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Labour should pledge to make the government a living wage employer

Even at a time of austerity, it is a small price for a big gain. 

Even at a time of austerity, it is a small price for a big gain.
Labour members present the party's "cost-of-living contract" during a campaign rally on May 21, 2014 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

The government claims to be a proponent of the living wage. David Cameron says he supported it at the last election and believes it is an idea "whose time has come". Earlier this year he told the World Economic Forum in Davos that "where companies can pay the living wage, they should". Yet for all the warm words, government departments continue to drag their feet over becoming accredited living wage employers.

Rather than leading the way, ministers still insist that a living wage is a cost we perhaps can’t afford. As Lord Deighton, the Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, told Parliament in 2013: "requiring employers to pay a living wage could be burdensome to business and damage the employment prospects of low-paid workers". When confronted with the argument that it may be a price worth paying, Downing Street retorts that, anyway, living wage clauses in public procurement breach EU law (a view strong disputed by the European Commission, as well as by Boris Johnson).

If the GLA and a long list of local authorities, universities and charities can pay the living wage, why not Whitehall? Indeed, our study on "setting a fair pay standard: the government as a living wage employer" (here) shows that the cost of paying all low-paid Whitehall workers the living wage would be only £18m – equivalent to 0.002 per cent of total public spending. This would include all in-house employees as well as cleaners, security, catering staff etc who are contracted in. The cost would still be only around £23m even if contractors didn’t absorb any of the costs involved in taking pay rates up to the London living wage level (£8.80).  

Alan Buckle’s recently published report on low pay for the Labour Party recommends that central government departments should become accredited living wage employers and use the power of procurement to encourage organisations bidding for contracts to pay their staff a living wage. This would ensure that all sub-contractors pay the living wage to any staff working on government contracts. Our analysis suggests that this would cover nearly 200,000 people, and approximately 30,000 people would see their pay increase as a result. Many of those low-paid workers who would benefit are currently working for the DWP, which is committed on paper at least to paying the living wage.

There’s a lot of complex number crunching involved in evaluating the cost to government of paying the living wage. Some workers are paid close to the living wage which means the uplift costs are low, others are on the National Minimum Wage and could see their wages rising significantly; there are issues around how much different contractors in different services can afford to contribute, and how phasing might operate; how best to factor in know-on employment effects and productivity gains; and what impact will pay rises at the bottom have on wage differentials? All are important considerations, but not impossible for government to work out. What is most striking is that the overall costs to the taxpayer are low because government gets a dividend back from tax receipts and reduced benefit payments. According to our analysis, the tax and benefit savings of moving 30,000 workers onto the living wage would be some £20m. That’s roughly half the total cost of becoming a living wage employer.

Ed Miliband has flirted with several ideas over how to support the living wage, including council-backed living wage zones and tax breaks to private firms. Each have their merits and demerits. But surely it is best to start with the public sector. Government, after all, is a major employer of low-paid workers and has huge buying power. Ministers can set the pace on the living wage and force and cajole the business community to follow.

In Scotland, Holyrood recently voted down an amendment to the Procurement Reform Bill by Labour to introduce a "Scottish Living Wage duty" - which would make it compulsory for companies who wanted to win work from the public sector to pay the living wage. This was something of an embarrassment for the SNP, which boasts that the Scottish government is an accredited living wage employer.

Labour should be bolder on the living wage than Salmond or Cameron and give a clear and unequivocal commitment over the term of a parliament to making not just Whitehall, but all public bodies living wage employers. The opportunity is there to outflank the Tories, whose credibility on tackling low pay and endorsement of the living wage needs to be challenged. There is a cost and the big contractors will fight against paying their share, but as our report shows, even at a time of fiscal austerity, it is a small price for a big gain. 

Tags:Labour

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