The Vanarama Conference – A Half-Term Impression

It’s hard to believe, but 2015 is almost upon us. I can’t be the only one asking ‘Where did the last year go?’ Yet time rests for no man, and no doubt many football fans will now see this time of year as an apt time to assess their club’s stock thus far this season. The Conference is no exception. Some fans will be rejoicing, some will not. Followers of Barnet will surely be sipping their port counting down the days until their seemingly inevitable promotion back to the Football League. They may be counting their chickens, and stranger things have happened, but I find it hard to believe that any side below them will overhaul their seven point lead at the top of the table. We shall see.

Other clubs meanwhile will hardly be able to believe their eyes at their standing in the table, both in the good and bad sense. Take Surrey side Woking for instance. Who would have believed that come the half way point of the season The Cards would be sitting pretty in fifth place? Not me that’s for sure. A great deal of credit must go to Gary Hill and his side for a job well done so far.

On the other side of the coin you arguably have four sides who for different reasons have cause for concern. The first pair, Forest Green and Eastleigh, despite having millions at their disposal (and thus able to attract considerable talent such as James Norwood and James Constable respectively) are not sitting pretty as you might expect. Forest Green despite trying for a number of seasons to throw money at the title, find themselves toiling in 11th, whilst Eastleigh are just two points better off in 8th, 3 points off the playoffs, albeit with two or three games in hand and this being their first crack in the division. Thus, whilst things certainly aren’t desperate for these two, it does a least show that having millions doesn’t make promotion out of this league a foregone conclusion.

If Forest Green and Eastleigh might expect to be doing better, fans of Dartford and Nuneaton might consider themselves lucky to even be playing at this level this term. Had it not been for the financial mismanagement of better placed sides Hereford United and Salisbury City last season, The Darts and Boro would not be here this. Yet, barring more financial tomfoolery this season both sides placed 21st and 23rd in the table might not be around in the division much longer.

If the above serves as a brief summary, let me now elaborate on a more general observation. Whilst many have remarked (perhaps with good reason) that ‘anyone can beat anyone’ in this division, (see my side Lincoln City’s rather surprising 2-1 away win and table topping Barnet for example) a definite trend has emerged regarding who has tended to do well. That is, sides in the top 12 tend to be full time outfits whilst part time operations often predominate the lower 12. Indeed, only the aforementioned Woking and Halifax buck the trend in the top half, whilst only Lincoln City and Aldershot in the bottom half ply their trade on a whole-time basis.

The question remains though – why is this is the case? It is one thing to say there is a correlation between league position and full/part time status, but quite another to imply a directly causal relationship. After all, (hypothetically) most of the teams in the top 12 could wear red and white stripes but it would be silly to suggest this is a key factor in their table position. On the other hand, there are many plausible reasons why being full or part time could make a difference to a table placing.

Firstly and perhaps most obviously, full time squads have longer training periods during the week, meaning they arguably have greater scope to develop attributes such as match fitness, set piece ability, and so on. Secondly, the prospect of full time full football may attract higher quality players both from part time leagues below, and loanees, free agents, ‘up and comers’ and those ‘on the way down’ from the Football League. This could be due to the more financially lucrative packages on offer to the prospect of the training time and facilities a full time club can provide. This isn’t absolute however, with a handful of part time clubs being more financially attractive for footballers than some full time outfits.  Some players for instance take a ‘second wage’ at a Part Time outfit in addition to a relatively paid full time career in another profession.

Thirdly and finally, given the national nature of the Conference from clubs as far north as Gateshead and south as Torquay, being part time could be a serious constraint in terms of preparation time, match sharpness and so on. Players who finish work, travel to a mid-week evening match, arrive back home at 3am,only to be up again at 6am for work face a different reality to full time players who can spend the day training, travelling to a match in good time and then have time off the following day.

