I beg to move,
That this House
notes that the value of the National Minimum Wage has been eroded since 2010 as working people have been hit by the cost-of-living crisis and are on average £1,600 a year worse off;
recognises that the fall in the real value of the minimum wage since 2010 is now costing the public purse £270 million a year in additional benefit and tax credit payments;
further notes that the Chancellor of the Exchequer cruelly misled working people by saying he wanted to see a minimum wage of £7 while the Government has no plans to reach this goal;
calls on the Government to set an ambitious target for the National Minimum Wage to significantly increase to 58 per cent of median average earnings, putting it on course to reach £8 before the end of the next Parliament;
supports action to help and encourage more firms to pay a living wage through “make work pay”
contracts to boost living standards and restore the link between hard work and fair pay so that everyone shares in the UK’s wealth, not just a few at the top;
and further calls on the Government to set a national goal of halving the number of people on low pay by 2025.
We are a great country with some of the most hard-working and creative people in the world, but there are challenges and problems that must be addressed. We are the sixth largest economy in the world, yet too many people do not have secure, fulfilling jobs that provide dignity, respect and a wage that they can live on. Most people who are living in poverty in this country have a job. If people do the right thing, play by the rules and work hard, day in, day out, they should not have to live in poverty in this country; but the reality in 2014 is that they do. More than 5 million people do not earn a decent wage.
We can see the economic data and, yes, on paper, GDP growth is better than it was two years ago, but the reality of people’s lived experience suggests otherwise. Just in the past fortnight, the much respected Resolution Foundation has produced research that paints a different picture. Tens of thousands of people are trapped in low-paid jobs with little hope of a pay rise. Among those minimum wage employees who have been employed for at least five years, a record one in four has failed to progress off the minimum wage for the entirety of that period. That compares with just one in 10 minimum wage workers a decade ago.
That is the background to our motion. What each party says it will do to address that situation and to make work pay will provide the context in which the next general election is fought. Before I set out what the Labour party would do if elected next year, I will remind people what we have already done. I have said it before and I will say it again: in 2010, this party left the country in an immeasurably better state than we found it in 1997. [Interruption.] If the Minister waits, he will get his time in a moment. One of the many reasons for that was our utter determination to end the outrage of people being exploited at work, which led to our establishment of the national minimum wage in the face of opposition from Conservative Members.
In 1997, the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—I note that he is not here—told the House that if we introduced the national minimum wage, it would
“negatively affect, not hundreds of thousands but millions of people.”—[Hansard, 4 July 1997; Vol. 315, c. 526.]
In the same year, the current Defence Secretary told the House that the Conservative party had “always resisted” the minimum wage and that he thought there were “other better solutions” to extreme low pay. Then, of course, there was the Conservative party leader—now the Leader of the House—who said that a minimum wage would be
“either so low as to be utterly irrelevant or so high that it would price people out of work.”—[Hansard, 17 March 1997; Vol. 308, c. 618.]
They and their Conservative colleagues made those claims and arguments to justify inaction at a time when some people in this country were earning as little as £1 an hour.
We had the good sense to ignore the Conservatives, and in my view establishing a national minimum wage was one of our greatest ever achievements. As a consequence, between 1997 and 2001 extreme low pay fell from 6.9% to 1.5% of the work force, and we are proud of that. All the evidence shows that the minimum wage boosted earnings considerably, without causing the unemployment that we were told would follow. So when people say that we are all the same, I point to the establishment of the minimum wage to illustrate our very different instincts as parties, our different approaches and the kind of difference that a Labour Government make when in office.
I thank my hon. Friend; that is interesting and I look forward to hearing his comments on who took what position at that time.
Yesterday, I revisited an interview with the great Sir Ian McCartney, a former Member of this House, who was the Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry and pushed the National Minimum Wage Bill through the House. He said that he would have “died in the ditch” to ensure that we got it through, and—my hon. Friend Mr Brown will remember this—we had a record sitting of the House to get the national minimum wage through in the face of resistance from Conservative Members.
I distinctly remember Sir Ian McCartney at a press conference with the Westminster lobby, explaining why we were doing what we were doing. He was a former kitchen worker and earned poverty wages. I remember seeing the news report of him weeping at that press conference, explaining how he was paid something like 1p or 2p per potato that he put in a bag in that kitchen, and asking the lobbying journalists, “How can you defend that in our country in this day and age?”
As I said, Labour Members are rightly proud of the national minimum wage, and we make no apologies for reminding people of the resistance that we met when we introduced it, and of the difference that a Labour Government make to people’s lives.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the stark choice around fairness that people faced in this country all those years ago in 1997, and the different positions that the Labour and Conservative parties took on the minimum wage. Does he agree that today that choice is perhaps best symbolised by the support of Conservative Members for the bedroom tax, which makes me think that they have learned nothing from their opposition to the minimum wage?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and in my constituency I have seen the stress, upset and angst caused by the bedroom tax, causing people to have to leave an area in which many of them have grown up and love so much. My hon. Friend is right: the bedroom tax shows the instincts of our different parties.
Although we are, of course, proud to have established the national minimum wage, which helped to end exploitation and extreme low pay, it did not end low pay per se. Under this Government working people have experienced their wages dropping by an average of more than £1,600 a year. The
We need that proposal, but we also need effective enforcement of the national minimum wage. Is my hon. Friend appalled, as I am, to learn that as many as 300,000 people in this country are still being paid below the national minimum wage and yet, in the past four years, there have been only two prosecutions?
I am appalled by that. My hon. Friend is right to mention enforcement. I will come to that, but I pay tribute to his work—I have been to his constituency—on ensuring that those who work hard get a decent day’s pay, in addition to his work on training and apprenticeships, which he has talked about a lot.
In the interests of fair pay for a fair day’s work, does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that so many right hon. and hon. Members, including many Opposition Members, pay absolutely nothing to some of the young people who work in this place? He should campaign to ensure that all hon. Members pay a fair wage for a fair day’s work.
I do not know to whom the hon. Lady refers, but in my experience, my Labour colleagues have always sought to ensure that those who work for them are paid a decent wage. I am sure that she, like others, might occasionally, as I do in my constituency office, have sixth-formers who are work experience students. Their situation is different from those whom hon. Members employ, but if hon. Members employ somebody to work for them, they should be paid a decent wage.
I spoke of the evolution of the national minimum wage and what Labour wants to do. With that in mind, we asked the former deputy chair of KPMG, Alan Buckle, to consult business, trade unions and others on how we can strengthen the minimum wage and restore its value. In so doing, Mr Buckle consulted many companies extensively. There is a growing body of opinion that the value of the minimum wage should rise. Sir Ian Cheshire, chief executive of Kingfisher, Jeremy Bennett, chief executive officer for Europe for Nomura, and Steve Marshall, the executive chairman of Balfour Beatty, are among those who are calling, as the economy recovers, for the minimum wage to increase faster than it has in the recent past. They say that that will benefit businesses and improve the public finances—the fall in the real value of the minimum wage since 2010 now costs the Exchequer £270 million a year in additional benefit and tax credit payments, a point that my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, will build on later.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the minimum wage has risen, both by reason of the Government’s increase and the increase in the tax threshold, whereby the tax take from the minimum wage earner has decreased, and that the Government’s projections show that the minimum wage will rise to £8.06 by 2020?
I will address precisely all three points the hon. Gentleman makes, which I have read and heard the Minister make in the media, but the issue is how we evolve what we have to tackle the fact that, despite the minimum wage, more than 5 million people are in low pay. When we introduced the minimum wage and when, as I have said, the hon. Gentleman’s Conservative colleagues opposed its introduction, people were earning as little as £1 an hour in some parts of the economy. We helped to do away with extreme low pay—[Interruption.] I will come to tax if the hon. Gentleman is patient. We now want to move things to address the bigger, broader issue of the large body of people in our country who are in low pay.
When the Opposition are developing policy, we should consider that there are clearly some sectors of industry that could pay substantially above the national minimum wage. When we go into the election, should we not only advocate an increase in the national minimum wage, but encourage those sectors that could pay higher wages without unemployment effects to do so?
I will come to my right hon. Friend’s point on different sectors if he bears with me for a moment.
How will Labour improve on the current arrangements? When the Labour Government established the national minimum wage, we tasked the Low Pay Commission with the discrete and technical job of setting the minimum wage within existing economic parameters. My right hon. Friend was one of the Ministers involved in its introduction. The Low Pay Commission’s job was to play the hand it was dealt, not to attempt to change the game. Over the years, it has played its hand well, but it has remained relatively hands-off. In that sense, those who say that it is more akin to a minimum wage commission as opposed to a Low Pay Commission are right.
Labour wants to transform the Low Pay Commission into a proper, official low pay watchdog, setting out what it believes we need to do tackle low pay, monitoring progress and making recommendations on how to boost productivity and make a higher minimum wage possible in different sectors. My vision for the Low Pay Commission is for it to be far more active. If we give it a bigger, more active role, it can not only challenge the Government more, but challenge different sectors. I would like it to have a much bigger standing in the national consciousness. Currently, I believe that it has around six to seven staff, who are mainly focused on statistical analysis, but I can see it becoming a big, low pay watchdog, playing a big part in the national conversation.
I rise merely to say how much I welcome that statement, because it relates to the work of the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and other Opposition Front Benchers. If we are to control the welfare bill in a civilised way, making people who could pay higher minimum wages pay their due, rather than relying on taxpayers, is a crucial part of the strategy.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I could not agree more with him.
My second point is that, up to now, the minimum wage has been set with a view to its short-term impact over the coming year. The Low Pay Commission is asked to describe the labour market as it is when it sets the rate, six months before the rate comes into force. It sets the context and gives the rate, but it does not give any guidance on how a higher level can be reached. Therefore, a Labour Government will set a target to increase the minimum wage from its current level of 54% of median earnings to 58% of median earnings by 2020, to be implemented by the Low Pay Commission during the next Parliament.
Forecasts show that that will take the minimum wage from £6.50 this year to £8.00 in October 2019—I can see Guy Opperman looking up at me, but I will come to his point on the forecasts of £8.06. That long-term target will give businesses time to plan and to adapt their business models to boost productivity to support the higher level. The international evidence shows that countries can support minimum wages with such a measure, which could give us a similar level to that in Australia and other EU countries.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman after I have addressed his point, which, as I have said, has been raised in the media by the Minister. I read in The Sun earlier this month some nonsense from him. He suggested that the minimum wage was on course to be more than £8 by 2020 in any event, as the hon. Member for Hexham said, and therefore that Labour’s commitment to get the minimum wage to £8 by the end of the next Parliament would mean cutting it. That is desperate stuff. Let me be clear that, under the Labour’s plans, there would be nothing to stop the Low Pay Commission from setting the rate beyond £8. In any event,
The Sun pointed out that the Treasury estimates on which the story was based relied on a significant recovery of earnings growth. Not many subscribe to those estimates. My point is that Labour Members are not prepared to sit on our hands and just hope for that earnings growth to come about. We are determined to do what we can to ensure it happens by setting that target.
I took good note of what the hon. Gentleman said, and if I understood him correctly, he said his plan is predicated upon raising median earnings from 54% to 58%. Surely that is only possible by having a strong economy, for which, of course, he would need a long-term economic plan. Surely that means he agrees with us.
I think the hon. Gentleman will probably have to wait for the reshuffle. [Interruption.] He gets the prize for mentioning the long-term economic sham, which is his party’s plan. I do not disagree, however, with the point he—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman keeps shouting at me. If he will let me reply, I will engage with his point. Is the national minimum wage on its own a panacea for ensuring that people can earn a wage they can live off and have security? No, it is not a panacea, but it is a very important part of the equation. Of course a strong economy is important in this respect, however. I would not disagree with him about that. Anyway, he has got in a reference to the long-term economic plan that he wanted to mention, and I am sure the Whip present, Gavin Barwell, will have taken note of that.
Is my hon. Friend aware that in my constituency 38% of children are now growing up in poverty? Their parents are working harder, but have a lot less to show for it. Does that not demonstrate that the Low Pay Commission needs to take a long-term view and have an ambitious target to raise low pay, and does he regret the Government’s failure to adopt one?
That is right. On that 38% figure, I must say that I have a similar situation in parts of my constituency. I agree with my hon. Friend but I would add that I think so much of our economic debate takes part around the GDP figures, statistics and data, and of course that is right—we should look at the data—but the question is the lived experience of people in this country: do they think they have never had it so good? When we listen to the rhetoric from Government Members, that is often what we would be led to believe.
Has the Conservative party not got it completely the wrong way round? Is not strong economic growth dependent upon strong earnings growth, which in turn will help us to make sure we have a sustainable recovery that is shared among all the people?
I could not have put it better myself; I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We know we have a productivity issue in this country. If people are earning more—if they get better pay—they are more productive. All the research shows that.
I wanted to add a point in respect of our target. Of course the economy might be subject to economic shocks—we had the crash in 2008-09—and the LPC might therefore take the view that the target cannot be met without risk to the economy, and we will build flexibility into the system to account for that.
Is it not the plan to get rid of evil zero-hours contracts as well, like those in my constituency—at Sports Direct, Mike Ashley? If that happens, it will considerably add to the wages of more than 1 million people in Britain, and that figure is growing as the unemployment statistics supposedly fall. All that put together makes it an even better package.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and the point he makes about zero-hours contracts shows that, in some respects, the big difference between the two sides of the House is that—[Interruption.] The Minister will have his time in a moment. From our point of view, of course people having work is the absolute priority, and having a job is of course better than not having a job, but we have got to be more ambitious than that given the nature of the work that so many people in our economy are doing.
I can accept that there are some abuses of zero-hours contracts but, as someone who formerly worked as a supply teacher I would caution against getting rid of all zero-hours contracts. Our health and education services rely on people picking up casual contracts—if that is how the hon. Gentleman wants to put it—so that we fill in the gaps when there are shortfalls. It is not always a demon policy to have zero-hours contracts.
I hear what the hon. Lady says about some zero-hours contracts—if memory serves me correctly, I may have been on one myself when I was a student—but the point is that we are seeing far too many exploitative zero-hours contracts. That is the problem, and we are not going to sit on our hands when we are faced with that situation.
