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 the Labour MP for Edinburgh South. He was previously shadow minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs, and shadow secretary of state for Scotland between May 2015 and June 2016. 

 

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Theresa May knows she's talking nonsense - here's why she's doing it

The Prime Minister's argument increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in her words - the Tories your vote.

Good morning.  Angela Merkel and Theresa May are more similar politicians than people think, and that holds true for Brexit too. The German Chancellor gave a speech yesterday, and the message: Brexit means Brexit.

Of course, the emphasis is slightly different. When May says it, it's about reassuring the Brexit elite in SW1 that she isn't going to backslide, and anxious Remainers and soft Brexiteers in the country that it will work out okay in the end.

When Merkel says it, she's setting out what the EU wants and the reality of third country status outside the European Union.  She's also, as with May, tilting to her own party and public opinion in Germany, which thinks that the UK was an awkward partner in the EU and is being even more awkward in the manner of its leaving.

It's a measure of how poor the debate both during the referendum and its aftermath is that Merkel's bland statement of reality - "A third-party state - and that's what Britain will be - can't and won't be able to have the same rights, let alone a better position than a member of the European Union" - feels newsworthy.

In the short term, all this helps Theresa May. Her response - delivered to a carefully-selected audience of Leeds factory workers, the better to avoid awkward questions - that the EU is "ganging up" on Britain is ludicrous if you think about it. A bloc of nations acting in their own interest against their smaller partners - colour me surprised!

But in terms of what May wants out of this election - a massive majority that gives her carte blanche to implement her agenda and puts Labour out of contention for at least a decade - it's a great message. It increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in May's words - the Tories your vote. You may be unhappy about the referendum result, you may usually vote Labour - but on this occasion, what's needed is a one-off Tory vote to make Brexit a success.

May's message is silly if you pay any attention to how the EU works or indeed to the internal politics of the EU27. That doesn't mean it won't be effective.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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