In summary, half way into the Conference season we can see a definite full time/part time split emerging and it’ll be interesting to see if this trend is as pronounced come April. As far as the teams themselves are concerned, Barnet are out on their own at the top with Bristol Rovers, Macclesfield, Woking and Grimsby making up the play-off spots. Telford occupy bottom place, some 12 points away from safety, whilst Nuneaton, Dartford and Alfreton occupy the other relegation berths. Whilst I wouldn’t be surprised to see the teams in 1st and 24th places remain as they are, there is still much to be played for elsewhere, albeit with the top twelve and bottom twelve effectively competing in separate ‘mini-leagues’.

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Binder’s Christmas message – The Word became flesh

So here we are again, another year, another Christmas.

If you are a Christian, it can be all too easy to be blasé and not truly reflect on what Christmas actually means for you personally, the wider body of believers and humanity as a whole. If you aren’t a believer, you may be wondering: what’s the point apart from the presents and the mass food eating etc ? It seems to me that many like to think of Jesus as a sweet docile baby who grew up to be a good guy. But is this how those around at the time of his life viewed him?
The Gospel of John (an eye witness account of the life of Jesus) thought not, and throughout the many carol services I’ve attended this year one key message has struck me: ‘The Word became flesh.’ But what does this mean? Here are three pointers.

1. The Word (Jesus) was no one less than fully God himself (John 1:1 )
John 1:1-14 explains that the Word was God (v.1) and that the Word became flesh (v.14). In other words, God himself came down and dwelt among us in human form. Evidence of Jesus’ deity can be seen throughout the Gospel of John, which I encourage you to read over the Christmas break with some port (port optional). Clearly then, it would not be right to consider Jesus as just a baby, he was clearly much bigger and more important than that.

2. Jesus can be known (John 1:14)
Because Jesus was fully God yet came down to dwell on earth as a human being, he can and wants to be known to and by us. Throughout my life, I’ve often heard people say that they’d believe in the Gospel of Christ if only Jesus would make himself clearer. Yet, in the Gospel of John (and indeed throughout the Bible) we’re given historically accurate accounts of what God is like (demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ), what he has to say about humanity and how we should respond and relate to him.

3. Jesus came to be light in a darkened world (John 1:7, 9-13)
John (as do the writers of the rest of the Bible) makes it clear that we live in a world marked by sin (i.e. our rebellion against God), which is described in this particular passage as ‘the darkness’. Further, Jesus is described as ‘the light coming into the darkness’. Therefore, quite staggeringly, despite humanity being fundamentally opposed to Jesus (v.11) we can through faith in ‘his name’ (v.12) become reconciled to God (v.13). This is played out as we read further in John’s Gospel that Jesus came into the world to take on the sins of mankind and defeat its power (which is death) so that we could, as John said, be children of God.

The real message
I humbly put to you that these three points form the real message of Christmas. If you’re already a Christian, be encouraged and awed! If not, why not look into the claims of Jesus further via a Christianity Explored course and/or by reading the Gospel of John with a friend?

A talk by Jamie Child, a Minister at St Helen’s Bishopsgate which more fully explains the ideas set out in this article can be listened to here.

Who would win from a 2015 rise in the Minimum Wage?

Another year, another Autumn Statement, and with the forthcoming 2015 General Election mere months away, would the Chancellor do anything in terms of increasing the minimum wage? Might he even enforce the living wage? Whilst there were stamp duty reliefs and yet another regressiveincrease in the personal income tax threshold, the answer in terms of wages was a big fat no.

This omission from the Treasury is odd, given than wages have been on the lips of politicians, members of the public and businesses alike for much of the previous year. Indeed, with pay packets still a way behind their pre-2008 recession peak, it is perplexing to say the least that nothing was forthcoming from Mr Osborne. Further, with hardly any other issue more important to the electorate, issues regarding the economy and wages are likely to be at the forefront of political debate as we approach May 2015.