Is it not very important that Government take seriously the failure by employers to act responsibly, and that is why the hon. Gentleman should welcome this Government’s move to increase fourfold the fines on employers who are paying below the minimum wage? That did not happen under the previous Labour Administration. We take those breaches very seriously. What does he have to say about that?
As I was saying earlier, there would have been no national minimum wage or any fines if it were not for the last Labour Administration, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that fines need to be increased, and I will come to that very shortly as he makes a good point there.
Will my hon. Friend comment on the experience of my constituent whose fixed-hours part-time job, which fitted in with school hours, was changed recently by a very respectable employer—a large department store, not some unscrupulous employer—to a zero-hours contract in order to make her terms more flexible? She had to stop work because she could not find the child care to help her. That is surely the sort of contract we must do something about.
Well, that is it, and that is precisely why we will introduce a far tougher package than the sole measure we have seen on zero-hours contracts from the Government, which is basically just a do-away with exclusivity on those contracts. That is simply insufficient given the story that my hon. Friend has just told—and I would be very interested to know who the employer was.
The third point I want to make on the changes we need is that, when the minimum wage was introduced, the hope was that it would have a ripple-effect causing wages to rise up the income scale, but that has not turned out to be the case. Frankly, it is becoming the going rate in some sectors, as my right hon. Friend Mr Field alluded to. This explains why 1.2 million employees currently just earn the legal minimum. That is up from just over 600,000 in April 1999, so we have seen a considerable increase in the number of people on the minimum. Therefore, in its beefed up role, we will ask the LPC to advise on what sectors of the economy could afford to pay more than the minimum wage and how that could be achieved.
Finally, enforcement has been mentioned, and much more needs to be done on that, as John Glen said. There has in some respects been a systematic failure in the way the minimum wage has been policed. To address that, we will give local authorities, working alongside Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, powers to enforce the law, and we will increase the fines tenfold for rogue companies that do not meet their obligations. In this way, we will evolve the national minimum wage so that it moves beyond the narrow task of setting a minimum wage to avoid extreme low pay to a broader mission to reduce low pay in Britain. As far as the Minister’s party is concerned, I discern no desire to move beyond the status quo and the current arrangements.
On my hon. Friend’s point about where the Government stand, I had an assurance from the Prime Minister in February that they would name and shame those employers who had been found out and fined for not paying the minimum wage in my constituency. They still have not done that. Does that not show there is no real commitment on this from the Conservative party?
My hon. Friend’s remarks illustrate a point I have been making.
The Minister has said he would like to see the minimum wage strengthened, but his party has set out no plans whatsoever on how it will make that happen. It is all very well picking holes in, and raising issues with, the suggestions we have put forward, but I do not see any coming from Government Members. All we have seen—as the Minister’s boss the Secretary of State, who I know is away in India, said in June—is the Chancellor, in talking about the minimum wage increasing to £7 earlier this year, simply explaining the arithmetic of what would happen if a real minimum wage were restored; commentary from the Chancellor, but no action.
The hon. Gentleman talks about how we best deal with the scourge of low pay. Does he not agree that a combination of raising the minimum wage, which he has alluded to, and raising the thresholds at which people begin to pay tax is the answer, so that the people earning £200 or £250 a week retain all of that as their take-home pay?
Is it not a fact that it is often said that the House of Commons is rather remote from the lives of many people outside? Surely one of the ways we can combat the idea that MPs do not care is to do everything possible to overcome the poverty that so many people, and certainly many of my constituents, suffer week after week because of low wages. Of course, had it not been for a Labour Government, as my hon. Friend says, there would have been no national minimum wage.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point and it makes me reflect on the 2010 general election. In the polling districts covering the most deprived estates in the two most deprived wards in my constituency—Brixton Hill and Tulse Hill, which were most impacted by our introduction of the national minimum wage—the turnout was more than 70%, and sometimes 80%. That is because the people on estates such as the Tulse Hill estate had been directly impacted by our introduction of the national minimum wage: it helped to reduce poverty in those areas. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Mr Campbell talked about tax and thresholds. The Minister has said that, in addition to thinking about the national minimum wage, we should consider the impact of tax on the low paid. I agree. That is why we will introduce a starting rate of tax of 10%, paid for by abolishing the Government’s ill-conceived married couples allowance.
The Minister will no doubt refer to the increases to the personal allowance—[Interruption.] I thought that might provoke a reaction. I will give way to Alec Shelbrooke in a moment. I am sure the Minister will no doubt refer to the increases in this Parliament to the personal allowance to seek to show that he “gets it”, as my hon. Friend Mr Winnick mentioned. I doubt, however, that the Minister will mention the fact that any benefit the low paid derived from the increase in the personal allowance was wiped out by the Government’s hike in VAT and the benefit and tax reductions that we have seen for working people in this Parliament.
We will set out in detail the plans we have on the 10% rate nearer to the general election. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the exact thresholds right now, but I am sure that the Whip will have noticed that he asked the question.
On enforcement, I am sure the Minister will refer to their so-called “name and shame” policy, which the Government announced. [Interruption.] The Whips have already noticed that Guy Opperman has mentioned the long-term economic plan, so he can quieten down. [Interruption.] I will take no lectures from any Government Member on tax rates, or anything else, when they have made a £7.5 billion unfunded tax commitment. I will take no lectures from them whatsoever. I will return to the point I was making about their “name and shame” policy. Only 25 firms have been named, and even that will be worthless unless Ministers beef up enforcement.
I agree with the Minister on the points I have heard him make about productivity. Increasing productivity enables companies to pay more. As I said before, it is key that we invest in human capital to increase productivity, and that means more investment in skills and training.
Before I wrap up, I just want to say something about the living wage. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North talked about what people think of Parliament. We should, on all sides of this House, be proud that the parliamentary estate pays everybody who works here, including contractors, a London living wage. It is very important that we set an example in that respect, and I am pleased to hear that that is happening here.
There was a campaign on that in the previous Parliament and I am glad if the issue has been rectified. Cleaners who were not in regular employment but contracted from outside were certainly not getting the same wage as those who were in regular employment in the House of Commons. If that has been rectified, Mr Speaker, I am pleased. The conditions and circumstances in which cleaners worked here in the Palace of Westminster were absolutely disgraceful. They reminded one of Charles Dickens’s times. I hope all that has been rectified.
I do, too. No doubt Mr Speaker will be able to give us more details. I can only talk about my understanding of the London living wage. It is very important that we set an example in this House on paying a living wage. I also think it is very good that this House has set an example in not using zero-hours contracts for people working on the estate.
I am just going to make a little more progress, because I sense that I have been going on for a while.
The minimum wage is set by reference to economic factors, including growth levels, the labour market, economic forecasts and so on. The living wage is calculated by looking at the basic cost of living and the salary needed for an individual to meet their own or their family’s basic day-to-day needs, including housing, food, clothing and so on. We recognise it is very challenging for employers to pay a living wage, so we would not impose it on them by having a statutory living wage. Instead, a future Labour Government will encourage employers to pay the living wage through new “make work pay” contracts. Firms that sign up to becoming living wage employers in the first year of the next Parliament will benefit from a 12-month tax rebate of up to £1,000, and an average of £445, for every low-paid worker who gets a pay rise. This will help firms towards a higher-productivity, higher-wage model. The measure will be funded entirely from the increased tax and national insurance revenue received by the Treasury when employees receive higher wages. Additional savings in lower tax credits and benefit payments, as well as increased tax revenues in future years, will cut social security bills and help pay down the deficit. Not just ensuring people are in work but that they get a decent salary when they are working, is the most effective way to reduce the social security bill.
In conclusion, I would like to go back to where I started. This area—what people are paid at work and the nature of the work they do—will be a key battleground at the next general election. That is why we have come out with the most detailed proposals, both in respect of wages and security at work, that will make a difference to people’s lives. Instead of mocking us, and instead of coming forward with proposals of their own, we see Government Members sitting on their hands while we carry on in the situation in which too many people who work hard do not earn a wage that they can live on. Ultimately, that is why the only way to do anything about this is to elect a Labour Government next year. I commend this motion to the House.
You would not have believed it from the speech the hon. Gentleman has just made, Mr Speaker, but a fortnight ago those of us on the Government side of the House put up the national minimum wage in real terms for the first time since Labour’s great recession. The national minimum wage is now at its highest level ever in terms of average earnings. Enforcement of the national minimum wage is stronger and because of the recovery the national minimum wage is set to rise. For the last half hour, the Opposition have talked about the past and the glory days of 1997, but I want to talk about the future.
I am certainly suggesting that we had one of the deepest recessions in the world because of the failure of the last Labour Government to regulate the banks properly and to mend the public finances in the run-up to the recession. That youth unemployment had risen by 40% even before the crash shows the failure of Labour’s economic policy. That is a theme to which I shall warm in my speech.
I will come later to progress on raising the national minimum wage, but the central point, which Labour Members do not understand, is that we cannot have a strong national minimum wage without a strong economy.
I could not have put it better myself.
The rise in the national minimum wage comes against a background of record job creation, the biggest fall in unemployment since records began—before I or my hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke were born—falling youth unemployment, falling long-term unemployment, unemployment of fewer than 2 million and a claimant count of fewer than 1 million; and that is all part of our plan to build from the ruins of the past an economy that works for everybody.
In 1998, when the Labour Government removed the requirement to regulate levels of leverage in the City, the Conservative party complained, and it was that removal which led to the crash being bigger in the UK. It was the result of poor regulation of the financial sector. Labour did not fix the roof when the sun was shining, but instead spent money they did not have even before the crash.
Instead of forgetting about the deficit, as Labour does, and ignoring Britain’s economic challenges, we know that a strong recovery underpins a strong society and that we cannot have a strong minimum wage without a strong economy.
The hon. Lady needs to look at the economic statistics: there was no double-dip recession and ours is the fastest-growing economy in the G7. Economic growth has been strong, the number of jobs is growing at a record rate, our economy is turning around and we have the fastest growth in the G7. Labour might want to deny it, but we want to support the plan and, crucially, ensure that economic growth reaches all parts of the country and that all can benefit. That is why we support and are strengthening the minimum wage. We know that the only route to higher living standards is not through more borrowing, more taxes and more debt, but through fair pay for a job well done.
Today was another test of Labour’s economic credibility, and yet again it was found wanting. Instead, the true supporters of the national minimum wage now reside on the Government Benches. First and foremost, a strong minimum wage requires a strong economy.
I will give the hon. Gentleman a couple of examples. We have increased the budget for enforcement by 15%, while the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, which I am leading through the House, backs up those resources with tougher penalties for those who break the law. While we are at it, we are also tackling the scourge of zero-hours contracts—something Labour failed to do after 13 years in office.
If anybody has ever queried the idea that the plight of the low-paid is linked to the health of the economy, all they have to do is study what happened as a consequence of the great recession. When the economy shrank after 2008, the incomes of the lowest-paid took a hit, through jobs lost, hours cut and wages frozen, and our nation’s finances shrank by 6%, which inevitably had a profound impact on people’s incomes—after all, national income is merely the aggregate of individuals’ incomes. The need to turn that around is why our long-term economic plan is so vital.
The evidence shows that the plan is working. Record numbers of jobs have not been created by accident, but because the economy is growing, but we are keenly aware of the risks that remain and the costs that would be paid, especially by the low-paid, if we abandoned the plan. Those who truly support the minimum wage also support the plan to tackle the deficit and repair the health of the economy, and that is why Government Members are the true supporters of the national minimum wage.
Is not the most crucial point, as well as raising the minimum wage, the need to address and examine the issue of tax? This coalition Government have raised the minimum threshold and actually given people on the minimum wage more money in their pockets. Will he set out in detail the effect it will have when we elect a Conservative Government and introduce a £12,500 tax threshold?
Of course, it is post-tax income that matters to families. Having raised the threshold to £10,500, we are proposing to raise it to £12,500, meaning that no one working full time on the national minimum wage would pay any income tax at all. That is the sort of action we can get only if we have the grit to deal with public spending and leave more money in people’s pockets, thereby supporting the low-paid.
True supporters of the minimum wage also know that it is a partnership with business.
My right hon. Friend has rightly talked about post-tax income, but for people on low incomes, what matters is post-tax and post-benefit take-home disposable income. The shadow Secretary of State did not say what his policies would be on tax credits. Does he agree that that is an important part of the debate about how we improve living standards?
The shadow Secretary of State could not even explain his own tax policy when he was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell. On the other hand, we are clear about ours—[Interruption.]—and I am delighted every time the Opposition complain about it. They should put it on their leaflets. We will increase the threshold to £12,500 so that anybody on the minimum wage doing 30 hours a week will not pay a penny in income tax.
We know what would be most damaging for the low-paid—if we lost control of the economy and had another great recession like the last time Labour was in office.
I want to return to the Minister’s point about the number of new jobs being created. I asked him once about this matter and got the following reply:
“Information regarding the number of jobs created is not available. As an alternative…estimates relating to the net change in the number of people in employment are available… Unfortunately the requested information on duration of employment is not available”.—[Hansard, 12 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 578-9W.]
The Government continue to talk about the number of jobs created, but they do not have the evidence to back it up.
The evidence was published at 9.30 this morning. It showed that record numbers of jobs had been created and that in the hon. Lady’s constituency the number of unemployment claimants fell by 32% in the last year. If I were her, I would look at the statistics before complaining about our record on jobs.
True supporters of the national minimum wage know that it is a partnership with business. Jobs cannot be created without job creators. Business is a force for social good, not only because it creates jobs, but because business prospers by finding solutions to other people’s problems. It is something for something, and it is what the British people mean by fairness. After all, the Low Pay Commission was set up because the minimum wage relies on consensus to keep the support of both employers and employees. In fact, Mr Umunna made that point in his speech, but then sadly undermined it with a policy that I think was probably pushed on him by his leader.
On the issue of fairness, does the Minister agree that people should be treated equally under the minimum wage legislation? Will he take this opportunity personally to disown the distasteful comments made by his ministerial colleague, Lord Freud—that some disabled people were not worth the full rate? Is that not an outrage; should not the Government apologise?
Yes, of course, everybody who is in work should be paid the minimum wage.
I must say that the comments to which my hon. Friend Mr Bain referred were absolutely disgraceful and that Minister must answer for them. The Minister talked about how the Low Pay Commission does things and how it works through the tripartite model and we absolutely want to see that go forward into the future. The Minister did not say it, so I will: the issue that some people worry about is the possible politicisation of the Low Pay Commission. I think that can be avoided, in much the same way that having a 2% target for the Monetary Policy Committee did not lead to the politicisation of that process.
Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman says one thing and his party then proposes something quite different. The Low Pay Commission was set up to support that consensus, to ensure that the minimum wage has the support of both employers and employees and to ensure that the low paid are not priced out of work. When politicians such as the hon. Gentleman’s boss get on a soapbox and undermine the Low Pay Commission consensus by clearly stating an amount that should be achieved by 2020, they undermine the very people they claim to support. As the Federation of Small Businesses says—the hon. Gentleman can address this when I give way to him,
“the decision on what the rate is should be set only after consultation with the Low Pay Commission.”
Labour’s proposal, according to the FSB, “does the opposite”.
As I said, I believe it is possible to move towards a new framework without leading to politicisation and to address the concerns that some have raised. I am taken aback when the Minister says that the Leader of the Opposition’s talk about achieving a certain rate for the national minimum wage undermines the Low Pay Commission, when that is precisely what the Chancellor of the Exchequer did when he talked about a £7 rate.
No, because every year the Government present evidence to the Low Pay Commission of what level of pay the economy can support. In fact, I can go further. Today, we are publishing the economic evidence that is going in to the Low Pay Commission. It shows what level of pay the Government believe can be supported. It shows that the recovering economy is creating jobs, with unemployment falling faster than any country in the G7. Indeed, the Low Pay Commission has said that it can raise the national minimum wage in real terms this year only because of that recovering economy. Government analysis underpinning today’s evidence projects that on the Office of Budget
Responsibility’s economic earnings forecast, the minimum wage is set to reach £8.06 by 2020—only because of the recovering economy.
I was going to come on to that. The hon. Member for Streatham made an important admission today. I think it is the first time that Labour has admitted that if the £8 target was going to damage the economy, there would be “flexibility”, as my hon. Friend said. Within a month the hon. Gentleman has completely undone the promise that was made with such loud cymbals at the party conference. It was a promise made for a party conference by a desperate party leader who is struggling to get his message across. Today, it has been completely undermined by the man who wants to replace him as party leader after Labour loses the next election.
I have to say that this is really desperate stuff from a desperate Minister. In the same way as there is flexibility for the Monetary Policy Committee in setting the interest rate target, there would be flexibility in our system. The Minister talks as if this were some new revelation. What I have said is absolutely no different from what the Leader of the Opposition has said. The Minister can pick holes in what we have suggested, but he has come forward with no proposals whatever to evolve or move on the national minimum wage—none.
I certainly can pick holes in what the hon. Gentleman said, and I intend to do exactly that. I would say that today’s admission that there is no £8 target from the Labour party because there will be “flexibility” around it shows that Labour has nothing to say on low pay, just as it has nothing to say on any other area of economic policy. The grin of the hon. Member for Streatham as he came to the Dispatch Box after the discussion about who will be the leader of the Labour party after the next election demonstrates, I think, that undermining his leader was part of his job today—and he has done it brilliantly.
Clearly, the Opposition have initiated this debate on the minimum wage, so it is quite bizarre to suggest that we do not have anything to say about low pay when we put it on the agenda. However, perhaps one of the Minister’s colleagues has had too much to say about the minimum wage by suggesting that disabled people are not worth it. Can the hon. Gentleman confirm whether Lord Freud is still a Government Minister? How can his position be tenable?
I have said that everybody should be paid the minimum wage. That has been our policy throughout the whole period of this Government and it will continue. In fact, we are strengthening it—an issue I want to come on to. We have rejected the Opposition’s advice that the national minimum wage should be limited to £8 by 2020, not least because, on the central projection from the OBR’s earning figures as reported in The Sun, the national minimum wage will, under the Government’s plans, reach £8.06 by 2020—but only so long as we continue the economic recovery and not if we put that recovery at risk by adopting Labour’s plans.
On the contrary, Government analysis underpinning today’s evidence projects that, on the OBR’s earnings forecasts, the minimum wage is set to reach £8.06 by 2020.
“I am delighted to be able to tell Sunday Mirror readers that we are going to raise the minimum wage–if we win the election–in the next Parliament to over £8 an hour.”
There was no qualification in that statement.
Absolutely. I concur strongly with what my hon. Friend says. Today’s Labour U-turn on low pay policy shows that ours is the only party and this is the only coalition Government strongly supporting the national minimum wage. We are the ones who are raising the minimum wage, putting it up in real terms at record levels when compared with average earnings, while at the same time reducing taxes. It is those on the Government Benches who support the minimum wage, and it is particularly the Conservative party that is the party of the low paid.
I would like to tempt the Minister to say more about our proposal for “make work pay” contracts and partnership with the Government and business. Does he not think that business would embrace such contracts in order to promote investment in their employees’ skills, providing not just jobs but a career for their employees?
It is absolutely true that the long-term and fundamental way to support the increase in productivity is to ensure more rigorous education and more skills, which is why we increased the number of apprenticeships. We are on track to have 2 million apprenticeships started in this Parliament, and we are clear that we will deliver 3 million in the next Parliament. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that education and skills underpin the long-term advance of prosperity for everyone in this country. I suggest that he would support the Government’s policies to strengthen education if he was truly interested in supporting a long-term increase in productivity.
We have discussed enforcement, the increase in the budget for enforcement and the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill. We have quadrupled the maximum penalty to £20,000—per worker, not per firm. As a result, the amount from enforcement has increased from £2.6 million in 2003 to £4.6 million today. We know that a strong minimum wage must be properly enforced.
My third and final point is that the true champions of the low paid know that the minimum wage is only one tool among many. We are reforming welfare so that it supports people into work rather than trapping them in poverty, and we are letting people keep more of what they earn. Thanks to our rise in the tax threshold, a typical taxpayer already pays £700 less income tax than in 2010. The tax bill of someone working a 30-hour week on the minimum wage has been cut by two thirds. In the next Parliament, we will abolish income tax for those working full time on the minimum wage. We can do that only because we are prepared to make difficult decisions on spending.
It seems that the Labour party does not want to make those difficult decisions. Perhaps the shadow Minister will explain why all we have heard from it is taxes on jobs, taxes on business, taxes on homes, pensions, investments, taxes on driving and now even taxes on death.
Does the Minister recognise that the economic recovery he talks about is not being witnessed in many parts of the country? He talks about people coming out of the tax bracket, but the reality is that in many parts of the country less than half the work force works anywhere near enough hours to pay tax.
Absolutely. I recognise that as we get the recovery moving we must ensure that it benefits all parts of our country. That is why we are ensuring that the jobs recovery is spread throughout the country. This morning’s jobs data show that unemployment is falling in all regions, and in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency it has fallen by 28% in the last year. Instead of pointing fingers, he should congratulate the Government on that effort.
The Labour party forgets that we do not support the incomes of those at the bottom by making the whole country poorer. Tax cuts and welfare reform are both essential, but ultimately must go hand in hand with strengthening education and skills.
The Government support work and our record shows that we deliver work. We have a plan that will work. A strong minimum wage is possible only with a strong economy. We passionately support the minimum wage, not for a headline, but for the benefit of those who rely on it. It is just one part of our long-term plan to restore the health of the British economy from the ruins of the past. Instead of that past, we will build an economy that works for all and secures a brighter future for Britain.
In the spring, my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition visited a remarkable woman, Rachel, on the Castle Vale estate in my constituency. She is a proud, working-class woman trying to bring up her child. She lost her job with the council as a consequence of the huge cuts that the Government are imposing on our city. She found a new job but she was on the minimum wage. She broke down in tears when she explained how difficult life is for her trying to bring up her kid with dignity and to pay her bills. She is a salt-of-the-earth working-class woman who works hard to get on. Sadly, she is typical of 30,000 people in Birmingham on the minimum wage.
I remember sitting down at the food bank run by the Baptist church on Erdington high street with three of the working poor. Two of them said exactly the same as Rachel, explaining in graphic detail what it was like to count every penny and to have their kids come home from school asking whether they could have something, only to be given an excuse for why it was not possible. One of them said—I will never forget her words—“Jack, I exist. For me this is no life.”
Before I came to this place, I was proud to serve the Transport and General Workers Union and then Unite. In the world of work, work forces showed me wage slips of £1.50, £2 and £2.50 an hour. A linen supply company in west London was supplying the swankiest hotels and restaurants and charging an arm and a leg for its services, but paying its workers £2 an hour. We unashamedly sought to organise an upward drive in pay and to end working poverty, and I remember the Conservative party’s bitter resistance to any serious steps to tackle low pay, particularly the notion that somehow the minimum wage would fundamentally undermine economic success in our country.
The national minimum wage is a landmark achievement and Labour’s legacy, but it is not good enough. The working poor are ambitious, and so are we. First, we want a much higher minimum wage and, secondly, its vigorous enforcement. When I was deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, I chaired a coalition, which had all-party support across the House, that took the Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill into law. It was a remarkable coalition from plough to plate—from the National Farmers Union to the supermarkets. Even then, after the introduction of the minimum wage, when the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was up and running—it was a highly effective organisation—a company employing 1,500 strawberry pickers paid them, after deductions and charges, £20 or £25 a week for a 60 or 70-hour week. That is why vigorous enforcement of a higher minimum wage is crucial.
On the living wage, we are more ambitious than just wanting a minimum wage. We need a minimum wage for underpinning, but we are more ambitious, which is why we have championed the living wage. I am proud that I was a founder member of the drive for the living wage in London. I ran the union’s organising department. We had 100 organisers, 10 of whom were cleaners. With the East London Communities Organisation and London Citizens, we successfully mounted that campaign, which included 4,000 cleaners in Canary Wharf and the City of London. It was obscene to sit down with good men and women and to hear their stories about how they cleaned the toilets and boardrooms of bankers who were sometimes earning millions when they were on the national minimum wage. We won a living wage for them.
I am also proud that I led the first strike in the history of the House of Commons when we organised the cleaners here to achieve the living wage. To this day,
I have their manifesto in my office. Good men and women were being paid a shameful wage in this mother of Parliaments.
It is a pleasure, Mr Deputy Speaker, to listen to Jack Dromey. I have never led a strike—at least not since school. Does he agree that one concern is that those on both Front Benches are too timid about raising wages and that they do not have the passion he had when he led his trade union to do more? The issue is not fiddling about with the figure of £8 or £8.50, or whether we hit it naturally, but the courage that those on both Front Benches should have to address the real problem of people throughout the country working for low wages.
The hon. Gentleman speaks in good faith. All that I will say is that timidity is the preserve of his party’s Front Bench, whereas passion and determination characterise our side of the House.
As the Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Erdington, I am proud to say that Birmingham has been taking a lead in driving the living wage, first for those directly employed by the council, then for those working in schools, and now—it is the first time that any council in Britain has done this—for those employed in all future care contracts. Birmingham is working with a range of good employers, who are coming together and saying “We believe that the success of our city can be best achieved if workers are paid properly and treated fairly.”
We should pay tribute to the numerous Labour-controlled councils all over the country—and I speak for Scotland in particular—who have led the way in securing a living wage for their employees.
I agree. Labour councils throughout Britain are taking the lead.
Experience tells me that a much higher minimum wage, and a living wage, are good. They are good for workers and for their dignity. I remember, during a dispute here at the House of Commons, meeting one excellent African cleaner. We were going to do a photo-call outside, but he said to me “I would prefer not to, Jack.” I asked “Why not?” He replied “I do not want anyone to know that I am a minimum-wage cleaner.”
A higher minimum wage is good for the family. I also remember sitting down with a group of men and women—along with Emmanuel, one of our organisers at Canary Wharf—to talk about what it was like to have to do two, three or four jobs at once in order to survive. One of them said “Jack, I sleep on the bus from one job to the other. I never see my family.” A higher minimum wage is good for employers, because all the evidence suggests—and KPMG and others have done some excellent work on this—that it contributes to higher productivity and reductions in turnover. It is good for the economy, because if low-paid workers get more money in their wage packets, they will not salt it away in the Cayman islands; they will go out and spend it in local shops and clubs, buying goods and services. It is also good for the welfare bill, because if the low-paid are paid more, they will rely on welfare support less. It is absolutely wrong for us in our country to be subsidising, on a grand scale, employers who pay low wages.
We should be thinking about what kind of country we want to be. The International Monetary Fund recently conducted a fascinating study of the problems that are inherent in unequal societies and what they mean in terms of social cohesion, but there is more to it than that. A successful modern economy cannot be based on low pay and low productivity. That is why Opposition Members argue, unashamedly and with passion, that we must espouse the cause of fair pay for every worker, so that no worker needs to live in working poverty any longer.
Government Members must hear about this in their constituencies; Opposition Members hear about it all the time. I remember one Stockland Green mum saying to me, “Jack, I keep being told that everything is fine. Recovery? What recovery? Do them up there understand what life is like for us down here?” For us, this is a noble cause. Of course it is about work, family, good workers succeeding, the economy and bringing down welfare bills, but, dare I say it, it is a moral cause as well.
It is a genuine honour to follow Jack Dromey, who has a long history of supporting the lowest-paid in our society, and a long history of defending workers’ rights. When he speaks, he speaks not just with passion but with experience. That is in stark contrast to the synthetic arguments that we have heard from the Opposition Front Bench so far. I hope that today’s debate will reach a different level, because what we have observed so far is a lot of complacency about what Members think people want to hear when they are electioneering.
For me, this is not just an issue of party politics. I can agree with most of what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington has just said—as, indeed, can most of my colleagues, especially those who are members of the new generation of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on the Government Benches. We have been in those jobs at the bottom. We have seen what it is like to be on short-term contracts, and what it is like to work as a sole trader. I was a kitchen and bathroom fitter. When the contracts that I had in the university of Leeds were short-lived, I had to plug the gaps. That, in many ways, was a zero-hours contract. I have a great deal of respect for what was said by Sheila Gilmore about zero-hours contracts. I wish that she would stand up and name the company concerned, and I offer her the opportunity to do so now if she wishes.
I am delighted that the hon. Lady has named that company, because there can be no excuse, in our society, for forcing people into a position at work in which the employer says, effectively, “Do as I say, and you cannot do anything else.” That is wrong, as the Prime Minister said in his conference speech. Zero-hours contracts have their place—they can work for people—but it is absolutely wrong and immoral to say to someone “We will tell you when you can work, and if you dare to work for anyone else, you will not be paid.”
