George Osborne looks on as David Cameron delivers a speech to business leaders in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne falls far short of £7 minimum wage target

The proposed figure of £6.70 fails to meet the Chancellor's aim of restoring the minimum wage to its pre-recession value. 

In a characteristically calculated intervention last year, George Osborne sought to compensate for the Tories' past opposition to the minimum wage by declaring that he hoped the main rate would rise to £7 by 2015-16. "If, for example, the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation it would be £7 by 2015-16, £6.31 at the moment, so that is an increase," he said, with an eye to his party's blue collar wing. "I think we can see an above inflation increase in the minimum wage and do it in a way that actually supports our economy precisely because the economy is recovering and many, many jobs are being created." The Treasury published an accompanying analysis modelling the impact of an increase to £7, lending further weight to the figure (which at the time would have restored the minimum wage to its pre-recession value). 

But it is now clear that Osborne was raising false hopes. The Low Pay Commission, the body that advises the government on the minimum wage, has today published its recommendations for 2015-16 - and they do not include an increase to £7. Instead, the LPC has called for a smaller rise to £6.70 (up from £6.50). The government is not obliged to accept its proposals but Vince Cable, who is formally responsible for this area as Business Secretary, has signalled that ministers will almost certainly not oppose the figure. He said: "I will now study these recommendations and consult my Cabinet colleagues with a view to announcing the final rates in the next few weeks. The Low Pay Commission strike a delicate balance between what is fair for workers and what is affordable for employers, without costing jobs. It does so impartially and without political interference. No government has ever rejected the main rates since it was established fifteen years ago. It is important that it is able to continue to do its work ten weeks before a general election."

Cable is known to have been angered when Osborne floated the figure of £7, believing that the LPC would never approve such a large rise. Indeed, Osborne pre-emptively retreated when the government failed to propose this rate in its final submission to the body. The Chancellor can point out that he maintained at the time that 'the exact figure has to be set by the Low Pay Commission'. But that does not alter the fact that he sought (and won) headlines on his support for a £7 rate. Through this careless act, he has handed Labour political ammunition with which to attack him and ensured that a 20p rise (3 per cent above inflation) will now disappoint expectations. 

Although inflation has fallen significantly, a rate of £6.77 would still fail to restore the minimum wage to its peak value. As the Resolution Foundation noted: "The minimum wage is set to rise by 3 per cent in October 2015, roughly the same percentage by which it rose in October 2014. Last year, the Low Pay Commission described its decision to recommend a 3 per cent increase last year – rising from £6.31 to £6.50 – as reflecting “a new phase” for the minimum wage, following a period in which it had suffered repeated falls relative to inflation. But that lost ground has yet to be fully made up. The Resolution Foundation estimates that an increase of 4.2 per cent to £6.77 would have been necessary to take the minimum wage back to its highest ever value in real-terms, which it held in 2008-09."

To be on track to meet Labour's promise of an £8 minimum wage by the end of the next parliament, the rate would need to rise to £6.78. That means the opposition faces some tough questions of its own: would it have become the first government to overrule the LPC? 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.