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Many have called for a substantial rise in the minimum wage, with the Living Wage campaign gaining extra traction of late, it’s arguments backed up by recent findings from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation claiming that half of all poverty is found in working families. Proponents of the Living Wage have argued that the minimum wage should rise to ‘reflect the real cost of living’ to £9.15 in London and £7.85 outside. The question is though, will those in low pay see much of any rise in their wages once tax and benefit changes have been taken into account? To find out, I look at four family types on the current minimum wage (£6.50 per hour) and how much they’d gain from an increase to the Living Wage outside London (£7.85), before considering what can be done to help workers gain more from any rise in pay, before setting out how things might change under Universal Credit.

Winners and Losers

In order to establish who will gain the most from any rise in pay it is assumed that each family type is working 37 hours per week on the minimum wage, and will enjoy a rise to the Living Wage outside London on the same hours. I calculate the Marginal Effective Rate which tells us how much from the earner’s extra wages will actually go into the pockets of the household once tax rises and benefit withdrawals have been taken into account. At the minimum wage at 37 hours per week, an earner will be earning £240.50 per week, and at the 2014 living wage they’ll be bringing in £290.45, a difference of £49.95. How much of this extra income will each household see?

27 pence

That’s the amount each of the households identified in this article will gain for every extra pound earned. This means that from the extra £49.95 earned in a move from the minimum wage to the living wage, all the earners will stand to gain only £13.49 per week. Thus, in terms of tackling the in- work poverty noted at the beginning of the piece, this pitiful return may not be the silver bullet to eliminating in-work poverty some perhaps think it is. To explain further, from every extra pound earned, 20 pence will be withdrawn via Income Tax, 12 pence through National Insurance Contributions and a staggering 41 pence through Tax Credits withdrawal. Given this stark reality, what can be done to help alleviate the situation?

  1. Expand the tax credits system further up the income distribution

The withdrawal rates noted above reveal much about how we in Britain withdraw state support as one progresses up the income distribution. In other words, as one earns more income in work in one hand, state support withdrawal means it is substantially taken away with the other. One answer to this would be to make the curve less severe, withdrawing Tax Credits more gently as one’s income ascends. Although effective, this measure would be quite expensive for the taxpayer, yet if a Government can spend billions on a tax measure that mainly benefits those in the upper half of the income distribution (raising the tax free threshold to £10,600) then why not do something like this to help those in the lower half? After all, ‘we’re in it together’ aren’t we?

  1. Raise the minimum wage to a level where low paid workers are less reliant on state cash transfers

Essentially, the system we have now is a legacy of the New Labour Government’s ‘Third Way’ approach, whereby Labour enforced a minimum wage but set it low enough for it to be attractive to employers. However, if the state were to enforce a higher minimum wage instead of subjecting low paid workers to highly conditional state benefits, then previously in receipt of state transfers would only be subject to Income Tax and National Insurance deductions. Whilst this option has obvious attractions, employers would kick up a stink, claiming (not entirely without merit) that jobs would go if they were made to increase the wage to the levels that would be necessary to make up for substantial losses in state benefits.

  1. Introduce transferable allowances

This measure, introduced in very limited form in this year’s Budget essentially means that a non-earning spouse in a one-earner couple household can transfer part of his or her unused personal tax allowance to the earning partner. In the current system, this would result in a net gain for the couple of around £260 per year, which clearly has very limited benefits in terms of tackling in-work poverty. Worse, when implementation of the Universal Credit is taken into account, families in low pay would benefit by only around £91 per year. If, on the other hand Universal Credit payments were disregarded and the allowance were fully transferable , the policy would be more useful, lowering the earning spouse’s marginal tax rate by 20%, resulting in an extra 20p in the pound for a group the Joseph Rowntree Foundation say are at particular risk of poverty. Thus, whilst this measure in ‘full fat’ form could be useful, it only benefits the primary earner within one earner families and actually acts as a disincentive for secondary earners. Overall then, this measure could really only be considered as part of a whole suite of measures to raise rewards from extra income earned.

