & Pensions, the Centre for Social Justice he chairs has on occasion put out some moderately interesting ideas.
Its latest missive “The Great British Break Through” – did it really need the cheap attempt to hang off the coat-tails of The Great British Bake Off? – argues that the potential of the bottom 20 per cent of workers is being wasted, a situation it describes as “shameful” and a major contributor to the desultory productivity that constrains economic growth, not to mention wages, in the UK
“The message in this report is simple; investing in transport infrastructure, digital networks and technical skills is important, but unless you target policy to support the least advantaged in society, we cannot return productivity growth to pre-crisis levels,” says Mr Duncan Smith.
Who could disagree with that? Or with ideas such as rethinking professional and technical education to make it work better, and doing more to support further education (FE) colleges, for long seen as being the unloved stepchild of the British education system.
A call for greater investment? Give that man a hand!
However, when it comes to the report’s prescriptions for what ails UK plc, and its most disadvantaged people in particular, it’s hard to escape the fact that the report has a glaring blind spot. It fails to pay regard to the role modern trade unions could, and do play, in enhancing productivity, wages, and the life chances of those at the bottom of the workplace pile.
Research by the former Department for Trade & Industry in 2007, for example, found that union representatives saved up to 616,000 productive working days that might otherwise have been lost through work related injury.
Collective bargaining leads to improved wages, which also leads to improved productivity. There is a reason many employers – like the Centre – have adopted the voluntary National Living Wage, set by the Living Wage Foundation, and become accredited Living Wage employers. Paying it, as opposed to the Government’s lower minimum wage, leads to lower rates of absenteeism, and better quality, more productive work.
Unionised workplaces lead to better wages, better quality work.
They can also assist with training: Analysis from Labour Force Survey revealed that in 2013 the training rate for union members was 70 per cent higher than the rate for non-union members (38.9 per cent and 22.9 per cent respectively). There are many more stats like that you can find if you care to look.
Which is rather the point. Why does the Centre’s report pay so little heed to this? Could it be the same sort of ideological motivation that led it to gush about the Thatcherite economic revolution while paying little heed to the social injustice that flowed from it? It does at least recognise that its de-industrialisation damaged the North disproportionately, and that an overall rise incomes and productivity served to mask the problems of that part of the country.
There are other gaps. The call for investment in further education is well made. But part of the reason it is necessary to make the point is the neglect of the Government Mr Duncan Smith was once a part of.
As University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt notes, whilst businesses need to ensure their workers fulfil their potential, the government must ensure the sector is properly resourced if it is to play a role in doing that.
It also increasingly costs money if individuals want to up skill by calling upon its services. That’s fine if you have it, not so easy if you don’t, and the people Mr Duncan Smith says he wants to help usually don’t have it.
The problems that his Centre identifies are real: While Britain’s high levels of employment are welcome, and policymakers should seek to sustain them, it clearly is failing the bottom 20 per cent of its workers. Even if (as the report suggests) we switch to new ways of measuring productivity, it wouldn’t change the fact that this country’s is lousy, as is its record on investment.
However, when compared to the recent document put out by the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Commission for Economic Justice, which called for sweeping economic reform, the Centre’s effort at fixing what ails UK plc is narrow, and focussed on being what Mr Duncan Smith would regard as being politically, or at least ideologically, correct.