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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.