Future prospects – Universal Credit

Having considered three measures which may alleviate the problem, we now look to the future under Universal Credit, the system set to replace tax credits. I won’t go into a full nuts and bolts explanation of what it is, but supporters allege that it’ll both be simpler than the current arrangement and will help tackle stifling work incentives. Whilst it may be simpler to understand and administer than tax credits, the Department for Work and Pensions own Universal Credit Impact Assessment admits that those currently facing a withdrawal rate of 73% will face an increase of 3 percentage points to 76%. On the other hand, those on Housing Benefit will see their withdrawal rates fall from 91% to 76%. In sum, many families under Universal Credit will actually end up gaining less from any rise in pay than under the current tax credits system.

No silver bullets

Those believing that wage increases will bring with them a fall in working poverty are on the basis of the evidence seen in this article in for a shock. Tax Credits leave many earners with little to shout about when it comes to financial reward from extra pay, and whilst those receiving Housing Benefit may gain from the move to Universal Credit, they will still endure punitive returns from a pay rise, with many actually being worse off than under Tax Credits.  All this isn’t to say growth in low wages isn’t welcome, it clearly is; however we’re kidding ourselves if we think that wage rises on their own will lift millions out of poverty. Increases in wages must be accompanied by reforms to the welfare system so that workers keep more of what they earn.

Some thoughts on the Autumn Statement

On Wednesday 3rd December, UK Chancellor George Osborne delivered his final Autumn Statement before the May 2015 General Election. I briefly outline some of my thoughts here.

1.) Cuts to come, or will they?

According to Treasury data, we’re in for a pretty tough fiscal environment post 2015. As IFS head Paul Johnson said, if the predicted cuts and deficit reduction plans come to pass, they will not only be colossal, but will fundamentally redefine what the State does and how it does it in a way not seen in many of our lifetimes. In other words, what we’ve seen in this Parliament pales in comparison to what is to come.

Graphic showing future fall in public spending per person

What is more interesting still is that Labour have pretty much confirmed they’ll also be cutting public spending, albeit in not quite as severe a way as Osborne and Co suggest above. Thus, as things currently stand, all three major parties have committed to curbs. If you want a party that hasn’t signed up to this narrative, you’ll need to look to the Green Party. On the other hand, if you want an outfit that’ll hold its nerve in demanding deep reductions in public spending more than any other, Matthew Parris’ favourite outfit UKIP are your best bet.

Hold up.

Remember when the Coalition said that they’d eradicate the deficit by 2015, they haven’t even come close to doing that! Commentators have opined that in actual fact these cuts might never come into effect, or at least in not quite as severe fashion as implied above. Time will tell on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised (for political reasons if nothing else) if whoever party/parties in Government post 2015 get cold feet at the above prospect. After all, however necessary one might feel cutting the deficit is, its never tended to be all that popular with the electorate. We shall see. Moreover, are the cuts even necessary? We’ll leave that one for another day!

2. The irrepresible rise of the Income Tax threshold

Continuing on from previous Autumn Statement’s and Budget’s, the Chancellor announced the first £10,600 you earn will becod Income Tax free. ‘That’s nice’, you might think. Except that it isn’t really, it’s a regressive measure that’ll benefit those in the upper half of the income distribution more than those in the lower. In fact, this regressive nature is something we see when all the combined  tax and welfare changes are taken into account.

AS2014 Cumulative impact graph

3. A pre-election sweetener

One thing which the Government did which even the opposition agreed with was to introduce new stamp duty measures. Out with the sudden leaps as a property reaches a certain price, in with a more graduated system, meaning a cut in tax for 98% of homebuyers, although some have predicted that they’ll lose out in the long run due to property price increases outweighing tax savings. Again, we’ll leave that one for another day.

Overall – Tough times ahead if the Government sticks to its planned course

For me, the overriding headline of this year’s Autumn Statement was the severe nature of the planned deficit reduction in coming years. For those who lament the current Government’s austerity measures, the worst may still be to come, whichever Party/Parties are in power.