Only Labour can be trusted to strengthen the minimum wage

Despite ministers promising to name and shame firms which aren’t paying the legal minimum, not a single firm has been named so far.

Can you imagine earning £1.75 an hour for a hard day’s work?  How is a person expected to live on such a sum? And that the employer who paid that sum was doing it legally. This is not a rhetorical question to shock, but was evidence taken from a woman, who had worked as a home worker for over a decade, by the Low Pay Commission in the late 1990s when considering the level of the minimum wage.

Fifteen years have now passed since the introduction of the National Minimum Wage and cases such as these are now thankfully illegal. It is undoubtedly one of Labour’s proudest achievements in government and it is undeniable that it has been a huge success for employees and employers.

The contribution of those Labour MPs who sat late into the night to ensure this crucial legislation passed should not be underestimated. Whilst Tory naysayers bitterly opposed the minimum wage, Labour persevered to ensure that it became a political and economic fact of life. Many of those who opposed it back in the 1990s are now in ministerial posts, like then Tory backbencher Michael Fallon, now Business minister, whose scaremongering claim in 1997 was that the minimum wage "will add costs to British business". The Tories argued that increasing wages at the bottom would cost more than a million jobs. It did nothing of the sort.

It gave more than one million workers an average pay rise of 10-15% and now nearly two million workers directly benefit from the minimum wage, around one worker in ten. For women in particular, a group in the UK workforce often most susceptible to low pay, the national minimum wage made a significant impact. And over the years, studies have repeatedly shown that the minimum wage has had no adverse impact on aggregate employment, individual employment or unemployment probabilities.

Now the Tories pretend they love the minimum wage, all in an attempt to once again detoxify the conservative "brand". But the problem of low pay has got worse under this government. Families are on average £1,600 a year worse off since David Cameron took office in 2010 and the value of the minimum wage has declined by 5% under his watch, contributing to the cost-of-living crisis that has engulfed the country. But this government have failed to notice, let alone take the action we need.

The Tory-led government is not doing enough to enforce the minimum wage. Despite ministers promising to name and shame firms which aren’t paying, not a single firm has been named so far. Incredibly, this government have made more announcements on naming and shaming firms that flout the minimum wage than actually naming them. Since 2010, three separate ministers have repeated three announcements on the policy.

Today, we have yet another re-announcement, that fines on businesses that don’t pay the minimum wage will rise to £20,000, a repeat of remarks made by David Cameron in November last year. Whilst it’s a small step in the right direction, following Labour’s lead, and in response to the opposition day debate we have called this week, we need the government to back up its empty rhetoric on enforcement with real action. A recent report by the Centre for London found that only two employers in four years have been prosecuted for paying below the minimum wage, despite evidence that over 300,000 people in the UK are earning less than the legal minimum.

And the Lib Dems are no better. At every turn since 2010, they have supported measures making it easier to fire not hire people at work. Vince Cable didn’t vote for the National Minimum Wage and later admitted that he’d had "reservations". In 2003, he warned that raising the minimum wage would set a "dangerous precedent".

The next Labour government will strengthen the minimum wage. In September last year, Ed Miliband announced a review into low pay, led by Alan Buckle, formerly Deputy Chairman of KPMG International, to examine how to restore the value of the minimum wage and promote the living wage.

And in November, Ed Miliband outlined how a future Labour government will provide tax incentives for employers that sign up to become living wage employers in the first year of the next Parliament through new "Make Work Pay" contracts. We also need to see higher penalties for rogue companies who don’t pay employees the minimum wage and far more effective enforcement, including by giving local authorities new powers. Penalties against those rogue employers should be higher and we would set them at £50,000 – a real deterrent to the minority of businesses that exploit workers and undermine firms that do the right thing.

These measures will enable us to earn our way out of the cost-of-living crisis. But this is also about more than pay. The way to get the social security bill down dramatically is to get people into work with proper wages.

It is no surprise that in 2010, the National Minimum Wage topped a poll of political studies academics to find the best policy of the last 30 years. Labour created it and Labour will strengthen it for all of the low-paid people around our country, working together with representatives of both employers and employees to find a consensus and moving together towards the shared goal of making work pay. And it is Labour that will take proper sanctions against those that do not pay it.

Ed Miliband speaks to an audience on living standards at Battersea Power station on November 5, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Murray is shadow minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs, and Labour MP for Edinburgh South

 

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The 2017 Budget will force Philip Hammond to confront the Brexit effect

Rising prices and lost markets are hard to ignore. 