The hon. Gentleman rightly says that there is disgust over zero-hours contracts. Has he impressed on his colleagues in the Government the need for a Bill that would enable us to end such contracts?
The hon. Gentleman has made the mistake of believing that zero-hours contracts are wrong in themselves. They offer flexibility to people. What is wrong and unacceptable is the abuse of zero-hours contracts, when an employer says “You cannot work for anyone else.” That is what is wrong. The hon. Gentleman needs to take a close look at Members in his own party who have people on zero-hours contracts. That is the problem. We must not mix up the arguments along the way, because there is positivity in some instances. The abuse is what the Government need to crack down on.
The exclusivity of zero-hours contracts is one issue, but it is not the only way in which they exploit people. A constituent of mine is a care worker who has to wait for a weekly text message telling her what hours she will be working at the end of that week. She has no choice either. The arrangement is causing severe problems in terms of her personal cash flow and her ability to obtain benefits and pay her rent, and, of course, it is also having a severe effect on the quality of the care that is being provided.
I do not disagree with a single word of what the hon. Lady has just said. It is absolutely true, and that is why it falls to this place to start looking at the way in which employers have been abusing a flexibility which does work for certain people.
When I was between contracts and doing manual labour, did I want to be wondering whether I would have a kitchen or bathroom to fit in the following week, or did I want a constant supply of work? The fact is that I could not demand that the work would be there. I could not say, “Sorry, Mr Shelbrooke, you will be on a permanent contract whether the work is there or not.” There must be flexibility, but what we must legislate for is stopping the abuse. That is what my party is trying to do now, and my hon. Friend the Minister is working to address these very issues in his Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill.
Let me now deal with the minimum wage, which, after all, is what the debate is mostly about. I want to go further than our £12,500 tax threshold. My hon. Friend said that people in full-time work who are paid the minimum wage would not pay tax, but I want to maximise the benefit. If anything, I am a politician of aspiration. I want to make sure that someone who wants to work 42 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, will not have to pay any tax. That gives us a figure of £14,196 at today’s minimum wage rate, and that is my ambition. It is not a new policy. We have seen members of a newly formed political party leap up and say that they want the threshold to be raised to that level. Let me remind them that, back in the 1980s, Nigel Lawson said that no one should be taxed until their income had reached the rate at which it was not necessary to give the money back to them. That is the really important point when we are talking about how we can empower people. We must ensure that they have not only the motivation to go to work but the ability to keep the money they earn. If we have a minimum wage, surely we have to have minimum taxation. That taxation should not start until people start to earn more than the minimum wage full time. That is my ambition for this Government. Yes, I am delighted with our policy regarding £12,500 but I personally would like to go further.
The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, Mr Umunna, said that there was not enough certainty in our policies. He made a good, considered opening speech but when he was pushed on the detail of where the 10% tax threshold would come in, he had no answer. That worries me. I worry that the policy of increasing the threshold from £10,500 to £12,500 would involve people paying 10% tax. We do not know whether that is the case; the policy is not there. I accept his argument that he cannot answer the question today, but this worries me none the less. I am worried about what these policies on wages for the lowest-paid workers actually mean. I worry that these policies could be inflationary if they are not carefully considered.
In respect of the increase in the personal allowance that was announced at the Conservative party conference, and of the policy of raising the threshold, will the hon. Gentleman tell us how that £7.5 billion unfunded spending commitment will be paid for?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister made it perfectly clear in their speeches that there would be more reductions in certain areas of public spending. We are looking at a 0.3% further reduction, which can be found. The point that the Opposition do not understand is that if we grow an economy by building on solid foundations, we end up with a growth rate that far outstrips those of the EU or the USA. More importantly, this is in stark contrast to the economy of France, whose policies the Opposition were telling us only three years ago we should be adopting. Their plan B was to follow the French President’s economic proposals, yet that country’s economy is now collapsing round its ears and dragging a lot of the EU down with it. This is simple: we must grow the economy healthily, and the hard-working people of this country who help to grow the economy do not deserve to come home after a day’s work to discover that the Government are taking more of their money. We need to ensure that increases in the minimum wage do not simply involve people doing more work for the same money.
The living wage is an important development. I have gone on record in this Chamber as saying that I do not support a statutory living wage. If we try to chase a living wage simply by upping wages by statute, we will increase inflation, thereby putting the living wage out of reach. The figure for a living wage has gone up since we last had this debate, but the way to reach it is to grow the minimum wage by cutting taxes on business and growing the economy. We cannot do it by imposing stealth taxes on business. We should be saying to employers, “Don’t give the money to the Government so that we can do all the things we want to do. Instead, give it directly to the people who are creating the wealth.” That is a policy that we should be proud of, and that everyone on these Benches will get behind. We want the highest wage figures that we can get in this country, and we want to ensure that people are not being exploited. When new phenomena such as the exploitation of zero-hours contracts are created, it is important that we legislate on them in a way that still allows flexibility for people who are trying to put together a living.
I am worried that Opposition day debates are often simply about electioneering. That is the wrong thing to do in this Chamber. The Opposition have talked about taking things seriously and being the party that truly represents the lowest-paid workers in society, but I must remind the House that they opposed my ten-minute rule Bill to outlaw unpaid internships. The Division was called by Opposition Members. I am still a strong believer that nobody in this country should work for more than four weeks without pay. Work experience has its place, but employing people for months at a time with no pay, claiming that they are gaining experience as interns, is morally wrong. That is why I introduced my Bill.
In that context, we have to look at what we are really discussing. We need to ensure that the poorest in society—those who are working at the bottom and in the most economically sustainable way—see their wages increase without having to give the money back to the Government just so that they can be grateful when the Government then give it back to them. We need to ensure that a good day’s work is properly rewarded. As we grow the economy, we need to ensure that businesses give the money to the people doing the work and not to the Government. When we discuss the minimum wage, we must ensure that we have in place a strong economy and strong policies, and that we are willing to legislate against those who abuse workers in this country. We must ensure that we represent everybody; that is what a one-nation party is all about.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. On the “Daily Politics” programme today, the shadow Education Secretary said that I had made the case for not paying disabled people the minimum wage. I have campaigned strongly for increases in the minimum wage, very much along the lines set out by my hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke a moment ago, so I find that assertion quite incredible. While I have been sitting here, I have seen a text from the shadow Education Secretary acknowledging that it was not me who said that, but the problem is that millions of people will have seen what he said on television. I am a passionate supporter of the minimum wage, especially for disabled people. Mr Deputy Speaker, will you ask the shadow Education Secretary to come to the Chamber to correct what he said, and to apologise for it? Otherwise, the people who watched that programme, including my constituents, will believe that I hold those abhorrent views.
That is not a point of order for the Chair, as the hon. Gentleman will be well aware. However, his comments are on record for everyone to read, and everyone in the Chamber has heard them. He has also told everyone that he has received an apology. He has certainly ensured that his position as a supporter of the minimum wage for disabled people has been maintained.
Three important pieces of news frame our debate on the minimum wage today. First, we heard the good news about the continuing fall in unemployment. Our politics, like those of most hon. Members, are motivated by wanting to see people in work, and any fall in unemployment is therefore extremely welcome. However, we also heard that the squeeze on incomes is continuing. Alongside that, we saw the data released by the End Child Poverty campaign, which mapped child poverty figures in every constituency in Britain. The figure for my central London constituency of Westminster North—of all places—confirms that 43% of all children there are now living in poverty. Those three pieces of news are all connected. They show us what happens when people’s housing, energy and travel costs, along with all their other costs, go up but their incomes do not. Pay has been squeezed for years at every level in this country, except the boardroom. Only last week we also heard that FTSE chief executives enjoyed a 21% increase in their incomes over the past year, at the same time as the average increase in all pay and bonuses was a mere 0.7%. I do not begrudge those of great skill and entrepreneurial talent a good reward for their labours—I really do not. However, I do not see how it is possible to justify a 21% increase at the top end of the earnings scale when in my borough we had to fight to get recognition for carers—people carrying out the most intimate and personal care and support—of elderly and disabled people. These carers were not even guaranteed the minimum wage for their labours because, unfortunately, their travel time between care appointments was not counted in their earnings and therefore they were not able to enjoy the basic statutory protection for low wages. That is truly shocking.
The big story of events in the past few years is the shift to working poverty, which is when a job simply does not pay enough to lift someone over the poverty line. Some 6.7 million people who are in poverty, or half of all those in poverty, live in a family where at least one person is working. Scandalously, that figure rose by half a million in the past year. The proportion of jobs that are low paid also rose and although it is popularly supposed that that burden falls on the young—and they have had a particularly hard time in recent years—60% of all low-paid people are over 30. This is not just a phenomenon affecting the young.
Many of the employees on those low incomes are obtaining tax credits, which increases the amount of money they have at their disposal, with the companies therefore benefiting from the subsidy those tax credits provide. What is Labour’s policy on tax credits?
I will talk about tax credits in a moment, because they are extremely important, but, as we have heard from Labour Members, there is no excuse for tax credits being a substitute for employers paying a decent wage.
The number of people paid below the living wage rose in the past year from 4.6 million to 5 million, so we have seen that problem getting worse. I want to talk a little about London, because this vastly successful city, which includes a massive concentration of wealth and some of the best paid people in the country, has a scandalous problem with low pay, and it has been getting worse. Almost one in five jobs in London are low paid and the number of low-paid jobs—those below the London living wage—increased by 45,000 last year to 600,000. The number of low-paid people in London has increased from a total of 420,000 just before the global economic crisis. In 2013, almost one in five London jobs were low paid. That figure has risen from 12% in 2009, so we have a worsening problem of low pay in London.
That problem is not spread equally across people or across all sectors. We know there is a particular problem in the retail and wholesale sector and that one in five low-paid jobs are in the hospitality sector—in hotels and restaurants. Together those two sectors account for nearly half of all low-paid jobs in London—again, that proportion has risen since 2010. We know that low pay particularly affects those working part-time, particularly women. The number of women working part-time on low pay in London has increased by 67,000 since 2009-10. Women are particularly at risk of being trapped in low pay.
Worryingly, we know that there is a particular crisis of low pay affecting black and minority ethnic communities. The Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities are at particular risk of being low paid, and that is also true of black African workers in the capital. We also know that low pay has spread from inner London, which has historically had some of the worst concentrations of poverty, out into the suburbs. They have seen the fastest increase in low pay, with the proportion of low-paid jobs being highest in boroughs such as Harrow and Bexley. They were traditionally regarded as among the more affluent communities in London, so the whole pattern is changing and, unfortunately, in the past few years it has not been changing in a good way.
What does all this actually mean? It means three things, one of which is that people are worse off. We know that, on average, working people are worse off by £1,600 a year. Paul Gregg, of Bath university’s institute for policy research, said in a report that the wages of Britain’s working people are almost 20% lower than they would have been had trend wage continued at its level before the global economic crisis hit us.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the £1,600 that people find themselves down each year in real-terms pay. That £1,600 would be spent in the local economy, thus promoting more jobs and sustaining more business.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. We know that the £1,600 fall in income in cash terms and the fact that wages are 20% lower than they would have been if wage growth had been consistent with its level before the global economic crash—before 2008-09 and beyond–—means several things for the wider economy. Obviously, low-paid people invest their money in the local economy; they spend it, and that has a beneficial effect on the shops, services and communities where they live. It also means that some of those people who would have been paying tax are no longer doing so, which has a beneficial effect for low-paid people coming out of tax but means that total tax revenues are undershooting dramatically, as the Office for Budget Responsibility has confirmed. Indeed, the problem of low pay and tax revenues is a contributing factor to not being able to reduce the deficit, which of course the Conservative party told us would be completed by the next financial year. That has been a complete public policy failure, with a reduction of only a third compared with a target of almost total elimination.
Other issues arise from low pay. It damages work incentives, and we hear a great deal from the Conservative party about those. It is as if it were the party that discovered the idea of work incentives and making work pay. In fact, we all want to see work pay and for that to be an incentive for people going into work. Let us accept that that is universally shared. The trouble is that the worsening scandal of low pay, including in cities such as London, means that work simply does not necessarily guarantee a route out of poverty and it traps people on benefits. That is partly because wages have fallen, as we have heard, but also because they have fallen, particularly in places such as London, relative to soaring housing costs and rising rents. The rise in rents in London means that many households simply cannot work enough hours at the kind of pay that is being offered to get free of benefit tapers. That is particularly true for lone parents and couples with children.
Let me return to the question I was asked by Richard Fuller about tax credits. It is very important to put on the record just how crucial they are, because whatever one does about the tax threshold and taking people out of tax completely, it simply will not be enough to make sure that people with children are earning enough to make ends meet. The tax credit policy is not a substitute for tax thresholds; it is an essential complement to them, particularly for parents.
The hon. Lady rightly says that tax credits are a necessary policy addition to tax thresholds We are clear what the Government’s policy is on tax credits, but can she tell us what Labour’s policy is on them for the next five years?
We heard from the Chancellor at the Tory party conference about what he wanted to do in that area. We are yet to have any specific proposals brought to this House and we will consider them when they are put in front of us. When we were asked to vote in favour of a freeze on tax credits—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Members for Bedford (Richard Fuller) and for Streatham (Mr Umunna) should listen to the hon. Lady.
When we were asked to consider what the Government’s freeze on tax credits was going to do in the earlier part of this year, we drew attention to exactly that fact and opposed the Government on that particular freeze for this year because we knew it would hit working people. We hear all the rhetoric from the Conservatives about work incentives, but we do not hear what impact that has on low-income working people.
I am trying to try to find some common ground. Does the hon. Lady agree that when we are talking about what to do with incomes for the low paid, it is important that we do not try to sell them this idea that an increase in their wage will necessarily lead to an increase in their full income unless we are clear about what the policy will be on tax credits?
I think I understand the point. We will consider, and make a decision on, those proposals that are put in front of us. They will not necessarily be the proposals that have been put in front of us by a Conservative party conference. It is extremely important to look at tax credits in the round as well as at other changes to the tax system to ensure that we are helping not just those on low incomes through tax thresholds but those who have children so that they have a chance of a decent standard of living too.
