National Gallery staff protest at "poverty pay" for shift workers at a new exhibition of Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers'. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The UK needs better jobs not just more jobs

There are more working than non-working households in poverty for the first time ever. But don't assume a living wage will solve all problems.

It is often assumed that a rising tide will lift all boats and, as the economy grows, some of the benefits will trickle down, hopefully reducing poverty as they go. But JRF research shows that if the recovery is not rich in jobs, the impact on poverty will be muted. And as the CIPID this week warned, ahead of the monthly unemployment figures, jobs growth could yet slow. In addition, not only does the UK need more jobs, it needs better jobs too.

The face of poverty in the UK is changing and in-work poverty has increased over recent decades. The latest data shows – for the first time – that more than half the 13 million people experiencing poverty in the UK live in households where at least one person is working. This is an inconvenient truth for politicians fond of saying work is the best route out of poverty.

Discussion of "better jobs" often quickly turns to the topic of the living wage. That this debate is gathering momentum is welcome, as higher pay is an important part of the fight against poverty. Industries with large numbers of low paid jobs such as retail, hospitality, personal services and care have higher rates of poverty among their workers compared to other industries.

But the relationship between low pay and poverty is not straightforward, not least because poverty is measured according to household income, meaning who you live with - and their circumstances - influences your likelihood of being in poverty. Analysis by the New Policy Institute shows that over half (56 per cent) of adults in working poverty live in households where at least one person is paid below the Living Wage. But that means nearly half do not, so higher pay provides half an answer to in-work poverty.

As well as higher pay, a better job means sufficient hours, security and the opportunity to progress. Part-time work is prevalent among families in working poverty, indicating that more good quality part-time work – especially for those with caring responsibilities – is important too. But the UK has a large number of low-paid and low-skilled jobs compared to other developed countries. Surveys find these workers are more likely to face insecure or temporary contracts and less likely to receive training from their employer, hampering their chances of progressing to a different job.

What is more, many businesses offering low pay and poor terms and conditions are able to survive using a low cost, low quality approach to their business. They have no difficulty hiring people into jobs that require little by way of formal skills and training. However, there are examples of individual businesses in low pay sectors constructing a business case for "better jobs". The precise argument varies, but examples include better pay and progression to reduce the cost of labour turnover and sickness absence; to improve service quality; and to ensure a "pipeline of talent" to support organisational growth.

But such business cases need to be backed by capable managers, an organisational culture that promotes progression and worker engagement. They also need a coalition of champions within the organisation – from senior managers to union representatives and individual staff members – to maintain momentum. Otherwise policies that look good on paper can fail to deliver in reality.

The challenge is how to spread better business practice and drive up employer demand for skilled workers in order to grow the economy and tackle poverty. The government’s City Deal process, whereby powers and responsibilities linked to economic growth and skills and are devolved to major cities, offer an opportunity for more experimentation in this area.

Nonetheless, the IFS projects that poverty will increase by 2020, largely as a result of cuts to benefits for both working and non-working low income families, but made worse by anticipated changes to the labour market. The coalition’s primary answer is to reform welfare to make sure it always pays to work more. This is a worthy goal, but welfare reform alone will not address poverty unless the quality of jobs at the bottom end of the labour market is also addressed.

Katie Schmuecker is Policy and Research Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.