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Pay restraint

22 April 2016

IT WAS not Bob Dudley’s fault that the oil conglomerate BP lost £4.5 billion last year. Nor, perhaps, can Mr Dudley be blamed, despite being chief executive, for the thousands of job losses at the company, or for the frozen pay of the remaining staff. So, when almost 60 per cent of shareholders opposed his £14-million pay deal last week, it was not a reflection on his personal performance so much as an overdue protest at the excesses of executive pay.

The Church of England Pensions Board joined the investor rebellion, questioning “whether this level [of pay] is morally right”. The average chief executive of a FTSE-100 company was paid £4.96 million in 2014, 183 times the earnings of the average full-time UK worker. The Pensions Board was following advice from the C of E’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group on executive remuneration policy, which states: “When material rewards become vastly unequal, it becomes harder for people to perceive the truth of equality before God, since it is contradicted by their experience of the world.” Successive studies have shown that the flatter a society, the happier it is.

Equality before God does not necessarily mean perfect equality of wage slip, of course. Good companies create wealth, employment, and, by nurturing ability, contribute to human flourishing. Attracting people to maintain these companies means competing with others over the level of remuneration. Ask any football fans whether they would be happy to lose their star striker to another club willing to pay more. So, even where high pay is not ideal, the EIAG is right to say: “Human frailty puts the perfect realisation of Kingdom-values beyond our reach, and some concessions from the ideal must be made if the fallen world is to embody the godly virtues of peace, justice, sustainability, and creativity, as well as the ideal of equality.”

But there are limits, and both ends of the pay spectrum must be addressed. Whether or not a company interprets St Paul’s reference to “double compensation” in financial terms for its management, the New Testament is clear that workers should not be exploited. It is good to see the recent increase in companies signing up to the real Living Wage, having learnt, it seems, that this works to their benefit in terms of worker retention and better staff relations. But it is equally worrying to watch less ethical organisations seek to wriggle out of their new obligations by changing terms of employment. As the state has retreated as the moral guardian of the market, and now that the unions are much less powerful than they once were, only shareholders can hold large companies to account. This puts power in the hands of wealthy investors, a matter that is itself of ethical concern. But many individuals belong to influential pension schemes. Real reform of the system will happen only if they use their stakeholder power to lobby for it.

Applying Christian ethics in a fallen world necessitates a balance of altruism and pragmatism. It is a kindness to help FTSE-100 executives prepare for their passage through the eye of the needle. At the same time, the Church must concern itself with those who slip through far too easily.

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