Another related point is that low pay has caught people in in-work benefits and added to the benefit bill. The low-wage economy has led to an enormous increase not only in the number of working people claiming in-work benefits such as housing benefit, but in the total expenditure. For example, we have seen a £4 billion increase in housing benefit— that is despite the fact that the Government have made cuts to the total level of housing benefit—as more people are forced into making claims to make ends meet. Indeed, the number of working households needing housing benefit has already increased by 22% and is expected to double over the coming years.
To ensure that we have a sustained recovery and that we tackle the cost of living crisis, help people on low pay and cut the benefits bill, we need to do something about low pay. That is why I so warmly welcome what my hon. Friends on the Front Bench have said about tackling the minimum wage, delivering the “make work pay” contracts, and helping and supporting employers to pay the London living wage, which was set at £8.80 in 2013-14. That will ensure that Londoners can enjoy the full fruits of economic growth as it now belatedly returns.
Where possible—we know that this will not apply to every single sector of the economy—employers should be able to pass on the benefits of the recovery to employees, and in so doing ensure that the additional costs of in-work benefits are offset, so that we can make a contribution to the Treasury. We know that the minimum wage is only one component in a package that will do something to end the cost of living crisis. I welcome the proposals that will ensure rent stability for London renters who have been dealing with this enormous burden of increased housing costs, and the measures to tackle energy costs that have so burdened low-income households over the past few years. The minimum wage may be only one component of the package, but it is a vital one. I very much welcome today’s motion and look forward to voting for it.
It was really interesting to hear Ms Buck deliver the last bit of her speech, as it was the most promising and uplifting part of the whole thing. The tone of this Opposition debate has been so downbeat. As usual, it is about doom and gloom. The only way out, say the Opposition, is through regulation and for a would-be Labour Government to layer more and more costs on business. Life is not like that. Labour has not learned its lesson. I find it utterly fascinating that, four years into this parliamentary term, we have this synthetic anger and calls for regulation and layering costs on business, not to do the things that our communities need. We need to lift horizons, especially with regard to education.
One of the things that I am most proud about is the fact that we now have a college in South Derbyshire. We have never ever had one before. It was normal for people to leave school at 14. The boys went down the pits and the girls went into the potteries; that is what they did. Well, it is not like that any more, and it must not be like that. If I can get a college in South Derbyshire, surely to goodness, Labour MPs can think about lifting the horizons for their communities. They should think about how people can get better jobs, because they now have better education. We have 1.3% unemployment in South Derbyshire. When the mines shut, we had 25% unemployment. That is a huge change around in the economy of my constituency.
I get extremely frustrated with this mantra that people should get better jobs. Actually, the precious jobs in our economy include caring, nursing, sweeping our streets and making sure our communities are safe. The people in those essential jobs are frequently on really low pay. We must drive up the amount of money that employers pay them. We should not just say, “Go and get a better job.” Those jobs are essential to our economy.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. All work should be worth doing and worth paying. There is no difference between us on that. How depressing would it be if ever, God forbid, Labour got into power? That is what its mantra is about. Ours is not about that; ours is about sunny uplands.
Does the hon. Lady not accept the fact that the number and proportion of people in low pay has increased since her party has been in government? It is all very well telling people to lift their horizons, but in fact the crisis of low pay has intensified over the past four and a half years.
I will have some difficulty in accepting that. The point is that 1 million fewer people are unemployed. There are more people in employment now than ever before. There are more women employed than ever before. I want people to understand that getting a job and looking after their family is their No.1 priority, and that is happening.
Obviously, I have looked at the statistics for South Derbyshire. Fewer than 7% of workers in South Derbyshire are on the minimum wage. That is because we have made a real effort to get manufacturing in South Derbyshire and to get a supply chain for the manufacturers. We have made a real effort to get apprenticeship training schools in South Derbyshire. We have worked like—let me find a nice phrase for this. We have worked very hard to ensure that people do not just say, “Do you know what, I do that because my dad and my grandfather used to do that.” It is about lifting horizons.
I totally agree that we need all our public services to ensure that we have clean streets, bins that are emptied and street lights that stay on. People should understand the value of working. I find it so depressing that all we ever get from Labour is this business of layering on regulation and doom and gloom. The right ideas that we heard at conference include raising the tax threshold to £12,500. The horizon of my hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke is to raise it to more than £14,000. We are not talking about people being grateful that we are only going to tax them at 10%. We want everybody lifted up out of that level. It is outrageous that people should even contemplate that that might be in a Labour manifesto.
I know I am about to make a contribution after the hon. Lady, but let me make this point. There are people who are not working enough hours to come anywhere close to paying income tax. The people who really benefit from what the coalition Government are saying are she and I and everyone else on high salaries. We benefit from increasing the personal allowance. Some people do not even earn half of that personal allowance a month.
I completely accept the hon. Gentleman’s point of view and it is completely fair to say that people who were unemployed are now working a few hours, but I remember the great outcry about changing working hours from 16 to 20. There was massive outcry and we were told that it would never happen, but I have not had a single constituent come to me to tell me that they are worse off because they are now working 20 hours or because they are working towards those 20 hours. I think that things have changed.
In relation to the comment from Mr Brown, which I am sure we can all agree with, does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to try to get people working more hours is to cut the tax on business and get businesses to give the money to the people doing the work, rather than raising more taxes on business?
My hon. Friend raises a superb point. Our aspiration to take corporation tax, which is already among the lowest in the G8 and the G20 at 23%, down to 20% is fantastic. The money should stay in the businesses, so that they can afford to pay their employees.
I have two superb employers, amongst many, in my constituency that make a point of ensuring that I am aware of what is going on. Nobody earns less than £7 an hour at Nestlé and there will be nearly 1,000 workers there. The second company, Faccenda, which is a turkey processing plant, has 400 employees. Nobody there earns less than £7 an hour and most earn far more than that. Companies realise that they do very well if they pay their employees well, but they can only do that if they do not have layers of regulation, layers of red tape and layers of “the Labour party knows best”. That is the old days. That is the ’70s.
It is sometimes said that my constituency neighbour, Mr Bone, is the meanest boss in Britain. As a former employee of the hon. Lady, who was a trustee of the charity that I ran, I can say that she certainly was not one of the meanest bosses in Britain. We would agree that it is important to pay people well and I know that that is something that she stands by, but I am not quite sure about her point about regulation. The proposals are to continue to seek to increase the minimum wage. Surely, she supports the minimum wage, so I cannot quite see why she thinks this will be a burdensome new regulation.
The difficulty that the hon. Gentleman slightly skates around is the fact that this would be such a burden for companies that are not doing well. That is where we have the problem. We need our companies not to have regulation, to have aspiration and to have 20% corporation tax, so that they can pay their employees well.
By that same logic, does the hon. Lady think the cost of in-work benefits, which is soaring because of the rise in the payment of low wages and because of falling wages, is a burden on the taxpayer?
I want to turn the whole argument the other way around. I feel that companies need to understand that we expect them to look after their employees. We need only to think about what has happened with the taking on of pensions. It has been a huge success. Again, all the naysayers said that nobody would take it up and it would not work, but it has been one of the best successes because good employers have loyal employees who stay and work for them. That is what I want to see in the future for our country. Goodness forbid that Labour get in next May. I do not want that to happen because I feel that the economy is just turning around, as people are understanding that we are manufacturing so much more than we ever used to and that that is the way forward. It is about aspiration, education, apprenticeships, good living and good wages. I see all of that in South Derbyshire and I do not want it to be put under threat.
It is a pleasure to follow Heather Wheeler, who is, dare I say, one of the jovial characters in this place. She speaks much sense. She speaks about doom and gloom among Labour Members, and I try as best I can to be upbeat, but I am sure that she would recognise that the economic recovery that Government Members talk about is not being seen across the country. I have said it time and again, and I hate to say it, but I will not let people forget that 13 or 14 months ago the average wage in my constituency in rural south-west Scotland was 24% beneath the UK average. Thankfully, that has improved and it is now at about 17% or 18%, but people are struggling.
Across the country, working people have seen their wages fall by an average of £1,600 a year, because under what I—and my colleagues, I am sure—see as the Government’s failing plan, the recovery is benefiting a privileged few and most families are not seeing the green shoots of any kind of economic recovery. The real value of the national minimum wage has fallen and one in five employees are low paid. That impacts not only on low-paid workers but on their families, their communities and the local economy. It piles up across the country as more people in work have to rely, as has been said this afternoon, on the social security system to make ends meet.
My hon. Friend Ms Buck mentioned the Campaign to End Child Poverty and the work done by the centre for research and social policy at Loughborough university. The figures out today for my area are soul destroying. The figure for the number of children living in poverty is now 23.2%. Those figures include more than 3,000 children affected by in-work poverty, whereas 1,200 are affected by out-of-work poverty. A massive shift is going on and we are seeing more and more families affected—families with children. We should all be saying that we are going to do something about that together to get children out of poverty. The situation is pretty desperate in some areas, and I recognise that my hon. Friend cited even higher figures from her London constituency.
The hon. Member for South Derbyshire mentioned colleges. I have to tell her that the college system and the further and higher education systems are different north of the border. I have a new college in my constituency that is only two or three years old, but the budget has been cut by the Scottish Government. Over the years, about 30% of the young students going into that college have had no formal qualifications whatsoever. The formal education system has failed them, but the college offers them a second chance that many of them have seized. However, the budget for our further education colleges is being cut—that is not the fault of Government Members, because it is a devolved issue—and so courses are being cut. That means that young people who need that second chance are being deprived of the opportunity.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the number of apprenticeships in Scotland is at a record level and that targeting funding at policies that will get young people into work, rather than at an endless cycle of college courses that do not lead to work, is a better use of scarce public money at a time when the block grant has been cut and when public finances are under immense pressure?
I recognise that finances are under pressure, but I would say the same to the hon. Lady as I said to the hon. Member for South Derbyshire. The situation is not the same across the entire country. Youth unemployment in my area sits at some 5.3% whereas the Scottish average is 4.8% and the UK average is 3.8%, as there are so few job opportunities. When young academically inclined people in my area manage to get off to college or university, 90% never come back because the quality jobs that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire has spoken about are simply not there. It is a rural economy—tourism is the other major employer—but the growing job market is in the care sector as people come to the area to retire. We have a vastly different economy to other places, although similar economies exist.
I want to move on to the issue of the national minimum wage. I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend Mr Umunna, the shadow Secretary of State, that I served on the Committee for the National Minimum Wage Bill. As I said at the time, the only other person who served on the Committee who was in the Chamber at the time at which I made the intervention was Mr Speaker. There were some long nights. Indeed, I remember two particularly lengthy sittings: one that started at 4.30 on a Tuesday afternoon and ended at 1 o’clock the following afternoon, and another that started at 4.30 on a Thursday afternoon and finished at 6.30 the following morning. But it was really worth it. I remember campaigning in Lockerbie when the figure of £3.60 an hour was announced, and one guy I met on the doorstep asked, “Is this figure of £3.60 right?” I said yes and asked whether it would affect him. “Of course it will,” he said. He was working the best part of 50 hours a week in the forests—heavy, dirty and dangerous work—but taking home only about £112 a week.
I just want to congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he did to introduce the national minimum wage, because I remember that there were adverts in my local press for security guards, and they read, “£1 an hour. Bring your own dog.”
I thank my hon. Friend. Yes, we have moved on, but the fear among Opposition Members is that we are starting to slip back. In those days it was women, in particular, who were having to hold down two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. I see the same thing returning but, more worryingly, it is not only women, but men who are having to hold down two or three jobs.
Yes, this is about the whole employment method. We cannot deal with this just with a stand-alone national minimum wage. When we came to office we had the windfall levy on the privatised utilities, which allowed us to introduce the new deal programme for young unemployed people, the long-term unemployed, the disabled and lone parents, and then we introduced the tax credits system. It was about pulling together two or three strands to make things work, and that led to a step change in people’s standards of living.
I certainly support the work that the hon. Gentleman’s Government did on the national minimum wage, but does he not regret the fact that when they left office people earning the minimum wage were paying £1,000 a year in tax? By April they will have seen that figure cut by £800 through the work of the Liberal Democrats. [Interruption.]
I refer to the coalition Government in that regard—credit where credit is due—and I will come to that point later.
With regard to the reduced levels of unemployment, we need to look at the figures from the Office for National Statistics for the weekly average number of hours worked across the country and compare them with the number of people working over the past 12 to 18 months. Although more people are working, we have not seen an increase in the number of hours being worked on a pro-rata basis. What we are seeing—this relates to the point about zero-hours contracts—is that more people are in part-time work or working shorter hours. Some people are desperate to grab four or six hours in order to supplement a job they are doing elsewhere. The unemployment figures might be falling, but the overall number of hours being worked across the country is not increasing at the level we would have expected for the number of people now in employment.
People need job security, but we are seeing a scale of job insecurity in this country that we have not seen for many years, so I challenge Government Members to say that we have not gone backwards in some respects. I hate to say it, but there are some unscrupulous employers who are prepared to exploit zero-hours contracts and short-term working for people who are prepared to do a hard day’s work if given the chance. I also want to mention migrant workers, because I was talking about that with three or four guys I met five or six weeks ago. They were very angry, and not about the migrant workers they were working with, but about the fact that their employer was exploiting the situation in order to keep wages low, with local indigenous workers paying the price.
I want to mention the personal tax allowance again, because it is a big issue. I applaud the aim of taking people out of tax. I have challenged Treasury Ministers on this, as has my hon. Friend Sheila Gilmore, because many people are not working enough hours to come anywhere close to paying tax. The fact is that it is the rich, or those in well-paid jobs, who reap the benefits of the personal allowance changes. I also recognise that there is always a narrow band of people who benefit, and if we shift or change tax bands and tax rates, some people will be more heavily penalised than others.
This is an increasingly important subject. We must also consider the fact that north of the border, as my hon. Friend will know, many local authorities are talking about not only a minimum wage, but a living wage, because of the problems associated with the minimum wage. Does he agree?
Yes, I think that it is about a step change. We need to recognise that we should do whatever we can to increase the quality of life and lessen the impact of the cost of living on households. My local authority will be looking long and hard at that issue and imploring the businesses it offers contracts to—we know that we cannot demand it—to pay a living wage.
