Guy Opperman: the Conservative case for a living wage

For too many people in our society, a hard day’s work no longer means a fair day’s pay.

As a Conservative MP, I believe that lower taxes stimulate growth and jobs, that smaller government is invariably better government and that governments must “ensure that work always pays” by making sure those in work are better off than those on benefits. I also believe in hard work. Yet, for too many people in our society, a hard day’s work no longer means a fair day’s pay.

Ever since the financial crash of 2008, the topic of “pay” has been dominated by the pay of those at the top. From golden hellos to golden handshakes, the discussion has often ignored those at the bottom. I sit on the advisory board of the High Pay Centre, alongside the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, and the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady. At the High Pay Centre, we have been making the case for corporate responsibility and pay restraint in the boardroom. It is now time for us to make the case for fairer pay at the bottom, too.

Britain is a country in which some workers earn so little that the government has to step in and provide aid. That is the system of tax credits we have; a subsidy by any other name and a £4bn one at that. How and why did we let it become acceptable for a full-time job not to pay enough to live on? The living wage isn’t just a wonkish idea – it’s the political world catching up with many Britons’ reality.

When the national minimum wage was adopted in 1998, many were sceptical. The fear was that it might hit the number of jobs available. There is ample evidence to show this is not the case. For instance, in 2012 the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex studied the minimum wage and “found almost no evidence of significant adverse impacts on employment”. Today, the minimum wage is supported by all three mainstream parties and rightly so. Yet, for many, the minimum wage does not represent a fair wage.

There are some who have the same scepticism about the living wage – that it could penalise business and hold back growth. It may just be the old socialist in me but when did it become a hindrance rather than a duty for a business to look after its employees? The days of William Armstrong and Joseph Rowntree building houses for their workers and ensuring a decent standard of living may belong in a bygone age but surely some of those principles should still apply?

Some businesses already embrace the principle. In the US, the wholesale retail giant Costco has broken the mould: it pays its staff $11.50 an hour (£7.50), compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 (under £5). Costco’s chief executive, Craig Jelinek, made the point succinctly: “We know it’s a lot more profitable in the long term to minimise employee turnover and maximise employee productivity, commitment and loyalty.”

Businesses and organisations that have committed to paying the living wage include everyone from the big corporate beasts such as Deloitte and Barclays to Aquila Way, a housing association in Gateshead, north-east England. I have met with some of these accredited firms and they all talk of improved morale and productivity. One firm increased staff retention in one department by 65 per cent.

If those on the right won’t listen to the arguments of an old left-winger such as me, then, at the very least, they should listen to the HR director of Barclays, Dominic Johnson, who says “it makes sense for business”. The living wage doesn’t just work for business, it makes sense for the government, too. IPPR and the Resolution Foundation have found that even if only those employers that could easily afford to – the so-called “non-low-wage employers” – paid the living wage, the savings to the Treasury each year would be in the hundreds of millions. This would be the result of increased tax receipts, increased National Insurance contributions and savings on benefits such as tax credits.

Yet even enthusiasts have to accept that there remains a lack of detailed analysis of the effects of a living wage on individual sectors. I will be working hard to ensure that the government takes seriously the conclusions of the Living Wage Commission, chaired by John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. It is vital that we monitor the economic effects of the living wage and demonstrate the benefits and the negatives of paying a living wage.

David Cameron was right when he said that here “is an idea whose time has come”. The living wage started off as a belief and became a campaign. It is now time for us in Westminster to return to our constituencies and make the case for our individual businesses to start paying the living wage.

Guy Opperman is the Conservative MP for Hexham

A London bus. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: will women bear the brunt again?

Time and time again, the Chancellor has chosen to balance the books on the backs of women. There's still hope for a better way. 

Today, the Chancellor, George Osborne, presents his Autumn Statement to parliament. Attention will be focused on how he tries to dig himself out of the tax credits hole that he got himself into with his hubristic summer budget.

He’s got options, both in terms of the sweeteners he can offer, and in how he finds the funds to pay for them. But what we will be looking for is a wholesale rethink from the chancellor that acknowledges something he’s shown total indifference to so far: the gender impact of his policy choices, which have hurt not helped women.

In every single budget and autumn statement under this Chancellor, it has been women that have lost out. From his very first so-called “emergency  budget” in 2010, when Yvette Cooper pointed out that women had been hit twice as hard as men, to his post-election budget this summer, the cumulative effects of his policy announcements are that women have borne a staggering 85 per cent of cuts to tax credits and benefits. Working mums in particular have taken much of the pain.

We don’t think this is an accident. It reflects the old-fashioned Tory world view, where dad goes out to work to provide for the family, and mum looks after the kids, while supplementing the family income with some modest part-time work of her own. The fact that most families don’t live like that is overlooked: it doesn’t fit the narrative. But it’s led to a set of policies that are exceptionally damaging for gender equality.

Take the married couple’s tax break – 80 per cent of the benefit of that goes to men. The universal credit, designed in such a way that it actively disincentivises second earners – usually the woman in the family. Cuts and freezes to benefits for children - the child tax credit two-child policy, cuts to child benefit – are cuts in benefits mostly paid to women. Cuts to working tax credit have hit lone parents particularly hard, the vast majority of whom are women.

None of these cuts has been adequately compensated by the increase in the personal tax threshold (many low paid women are below the threshold already), the extension of free childcare (coming in long after the cuts take effect) or the introduction of the so-called national living wage. Indeed, the IFS has said it’s ‘arithmetically impossible’ that they can do so. And at the same time, women’s work remains poorly remunerated, concentrated in low-pay sectors, more often part time, and increasingly unstable.

This is putting terrible pressure on women and families now, but it will also have long-term impact. We are proud that Labour lifted one million children out of poverty between 1997 and 2010. But under the Tories, child poverty has flat-lined in relative terms since 2011/12, while, shockingly, absolute child poverty has risen by 500,000, reflecting the damage that has been by the tax and benefits changes, especially to working families. Today, two thirds of children growing up poor do so in a working family. The cost to those children, the long-term scarring effect on them of growing up poor, and the long-term damage to our society, will be laid at the door of this chancellor.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, low-earning women who are financially stretched won’t have anything left over to save for their pension. More are falling out of auto-enrolment and face a bleak old age in poverty.

Now that the Chancellor has put his calculator away, we will discover when he has considered both about the impact and the consequences of his policies for women. But we have no great hopes he’ll do so. After all, this is the government that scrapped the equality impact assessments, saying they were simply a matter of ‘common sense’ – common sense that appears to elude the chancellor. In their place, we have a flaky ‘family test’ – but with women, mothers and children the big losers so far, there’s no sign he’s going to pass that one either.

That’s why we are putting the Chancellor on notice: we, like women across the country, will be listening very carefully to what you announce today, and will judge it by whether you are hurting not helping Britain’s families. The Prime Minister’s claims that he cares about equality are going to sound very hollow if it’s women who take the pain yet again.