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?

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.