In 1997, we were told that we would lose millions of pounds as a result of a national minimum wage, but my party had clearly done our homework while in opposition, because the figures showed that when we give £1 million to the lowest-paid people in any community, they will go out and spend it, which creates 35 to 40 jobs in the community. That is what we saw. Some people in my area saw businesses shedding jobs, because the type of work they were doing was coming to the end of its life, and they could not understand why unemployment levels were still low. Unemployment was falling simply because we were putting money into the local economy.
I will return to a point that was made when we were discussing the benefits increase earlier this year. The figures clearly show that freezing benefits for the lowest-paid people over a three-year period took £6 billion out of the local economy. Giving some of the poorest paid extra money stimulates the local economy.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech. I agree with his point about the economic multiplier effect of a minimum wage, and indeed of increasing benefits. The economist Paul Krugman makes the economic argument that increasing benefits adds to the economy by creating demand among the people who are likely to spend.
Absolutely. As my hon. Friend Jack Dromey said earlier, low-paid workers do not salt the money away but go out and spend it, and that is what we need. I honestly believe that that is where the coalition Government, to a certain extent, have failed. They have taken money away from some of the poorest communities and households, and there is no doubt that if we had left money in their hands, it would have been spent.
Mr Deputy Speaker is looking at me and I want to draw to a conclusion.
I want to mention “make work pay” contracts. In November last year, the Leader of the Opposition announced
“that a future Labour government would encourage employers to pay the living wage through new ‘Make Work Pay’ contracts.
Firms which sign up to become Living Wage employers in the first year of the next Parliament will benefit from a 12-month tax rebate of up to £1,000—and an average of £445—for every low paid worker who gets a pay rise.
This measure will be entirely funded from the increased tax and National Insurance revenue received by the Treasury when employees receive higher wages. Additional savings in lower tax credits and benefit payments, as well as increased tax revenues in future years, will cut social security bills and help pay down the deficit”— as we all want to do. That, without a shadow of a doubt, is a commitment that an incoming Government would make the desperate moves that have to be made to reduce the deficit.
I am going to finish now.
I am proud that when I came into this House I was one of a team of people who took forward the National Minimum Wage Bill. I have always said that even if I do nothing else in life, I can say that I played that part in what that Labour Government did. With no doubt whatsoever, I will be supporting our motion. I would like to think that one or two Government Members who have spoken will support us too.
Order. Let me just say that if Members stick to 10 minutes each, I will get all five speakers in, because I want to bring in the Front Benchers at 20 minutes to 4.
I am truly grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you took the point of order from my hon. Friend Robert Halfon, because the fact that he has been maligned by the shadow Secretary of State for Education so publicly on the media means that he will probably now be touring the media studios having to explain that he did not make the comments attributed to him. I seriously hope that the Member who made those allegations comes here as quickly as possible to explain in the public domain, not just by sending a text, that my hon. Friend did not make those comments, from which I am sure that many of us would dissociate ourselves.
I am glad that I heard all the previous speeches, but particularly that I heard about the flexibility that Mr Umunna is building into his plans. One of the things I have learned about being bendy in life is that it allows one to do U-turns. We now know that Labour does not have a firm promise, as was said at the party conference, to deliver a “greater than £8 an hour” minimum wage, and there is flexibility about that. That means, of course, that in reality, with a poor and failing economy like the one we inherited from it, Labour will deliver less than the £8.06 an hour that is projected by us. This debate has revealed the fact that the shadow Secretary of State is distancing himself from that commitment. Today Labour has illustrated the fact that it is prepared to be flexible about having £8 an hour while we desire to have a greater amount of £8.06 an hour.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke is not still here; he has probably had to pop out for something very important. As I said in an intervention, I completely agree with what he said about his ten-minute rule Bill on the payment of interns. We are talking about the minimum wage in this very privileged place. Many of us are glad to be here, but many of us have had to take second jobs, or whatever, to make sure that we could afford to be here, while some people here are very wealthy and can afford to be here. It is appalling that once we have got here we seem to forget that a lot of young people would like to work for us, but then they read on the “Working for an MP” website that interns are paid only expenses. That means that they are not being paid the minimum wage. I can see Rachel Reeves looking at me at this point.
I believe that we should set an example in this place. Mr Umunna, who has now left, said that I was talking about work experience of a few weeks for sixth-formers, but no, I am not. All of us may have people with us doing work experience. I encourage that from those of any political persuasion in my constituency, and I do have young people coming in for a few days or a week. However, that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about the fact that MPs, with the expense accounts accorded to us to make sure that we can pay our staff proper rates in accordance with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority guidance, will still consider having people doing long hours in important jobs for expenses only, which often fall far below the level of the minimum wage.
The hon. Member for Leeds West might want to intervene on me, but I believe that she has had a series of interns who have not been paid the minimum wage. There is a website in operation that says whether an MP will pay for an internship. I do not believe that anyone should work for free or for very little, and that applies in this place and outside this place. If we cannot uphold the principle here, it is very hard to make the argument to employers outside.
I look forward to a revisiting, I hope, of what interns can expect should they come to work for Members in this House. Otherwise we will perpetuate the fact that this is a place of privilege and so people need to be able to have the bank of mum and dad to pay their bills in order to come here and work for a pittance for an MP. That is wrong, and it should go now. We should guarantee at least the minimum wage to anyone who comes to work in this place. Jack Dromey said that he had joined a strike of members of staff here so that they could have the living wage. Good on him, but let us remember the interns who come through this place, often on short-term six-month contracts, who cannot strike and cannot have the same rights accorded to them. We as Members should think about those people, many of whom are young and aspirational.
Is the hon. Lady not aware of the Conservative party auctioning internships to serve with J. P. Morgan? How does that sort of attitude, whereby people are purchasing places with companies like that, fit in?
I think I have made myself very clear. I have never had an intern work for me whom I have not paid, and I will not do so. Sometimes I am constrained as to the numbers of staff I can have, and I budget accordingly. Unless the hon. Gentleman condemns any Labour Member who does not do the same, I am not interested in auctioning internships. I believe I have made it very clear that young people should be paid if they work for Members of the House of Commons.
I should like to turn to zero-hours contracts. Other Members have said that zero-hours contracts should be abolished because they are awful and appalling, and are sometimes not proper jobs. There are examples of all those things, but, as I said in an intervention, let us be aware that zero-hours contracts do not always provide a dreadful solution. They sometimes provide a very necessary solution for bank nurses, supply teachers, and other people filling gaps where suddenly there arises a vacancy. I speak as someone who has been in that situation myself. When my husband died and I was a single parent, I was glad to work as a supply teacher so that I could work around the needs of my young children—for example, sometimes they were ill and could not go to school. Opposition Members condemn all zero-hours contracts, but if we were to get rid of them, our health and education services, to name but two, would probably grind to a halt within a few days or weeks. It is very necessary to have contracts that give flexibility in the delivery of these services.
The most crucial thing that will come out of this Opposition day debate is the fact that Labour has declared that it does not have a promise or a guarantee of a “greater than £8 an hour” minimum wage but a flexible target of £8 an hour that can be abandoned at any moment. I hope that the electorate out there will take note of that when its leaflets come through their doors.
I very much welcome today’s debate on the minimum wage, because it affects millions of people across the UK, including thousands in my own rural constituency, and I think that it, more than any other policy, has the potential to tackle poverty.
In-work poverty is perhaps the most stark symptom of the deep income inequality that is increasingly the hallmark of British society, but people in low-paid jobs have been badly let down by successive Governments, who have failed to ensure that the minimum wage keeps pace with the cost of living. We need to recognise that that failure has had a huge impact on people in low-wage jobs and ask ourselves how we can change the minimum wage into a living wage.
If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation, those in low-paid jobs would be more than £600 a year better off now: they would be earning £7.48 an hour. That is still short of the living wage, which is currently calculated at £7.65 an hour, but it is a lot closer and makes the gap between a minimum wage and a living wage a lot more bridgeable.
I intend to support the Labour motion because any commitment to increase the minimum wage is a step in the right direction, but it is important to put the proposal in perspective and acknowledge that it will not be a living wage. If we use existing forecasts of inflation, we will see that the living wage is projected to rise to £8.57 an hour by 2020, so what is being proposed today falls well short of a wage that someone can actually live on. I would also urge a note of caution: we have no means at all of knowing whether those forecasts are right. They might be higher or lower—the Office for Budget Responsibility does not have much of a track record in accurate forecasting to date—so we have absolutely no way of knowing what a phased increase of the minimum wage to £8 an hour by 2020 will mean in real terms.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that the living wage is based on a net figure, because it is a net figure that people actually spend, and will she join the Living Wage Foundation in welcoming what this Government have done with regard to the tax threshold, which has helped to narrow the gap between the minimum wage and the living wage?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but in fact the Government have not gone nearly far enough, because inequality in this country is growing, not reducing. There have been vast increases in income at the top end of the income spectrum, while increasing pressure is being put on people at the lower and middle parts of the spectrum. The gap between the richest and poorest in our society is widening and that is not in any way sustainable.
It is important to understand that if the minimum wage were linked to inflation, it would have a much better chance of keeping pace with the actual cost of living. That would help avoid the current situation, whereby the minimum wage is well below the cost of living and forces people to be dependent on in-work benefits. It would also help address Labour’s prescriptive proposal, which limits us to the increases on the table without knowing what the economy is going to do between now and 2020. Anyone with a crystal ball would be well advised to be cautious in their predictions.
Yesterday and earlier today the House discussed the promise of extensive new powers for the Scottish Parliament, which are now being considered by the Smith commission. The minimum wage is a prime example of a policy that I would like to see devolved, and I am pleased that the Scottish National party’s submission to the Smith commission has set out the benefits of that, particularly the ability to link the minimum wage to inflation, which would immediately improve the position of low-paid workers and, over time, reduce reliance on in-work benefits.
The Scottish Government’s expert group on welfare reform has also considered the issue and recommended that the minimum wage should begin to rise, in phased stages, to the level of the living wage. Like others who have spoken, however, I do not think it is possible to divorce the issue of the minimum wage from the wider tax and benefits system.
Given that a very high proportion of people in low-paid work are in receipt of in-work benefits, we need to look at the design of the welfare system. One of the greatest failures of the UK’s welfare model has been the disincentives it has created for part-time workers in particular to increase their working hours, because of clear financial disadvantages and risks associated with doing so. For instance, for a couple with children and one parent in work, increasing working hours from 50% to full-time work results in 82% of the extra earned income being lost through tax and loss of benefits, which radically undermines the perception of work as a route out of poverty. A redesigned model would have the potential to address those high withdrawal rates and tackle the existing disincentives so that lower-income households could keep a greater proportion of the increases in earned income.
I echo the point made by Mr Brown. The people who are getting the biggest and fullest benefit from changes to the tax system and the lowest rate of tax are those on the highest incomes. The changes are benefiting those at the top end of the income spectrum and having a fairly marginal impact on those at the lower end, because what they gain in tax they lose in benefit. The net impact in many cases has been to reduce their income, particularly in relation to average income in the country as a whole.
A redesigned model would be especially important for families and those with dependent children. In a week when we have seen very sharp increases in child poverty—this has been referred to by the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway—it is really important to make the point that most of the children in poverty in Scotland are children in working families. They are the children of working parents, and the changes to the tax and benefits system have pushed them into an even harder position than they were in previously. They have been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. I want to challenge the view that having one in five children living in poverty is inevitable, because that is simply not acceptable. We could change that if we put our minds to it. We need to get our priorities straight.
When the minimum wage was introduced in the 1990s, I remember fears of Armageddon being expressed from some quarters and apocalyptic warnings that jobs would be lost and that the economy would go to hell in a handcart. Of course, that is not what happened, because when people had a bit more money in their pockets they spent it. The higher costs to businesses, which we all take seriously, were more than outweighed in economic terms by the benefits to businesses, including job creation, and in social terms by the huge benefits and improvements to the standard of living for people in low-income households.
There are also potential fiscal benefits from an improved minimum wage in savings to the benefits bill, and potential for increased tax receipts. We need to recognise that and not pretend that it is simply a cost. It is actually a way of getting people into work and improving the standard of living for many people throughout our society—not just the people in those jobs, but those who depend on them, such as their children and other dependants.
My hon. Friend is making a fine speech. What she is saying could be summed up by the economists Krugman and Stieglitz, who say that one person’s spending is another person’s earning. When we put money in people’s pockets, it has a very good economic effect all around.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point.
I want to touch on another issue that has been mentioned by others, namely the disproportionate number of disabled workers and minority ethnic workers in minimum wage jobs. We have already heard about Lord Freud’s disgraceful comments and I hope the Government will step back from what was an outrageous thing to say about people who are already disadvantaged in the labour market.
Thank you for that clarification, Mr Deputy Speaker. The first I heard of those outrageous slurs on the hon. Member for Harlow was today, but I hope that the record has been put straight and that he will continue to put it straight. I would feel much happier, however, if Government Members would dissociate themselves more firmly from what Lord Freud has said.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is my first point of order so please give me some forbearance. At what point is it orderly to refer to comments that have not been made in this House and at what point is it not orderly to do so? Comments have been made about one Minister in one location, and other comments have been made about a Member of Parliament in another location. Which is orderly and which is disorderly to refer to here?
First, we are not going to worry about the Chair’s decision. My decision—I will be quite clear—is that a peer from another place has been mentioned, but I do not want to get into a debate about something that has been over the airwaves relating to two Members. That issue has been clarified in this Chamber and by another Member. I do not want the debate to centre on that. This is a debate, as we know, about the minimum wage and support for people.
I want to dwell on equality, because we must remember that the vast majority of people in minimum wage jobs are women. Issues of ethnicity and disability often compound those of gender inequality. Minimum wage jobs are overwhelmingly done by women who are in part-time positions because of their caring responsibilities. Such women are often in sectors with far too much gender occupational segregation, such as cleaning, catering and cashiering. They often have temporary and insecure jobs, and they often work antisocial hours. Other Members have mentioned the problems of exploitative zero-hours contracts.
We cannot separate from this debate the huge impact of gender inequality on wages in this country or dissociate it from child poverty and its long-term impact on our society, which was discussed earlier. We know that children who grow up in deprivation are likely to need the heath service more, to have lower educational attainment and to have much worse job prospects in the long term. Unless we are prepared to recognise that people deserve a living wage to support their families, we cannot begin to tackle the inequality that so dogs our society.