With the Brexit process, Donald Trump and parliamentary by-election aftermath dominating the headlines, you’d be forgiven for missing the speculation we’d normally expect ahead of a Budget next week. Philip Hammond’s demeanour suggests it will be a very low-key affair, living up to his billing as the government’s chief accounting officer. Yet we desperately need a thorough analysis of this government’s economic strategy – and some focused work from those whose job it is to supposedly keep track of government policy.

It seems to me there are four key dynamics the Budget must address:

1. British spending power

The spending power of British consumers is about to be squeezed further. Consumers have propped up the economy since 2015, but higher taxes, suppressed earnings and price inflation are all likely to weigh heavily on this driver for growth from now on. Relatively higher commodity prices and the sterling effect is starting to filter into the high street – which means that the pound in the pocket doesn’t go as far as it used to. The dwindling level of household savings is a casualty of this situation. Real incomes are softer, with poorer returns on assets, and households are substituting with loans and overdrafts. The switch away from consumer-driven growth feels well and truly underway. How will the Chancellor counteract to this?

2. Lagging productivity

Productivity remains a stubborn challenge that government policy is failing to address. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK’s productivity performance has lagged Germany, France and the USA, whose employees now produce in an average four days as much as British workers take to produce in five. Perhaps years of uncertainty have seen companies choose to sit on cash rather than invest in new production process technology. Perhaps the dominance of services in our economy, a sector notorious hard in which to drive new efficiencies, explains the productivity lag. But ministers have singularly failed to assess and prioritise investment in those aspects of public services which can boost productivity. These could include easing congestion and aiding commuters; boosting mobile connectivity; targeting high skills; blasting away administrative bureaucracy; helping workers back to work if they’re ill.

3. Lost markets

The Prime Minister’s decision to give up trying to salvage single market membership means we enter the "Great Unknown" trade era unsure how long (if any) our transition will be. We must also remain uncertain whether new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are going to go anyway to make up for those lost markets.

New FTAs may get rid of tariffs. But historically they’ve never been much good at knocking down the other barriers for services exports – which explains why the analysis by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently projected a 61 per cent fall in services trade with the EU. Brexit will radically transform the likely composition of economic growth in the medium term. It’s true that in the near term, sterling depreciation is likely to bring trade back into balance as exports enjoy an adrenal currency competitive stimulus. But over the medium term, "balance" is likely to come not from new export market volume, but from a withering away of consumer spending power to buy imported goods. Beyond that, the structural imbalance will probably set in again.

4. Empty public wallets

There is a looming disaster facing Britain’s public finances. It’s bad enough that the financial crisis is now pushing the level of public sector debt beyond 90 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP).  But a quick glance at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s January Fiscal Sustainability Report is enough to make your jaw drop. The debt mountain is projected to grow for the next 50 years. All else being equal, we could end up with an incredible 234 per cent of debt/GDP by 2066 – chiefly because of the ageing population and rising healthcare costs. This isn’t a viable or serviceable level of debt and we shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that many other economies (Japan, USA) are facing a similar fate. The interest payable on that debt mountain would severely crowd out resources for vital public services. So while some many dream of splashing public spending around on nationalising this or that, of a "universal basic income" or social security giveaways, the cold truth is that we are going to be forced to make more hard decisions on spending now, find new revenues if we want to maintain service standards, and prioritise growth-inducing policies wherever possible.

We do need to foster a new economic model that promotes social mobility, environmental and fiscal sustainability, with long-termism at its heart. But we should be wary of those on the fringes of politics pretending they have either a magic money tree, or a have-cake-and-eat-it trading model once we leap into the tariff-infested waters of WTO rules.

We shouldn’t have to smash up a common sense, balanced approach in order for our country to succeed. A credible, centre-left economic model should combine sound stewardship of taxpayer resources with a fairness agenda that ensures the wealthiest contribute most and the polluter pays. A realistic stimulus should be prioritised in productivity-oriented infrastructure investment. And Britain should reach out and gather new trading alliances in Europe and beyond as a matter of urgency.

In short, the March Budget ought to provide an economic strategy for the long-term. Instead it feels like it will be a staging-post Budget from a distracted Government, going through the motions with an accountancy exercise to get through the 12 months ahead.

Chris Leslie MP was Shadow Chancellor in 2015 and chairs Labour’s PLP Treasury Committee

 

 

 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour’s backbench Treasury Committee and was shadow Chancellor in 2015.