U.K. Economy Needs Stronger Unions and Higher Taxes on Rich, Report Says

Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, at Westminster Abbey earlier this year. “For decades the U.K. economy has not worked as it should,” he said recently.CreditCreditSimon Dawson/Reuters

Britain needs sweeping changes to redress its economic failings, rising inequality and the corrosive legacy of the financial crisis, according to a report from a committee that included the Most Rev. Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

The group outlined a 10-year plan for the sort of transformation experienced twice in Britain in the last century: once after the Second World War, when the state expanded its influence, and then in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher unleashed the free market to jolt the economy.

Commissioned by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a British public policy institute, the report, “Prosperity & Justice: A Plan for the New Economy,” landed just as Britain is grappling with its looming exit from the European Union, or Brexit, a move that has already slowed investment and dampened economic growth.

Instead of focusing on Brexit itself, the document tried to tackle some of the factors that prompted the 2016 referendum and the resulting decision to quit the European Union. That vote, the report said, “was a stark repudiation of the status quo and crystallized profound feelings of economic injustice.”

Several of the report’s conclusions are eye-catching, including calls for stronger trade unions and worker representation on company boards, for higher taxes on the wealthy and on large inheritances, and for greater regulation of giant social media companies.

“For decades the U.K. economy has not worked as it should, with millions of people and many parts of the country receiving less than their fair share,” said Archbishop Welby in a statement.

“The widening gulf between rich and poor, and fears about the future among young people and their parents, have damaged our nation’s sense of itself,” he said, adding that “achieving prosperity and justice together is not only a moral imperative — it is an economic one.”

The committee included academics, business executives and a trade union leader as well as Archbishop Welby. He has spoken publicly on policy issues before, but his comments may rankle those who feel the church should stay away from the political arena.

Over all, the report painted a bleak picture of the country’s economic performance, arguing that “it is impossible to escape a palpable feeling that the economy is not working for most people.”

The report found that “earnings that have been stagnant for a decade are combined with greater insecurity at work.”

It added: “Young people have been hit particularly hard — many unable to afford a home of their own and on course to be poorer than their parents. Whole communities feel left behind. Many people feel powerless and fatalistic.”

Many of the proposals are likely to be welcomed by the opposition Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, which is calling for an increase in government spending, greater investment in industry and the nationalization of the railways and some other utilities.

But Conservative Party politicians have also worried for years about low British productivity. When Prime Minister Theresa May came into power in 2016, she said she wanted to help families who were “just about managing,” and to increase the representation of workers on company boards.

Much of that agenda faded, however, after Mrs. May lost her parliamentary majority in last year’s general election, and as she fights a bitter internal battle over her plans for Brexit.

The report also called for a rebalancing of economic power from corporations to trade unions, greater devolution of political power away from London, moves to create more affordable housing and to combat house price inflation, higher taxes on the very wealthy and efforts to incentivize long-term investment over short-term profit.

It urged greater use of robotics and automation alongside retraining for those whose jobs are lost.

Among more than 70 recommendations are an increase in the minimum wage, higher pay for those on employment contracts that do not guarantee work and the inclusion of workers on boards of companies with 250 or more employees.

Tax on corporations should be raised, and work and wealth should be taxed on an equal basis, the document suggested. It also proposed that the inheritance tax should be replaced with a lifetime gift tax, levied on recipients rather than estates.

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