I want to touch on the difficulties of enforcing the minimum wage, which other Members have mentioned. This year, the Low Pay Commission has taken evidence in my constituency, where a significant number of people are in low-paid jobs. Although unemployment is very low in Banff and Buchan—about 1%—a very high proportion of people earn less than the living wage. The vast majority of employers respect employment law and pay at least the minimum wage, but people have nevertheless brought me reports of being paid less than the minimum wage. That issue is extremely difficult to address.
I have been made aware of cases of people involved in the so-called informal economy, as well as in the service sector. They may not have a contract and may not have received pay slips. They know that they are being short-changed and that, in relation to national insurance, they could be losing out on their pensions in the longer term. They are also short-changing Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the rest of us. However, they are reluctant to put their heads above the parapet because they need their job and do not want to jeopardise what little income they have. In a close-knit rural community, they also do not want to be labelled a troublemaker.
Beefing up local authorities’ powers might help, but that is not a real solution. In theory, employees who are being paid less than the minimum wage can pursue legal action against their employer or take them to a tribunal with every likelihood of success, but the reality is that somebody paid less than £6.50 an hour is very unlikely to have the financial means to access the tribunal service or take on the associated legal costs. That is wholly unrealistic, and I hope that the Minister will address that issue and suggest ways round it when she responds, particularly given the changes that the Government have introduced.
I just want to say that any constituent of the hon. Lady, or indeed of any other Member, who finds themselves in such a situation should ring the pay and work rights helpline on 0800 917 2368. They do not need to access the tribunal system; HMRC enforces the national minimum wage on behalf of workers.
I am grateful to the Minister—it is very helpful to have that phone number on the record—but my experience, having helped constituents in such a way, is that nothing changes. The Government need to do more on this to make people feel confident about asserting their rights.
I want to wind up quickly by saying that we have reached a situation in the UK where people in low-paid work—
Order. May I just help the hon. Lady? I have been very patient. She has now spoken for 14 minutes. To be serious, I do not think that that is doing justice to other Members. I am very patient, but she needs to get to the end.
I was just bringing my remarks to a close, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it is important to say that the minimum wage has the potential to lift people out of poverty. I hope that this Government and whoever the next Government are will take such an opportunity.
The motion recognises that there is a series of extremely important issues, but it fails on at least three fronts: in my view, it is too timid in its prescription; it lacks honesty in addressing the issue of how to meet competing ambitions; and, above all, the public have no confidence whatever in the ability of the shadow Treasury team and the leader of the party who tabled it to manage the country’s economy.
These issues are important because people want a pay rise. They want a pay rise because for many years now they have suffered from the consequences of the previous Labour Government’s debt-fuelled policies, which came crashing down in the economic collapse of
2007. That was seven long years ago, and we are still suffering the consequences of their failures. People understand that it takes time for the economy to be repaired. They are pleased to see that the Government have a long-term economic plan and are making progress in addressing the fundamental weaknesses of the economy. They understand that a stronger economy means stronger businesses, that stronger businesses mean more jobs and that an increase in employment will result in higher wages. However, they are impatient to feel that in their own pockets.
There is a lack of ambition in the proposals before us. There are several reasons why the motion and policy prescriptions from both sides of the House are too limited to meet the challenges that the economy faces. The first reason is that we are living through an era of massive corporate welfare. Vast sums of taxpayers’ money are funnelled into our private sector—or so-called private sector—companies year in, year out. One of the most substantial amounts of corporate welfare each year is paid out in the form of tax credits. I am not at all saying that we should scrap tax credits, but I think we need to be clear about how much taxpayers’ money can be paid to corporations to subsidise wages or provide other subsidies for what are otherwise private sector, free market activities.
The second reason is the conundrum that those of us in free economies do not value valuable work. We have heard comments from Members on both sides of the House about this, but if we asked the public to rate how important they think certain jobs are and what should be paid for such jobs, we would end up with substantially different outcomes from those that now exist. For a start, every Member of the House would be paid a whole lot less and bankers would not gain the millions of pounds that they achieve, but our nurses would earn more and, most importantly, our care workers would earn substantially more. In free economies, there is a conundrum: how do we get to a point somewhere between what the market delivers and the remuneration that people expect to be given for the work put in? There is no question but that the moves under the previous Labour Government in both introducing the national minimum wage and providing working tax credits—I might have concerns about the latter going too far—were steps in the right direction of trying to find solutions to that problem, which still persists.
The third major reason why today’s prescriptions are too timid is that there is a substantial underlying issue of demand in western economies. If we look at the risks faced by this country—it is a tremendous accomplishment that the UK economy is growing so strongly, despite the international headwinds—we still have to conclude that one of the most substantial risks is the insufficient demand in the real economy. There is quite a lot of demand in the financial products area, but there is not enough demand in the real economy. Providing a boost to real wages would address the issue of the absence of demand perhaps even more effectively than quantitative easing has managed to do over the past five years.
As I have said, the motion fails because it lacks honesty in tackling the existence of competing ambitions. Let me give an example in relation to the first issue. One sector with low pay is care, but a route out of that is to have transparency in commissioning. This week, I was very pleased to meet Citizens UK, which has been at the forefront of efforts on the living wage. It will have a manifesto for each of us as Members of Parliament or candidates at the next election to consider. It has looked at commissioning, and wants transparency in commissioning to show that care workers’ pay can be at or above the minimum wage or at or above the living wage. It says that that can be accomplished by providing a floor on commission pricing. If we are to be honest, we have to address the consequence of that. In an era of limited public expenditure, when it is necessary to bring the deficit down, what will we do when the average cost of care goes up? Will we expand the amount of care that is provided and expand the budget for it or will we reduce the amount of care to keep the expenditure the same? The Government and the Opposition need to be honest about what their proposals are on that.
The second issue, which I ask Opposition Members to address, is that in a number of the scenarios for increasing pay from the minimum wage to the living wage, the increase is offset nearly 100% by reductions in benefits. What are the proposals of the Opposition and the Government on that? They say to the public, “We will increase your pay and that will be a good thing,” but when tax and national insurance are taken away and the working tax credits, child tax credits, housing benefit and council tax benefit are added, are people actually going to be better off? If it is not possible for parties to demonstrate that there will be an increase in pay at that point, we are in danger of misleading people by saying that we are doing something that will make them better off in their pockets. That is compounded when Opposition Members say that they can achieve an increase in wages at the same time as reducing the deficit. The same pound cannot be spent in two different places. In her closing remarks, perhaps the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions might provide some light—it might be too early to be too explicit—on how she sees that conflict playing out.
The third issue is directed more at my own party. I believe strongly that we need a strategy for wages. However, I understand that that will have consequences for employment. The Government have done a remarkable job of increasing employment during the country’s worst recession since the war. We now need to look at how we will balance that policy over the next few years with increasing wages.
May I make three suggestions? First, we should continue the work that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is doing to look at the national minimum wage. Secondly, we should consider whether there should be a cross-party agreement to peg the minimum wage to a percentage of average wages. That could become a norm within the Low Pay Commission’s role and responsibilities. Thirdly, we should promote the living wage through greater transparency requirements in all local government contracts, so that local authorities cannot parade the fact that they are doing the right thing by paying their own employees the living wage unless it is transparent that people in the private sector companies and charities that are commissioned to provide their services are being paid the living wage as well.
It is a pleasure to follow Richard Fuller.
He made some important points. I will return to some of them, such as the one about procurement and the supply chain.
My constituency has been fighting for better wages for more than a century. I dare say that the struggle goes back even further. In 1905, Raunds boot and shoe workers marched to London. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is smiling because he knows Raunds well. The workers might even have gone through his constituency. They marched to London to demand a fair rate of pay from the War Office, because they were making boots for the British Army. They rallied in Parliament square and then came into the Strangers Gallery of the House of Commons, where they caused a disturbance, such was the strength of feeling that they needed to be heard. They then marched up to the War Office, where they had a meeting. The War Office agreed to pay a fair rate. It accepted the principle that people should be treated with dignity and respect, and should be paid a wage that is commensurate with the work that they do and that enables them to exist and to have decent lives.
People in my constituency have campaigned long and hard for better wages. People in the steel industry, which used to be a major employer alongside the boot and shoe industry, campaigned for better wages and good jobs. They were incredibly let down in 1980 when the Government closed the steelworks, leaving many people out of work. That has shaped the story of my constituency, which is one of hard-working people, of a great spirit of enterprise and of some very good employment opportunities and good employers. However, there is a darker side to our local labour market.
Today, many people in my constituency have very insecure employment. Many people work through employment agencies, have zero-hours contracts and are paid at the minimum wage. Indeed, some people, as the Minister is well aware, have been paid below the minimum wage. I will come on to that later. The combination of low pay, contracts that lock in insecurity and the role of agencies in our local labour market means that, although people who work for the better employers, such as Tata Steel and RS Components, have good lives, many people struggle to lead the lives that they should be able to lead, given the work that they do, day in, day out, when they have the opportunity to work.
There has been a conversion on zero-hours contracts from the Government. They now seem to accept that they are a problem. For a time, they denied that they caused a difficulty in our local labour market. I campaigned on the issue, as did many others, and persuaded the Office for National Statistics to revise the way in which it surveys employers to identify whether people are being employed on zero-hours contracts. Its revised figures show that almost 1 million people are employed on zero-hours contracts.
The Conservative party has made the argument that some people want to be on zero-hours contracts. In the end, this issue is about economics and power. There are different kinds of casual employment where there are no fixed hours. For a long time, my local authority swimming pool has offered seasonal work. It often suits students to be employed during the summer months on a fair rate of pay and not to have a long-term contract or fixed hours. It is common to combine working in the Co-operative funeral business with being a retained firefighter. There is a long-standing tradition of that. Again, it might suit such individuals not to have fixed hours and not to be on a permanent contract. There are also examples among higher paid jobs. There are hospital consultants and lawyers who do not have fixed hours or permanent contracts, and that might suit them. That is their choice.
However, when I talk about zero-hours exploitation, I am talking about people who would much rather have a proper contract of employment; know where, from week to week, their money will come from week; know what hours they are able to work so that they can plan; and, frankly, be in a stronger position with their employer to demand fairness and respect in return for the work that they do. That exploitation is not just characterised by the narrow issue of exclusivity that the Government have belatedly said they will tackle. We have not seen the legislation on that and I hope that the Minister will tell us how urgently the Government will act. Such exploitation is also about employees being required to be available for work when there is no guarantee of work, and being employed on such contracts on a long-term basis.
Others might say that people can move about in the labour market and look for better opportunities. However, if my constituents cannot get a loan to buy a car to get further afield in the area of the country that has the lowest public subsidy for public transport, how can they break out of the trap? I come across young people who cannot get into the housing market. They cannot get a rental contract, let alone a mortgage. People therefore cannot lead the life that they want, such as starting a family, because they are trapped on zero-hours contracts.
This is therefore a much bigger issue than the Government acknowledge. They have been dragged into beginning to accept that there is a problem, but they have only a very partial, narrow understanding of it. I hope that they will legislate soon. If they do not, I will support the steps that my hon. Friend Mr Umunna said the next Labour Government will take to address the scandal of zero-hours contracts. There is also the problem of employment agencies. My constituency has the highest concentration of employment agencies anywhere in the country. There is a legacy back to the 1980s and the make-up pay that was offered to the then steelworkers, and to the types of industries that located in Corby. To some extent, those were labour-intensive industries where the work could not be shipped abroad. That is why we have a strength in the food sector, with perishables. The work is still labour intensive and it needs to be done in the UK.
Agencies are keeping people in insecure employment on a long-term basis. Some are better than others, and some have signed our local agency code of conduct. Heather Wheeler entreated us to be positive about what we can do, and we have sought to take a local initiative and to work with the local authority and some of the best employers and agencies. We have got them to sign up to a code so that if, for example, a permanent job opportunity becomes available, they will offer that job to an agency worker who has proven themselves over time. They will, of course, always follow the law and make known to employees the law on, for example, not charging for personal protective equipment, and they will not tell people that they have to attend unpaid training as a pre-condition for work; that is illegal, but it often happens in the labour market.
I am grateful for the support that the Minister has given locally to that initiative. She met me and other local representatives, including the council leader, and helped to initiate a series of inspections by HMRC in our local area. We found that more than £100,000 was owing to local workers in fines, and as I understand, those fines have been agreed with some employers. In February the Prime Minister promised me that he would name and shame those employers, despite some Treasury objections. I hope that the Minister will name and shame them today, or if not, that she will tell me when they will be named and shamed. We have heard repeated assurances and local people want to hear those companies named and shamed.
On that specific point, the new naming and shaming policy, which is much more comprehensive, came into being for investigations that began from
That is the kind of bureaucracy that does not work for working people, and which the hon. Member for South Derbyshire deplored. The Prime Minister gave me a personal commitment at the Dispatch Box that those companies would be named and shamed. He is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and I do not believe that he does not have the power to do that. It would set a real example.
I support the motion. I am looking forward to hearing my hon. Friend Julie Hilling so I will draw my remarks to a close by saying that there are good ideas across the Chamber and good will on this issue. It is absolutely clear, however, that we need a Labour Government again to continue the work of the Raunds strikers in 1905, and of those Labour Members who pushed the minimum wage through in 1997.
There have been more measured speakers since the Minister spoke, but listening to him was rather like listening to the Comedy Store at times, given the amazing claims he made. It would be funny if it was not so tragic for the many millions of people who are suffering under the policies of this Government. According to the Minister, everything in the garden is rosy. Well, tell that to the million people who have accessed a food bank this year—to my constituent, Neil, an ex-serviceman paid at the national minimum wage who could not afford to buy nappies and needed to rely on a food bank; or to the one in four apprentices who do not even get paid the paltry £2.73 an hour apprenticeship rate, a rate that has increased by only 23p since 2010.
The national minimum wage was a great achievement by the previous Labour Government, and I pay tribute not only to my hon. Friends who are still in this place, but to a great Wigan MP, Ian McCartney, who steered the minimum wage through Parliament in the teeth of opposition from the Conservative party. I wish I could believe the Minister when he says that the Tory party has had a damascene conversion, but Andrea Leadsom told us previously that businesses with three or fewer employees should be exempt from the minimum wage, as well as from maternity and paternity rights. Mr Raab called for the minimum wage to be suspended for 16 to 21-year-olds, and Philip Davies said that disabled people should be allowed to work for less than the minimum wage. One could argue that those were just renegade Back Benchers, but this afternoon we heard about the disgraceful comments of Lord Freud, the Minister who said that some people “aren’t worth” the full national minimum wage, and that if people want to work for £2 an hour, they should be allowed to.
Another six MPs—including the new UKIP MP—signed a Bill in 2010 calling for employees to be able to opt out of the minimum wage. While I mention UKIP, a week or so ago I had the misfortune of turning on the TV and I found myself listening to a delegate from its conference calling for the abolition of the national minimum wage and the living wage, to resounding cheers from the audience. Douglas Carswell has already made his views clear, as has UKIP’s business spokesman who said that the national minimum wage was in a long list of workers’ rights that make it impossible to employ people.
I am not going to spend a great deal of time talking about interns. Of course we should be able to pay interns, and we have a real difficulty with people who are on workfare and who are working in different ways. We must work towards ensuring that we can pay interns in some way. I have volunteers—I do not call them interns—and I have no money in my budget to pay them. I will not be purer than pure when talking about this issue.
Even businesses are now calling for a rise in the minimum wage, and a raft of business leaders, including the chief executives of Kingfisher and Nomura, have signed a letter calling for the minimum wage to rise faster. It was signed by Sir George Bain, the former chair of the Low Pay Commission, and Alan Buckle, former deputy chair of KPMG, as well as leaders from household names such as the Findus Group, Stobart Group, Balfour Beatty, and Hewlett-Packard.
I recently held an event for faith leaders in Bolton West. They believe that people at the bottom are not paid enough and that we need to work towards a living wage, not just raise the minimum wage. They also reported a large increase in people turning to churches for help with food, clothing and other support. Not only are people £1,600 a year worse off on average, but the loss of the real value of the minimum wage since 2010 has cost an additional £270 million in extra public spending on in-work benefits and tax credits in the last year alone.
Every time an employer does not pay his or her employee enough to live on, it costs every taxpayer money. I appreciate that some small businesses struggle to pay the minimum wage, but many employers are raking in large profits and not paying their workers the living wage they could afford. That is why we need a Labour Government committed to driving up wages, and who will reward employers who pay a living wage through a reduction in tax. Unlike the Government, we have costed that pledge and know how we will pay for it.
We also need strong action to enforce the minimum wage. The Government have announced their name and shame policy four times, but have named only 25 firms. Last year, the Centre for London found that only two employers in four years had been prosecuted for paying below the national minimum wage, despite more than 300,000 people earning less than that.
On the abuse of the national minimum wage, we are told many stories of employers who will employ migrant labour and make vast deductions for accommodation, food and other things. On paper, they are paying the minimum wage, but in reality they pay far less. That not only exploits those workers, but leads to great damage to community cohesion.
As ever, I want to mention my favourite subject: the abuse of care workers who are paid only for the amount of time they are with a client—they are paid a token amount for travel that does not cover their time, and are usually on zero-hours contracts. That needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency. They do an amazing, precious job. Every day, people such as me entrust the care of our loved ones to those exploited workers. That exploitation leads to instability in the work force. I have previously told the House about the 20 different carers my mum had in less than a month because of workers leaving. That leads to mistakes and a great deal of distress for the cared-for person. Imagine if a person had to tell four different people a day how to care for them.
Many of my constituents from all over Bolton West have come to me with the problems of poverty because of low pay, zero-hours contracts, part-time and insecure work, and agency work. I hope the House supports the motion and that the Government will do better than mere rhetoric.
This has been a valuable and instructive debate. At a time when too many people in the country feel left behind by our economy and left out of our politics, it is important that the House of Commons devotes its attention to the issues faced by millions of people in our country who work just as hard as everyone else, doing jobs that are vital to our economy and country—as Members, including my hon. Friend Julie Hilling have pointed out—but who are not getting a fair share of the prosperity that they help to create.
Millions of people put in the shifts and clock up the hours, sometimes in two jobs or more, often when the rest of us are still asleep in the morning or when we have already gone to bed at night, yet when they get their payslip at the end of the month, their pay is not enough to cover the bills or the rent, or to buy simple things that anyone should be able to afford for themselves and their family. Those people think that something has gone seriously wrong with our economy and our country, and they are right. That is why we need a plan to put it right. That is what the debate is about.
I am proud that the Labour party has called the debate. Our party is founded on our belief in the dignity of work, born of the earliest struggles of working people against extreme exploitation, as my hon. Friend Andy Sawford has said. We are proud of the part that we have always played in improving working conditions and winning for working people a fairer reward for their effort and contribution.
A minimum wage was the aim of our movement for more than a century. I pay tribute to my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Leeds West, who, in 1988, laid before the House a Bill calling for a statutory minimum wage. John Battle noted that, at that time, a primary cause of poverty was
“the persistence, even in what is heralded by the Government as a booming economy, of low pay.”
He told the House of jobs advertised in Bramley in my constituency, including a catering assistant post at £2.10 an hour, five cleaning jobs with hourly rates starting at £1.70 an hour, and a security guard job at £1.50 an hour working for 60 hours a week. He said:
“To generate a low-wage economy for a large minority in our society alongside the current economic boom for the rest of us is grossly unjust. It is pricing people into work at the expense of their families.”
“Without a commitment to a national minimum wage, we perpetuate the conditions that manufacture poverty in our society alongside the wealth of others… The way to prevent poverty is to pay decent wages and not force families into the benefit system.”—[Hansard, 18 May 1988; Vol. 133, c. 951-952.]
Needless to say, the Tory Government of the time did not support my predecessor’s Bill; but 10 years later, the Labour Government and the Department of Trade and Industry, in which he served alongside the former Member for Makerfield, Sir Ian McCartney, to whom others have rightly paid tribute in the debate, established the Low Pay Commission and legislated for a national minimum wage, one of the greatest achievements of Labour’s period in office, and now widely accepted as an essential institution of our economic life. It has made a huge difference to millions of working people—two thirds of them are women—with no negative impact on employment, despite the dark warnings we heard at the time from members of the Conservative party.
Even today, some Conservative Members want to turn the clock back and, rather than strengthen the minimum wage, undermine it. We learned today that that reaches into the heart of the Government, with a serving Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions questioning whether some disabled people are worth paying the minimum wage. He even suggested that it should be possible to pay them £2 an hour. Like the rest of us, disabled people deserve a floor below which their wages cannot fall. They should not be paid £2 an hour. They should be paid the minimum wage, and the minimum wage should increase. Disabled people who heard what the Minister said will be horrified. Labour Members, too, are shocked and disappointed. He should not be serving in the Government, and least of all in a Department that is responsible for work and policies for disabled people. Apparently, he has apologised this afternoon, but he says one thing to the Tory party conference and Tory party members, and another thing in public. That is not acceptable and he should not be in his job.
We have heard excellent speeches in the debate from hon. Members on both sides of the House about the cost of living crisis faced by people at the hardest end of the labour market and about the damage that that does to our economy and our society. We heard from my hon. Friend Jack Dromey about his work campaigning with cleaners in our Houses of Parliament to get the living wage paid to them.
We heard from my hon. Friend Ms Buck about people in work in poverty, and particular problems both in London—not just in inner-city London, but growing into the suburbs—and faced by black and minority ethnic communities, especially the Bangladeshi community, as well as the growing problem of low pay and the pressure that puts on in-work benefits.
We heard from my hon. Friend Mr Brown about the economic recovery not being felt by everybody across the country, and he is right. I pay tribute to him for his work on the Bill Committee that considered the national minimum wage. He spoke about the Bill Committee sitting from 4.30 pm on a Tuesday until 1 pm the next day, and then on the Thursday from 4.30 until 6.30 the next day; but, as he said, it was really worth it, because the minimum wage was set then at £3.60 an hour and has been rising until today, and will rise again, I hope, under a Labour Government in the future. He spoke about a man in Lockerbie working 50 hours a week but taking home just £112 a week—just over £2 an hour. That is the difference a Labour Government made for such men and women across our country.
My hon. Friend Andy McDonald spoke about a security guard in his constituency working before the introduction of the minimum wage who, as well as not being paid a wage that he could afford to live on, was told that he had to bring his own dog to work.
Dr Whiteford spoke about businesses’ worries about the costs of the minimum wage, but pointed out the huge benefits to the economy and to society, as well as the fiscal benefits of a minimum wage.
I also pay tribute to Richard Fuller who spoke powerfully about the importance of the minimum wage and the importance of it rising. I hope that he will support the motion, because, as he argued and as we put in our motion, the national minimum wage should be pegged to average earnings, so that it increases and regains its value. He also spoke about the importance of the living wage in local government contracts, and I pay tribute to the local authorities—the Labour local authorities—that are now living wage employers, and not just for their directly employed staff, but also for their contracted-out staff. [Interruption.] If the Minister would like to mention the Tory councils that pay a living wage and also pay all their contracted staff a living wage, I look forward to hearing from him.
My hon. Friend Julie Hilling also paid tribute to Sir Ian McCartney, as well as talking about the importance of enforcing the minimum wage, particularly for migrant workers and carers, who are so often exploited.
The lesson we should draw from that success of the national minimum wage is not to rest satisfied, but to raise our ambitions higher, because today we face new challenges that require a new plan. This Government have presided over an historic squeeze on wages that has been a key cause of the cost of living crisis our country faces today. Workers are on average £1,600 a year worse off than when the Prime Minister took office in 2010.
Today’s labour market figures confirmed that wages are still losing ground compared with prices, with wages rising by just 0.7% and inflation running at 1.2%. One in five British workers are low paid according to standard international definitions. That is one of the highest proportions in the developed world, placing us 25th in an OECD league table of 30. That is not good enough, and that is why this motion today is so important.
Today, half of people in poverty, and two thirds of children in poverty, live in working households. We need to do more to make work pay by increasing the value of the minimum wage, to ensure we all benefit as the economy grows. It is a damning indictment of an economy that is not working for working people where the link between hard work and reward urgently needs to be repaired.
Change cannot come soon enough for all the people my hon. Friends mentioned in this debate, and it cannot come soon enough either for my constituent, Alice. She works three shifts a day as a cleaner to support her family, but ended up trying to survive on rolled over payday loans and had to come to me to ask for food vouchers because she had to wait months for the tax credits she was entitled to. Our welfare state was built to protect working people who fell on hard times, not to provide a permanent subsidy to profitable companies paying poverty wages. That is why the minimum wage—and increasing it—is so important.
As shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I know that this simply is not sustainable, with the loss in the real value of the minimum wage since 2010, taxpayers are now paying out an extra £170 million a year in tax credits, an extra £60 million a year in housing benefit and another £40 million a year in other means-tested benefits because of the fall in the real value of the minimum wage since 2010.
Unless the value of the minimum wage increases, there will be further pressure on our social security system. We need to tackle the root causes of the rising social security bill by building homes, ending exploitative zero-hours contracts and increasing the value of the minimum wage.
That is why Labour has set a goal to halve the number of people on low pay by 2025. We have the plans to deliver it. A key plank of that plan is our target to raise the value of the minimum wage over five years to 58% of median earnings from the current 54%, which would bring it to £8 before the end of the next Parliament. We will also get more workers paid a living wage by sharing the savings that the taxpayer makes from reduced social security expenditure. Every pound employers pay in increasing the value of the wages paid to the lowest-paid saves the Treasury 32p in higher tax revenues and national insurance contributions and 17p in lower social security payments. We would allow employers to claim back as a tax rebate 32p in extra tax revenue for the first year only to help their businesses shift to models to make investments in their staff. These measures form part of a comprehensive plan to build a stronger economy that works for all working people: strengthening vocational education, taking tough action on youth and long-term unemployment with our compulsory jobs guarantee and ending the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts.
The House has a clear proposal before it this afternoon: a plan to raise the national minimum wage and to get it properly enforced; a plan to get more people paid the living wage; a plan to halve the number of those on low pay; and a plan to ensure that work pays, so that everyone in our country, not just a privileged few, benefits from the economic prosperity that we all help to create. That is the choice before us this afternoon—a choice that I hope Members on both sides of the House will support. If they do not, that will be the choice that the country faces at the general election next year.
We have had a good debate. There has been a lot more agreement than the political to and fro or the very politicised wording of the motion might suggest. Mr Brown gave us a welcome reminder of the history of the national minimum wage and his experience on the Bill Committee, which had two overnighters to make the legislation happen. When he was doing that in 1997, I was working in McDonald’s on £2.70 an hour. I was fortunate, however: one of my friends was working in a local greengrocer on £1.90 an hour. The National Minimum Wage Act 1998 was a landmark piece of legislation. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his role, and I congratulate the previous Government on introducing it.
Incidentally, it has been suggested in some quarters that the Liberal Democrats did not support the Bill. I would like to correct the record. Hansard shows clearly that Liberal Democrat MPs voted in favour, with not a single one voting against. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who became our spokesperson on the issue shortly afterwards, has made it clear that he supported it throughout.
This month, the national minimum wage for adults rose to £6.50 an hour—a 3% rise and an above-inflation rise. To people working full-time on the national minimum wage, that means an extra £355 each year. That is a significant increase and one that is very welcome. There is, rightly and understandably, enthusiasm for more from both sides of the House, which is why my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has asked the Low Pay Commission for forward guidance to consider how we can further increase the national minimum wage. In response, the LPC has said clearly that we are coming into a period when there will be faster real increases in the national minimum wage.
Julie Hilling and others referred to the apprentice rate of the national minimum wage, which is only £2.73 an hour. In the evidence to the LPC that we publish today, we have made clear our intention to increase apprentice pay rates by £1 an hour to align them with the 16 to 17-year-old rate. We are putting that suggestion to the LPC and look forward to its response.
Various Members have put forward views and made understandable points about the living wage. Indeed, my hon. Friend Heather Wheeler made a very good case, pointing out that companies do well if they pay their employees well. That is an important point to remember.
My hon. Friend Ian Swales reminded us that much depends on take-home pay and that therefore the interrelationship between the minimum wage and the tax threshold is also important. As he pointed out, at the beginning of this Parliament, people on the minimum wage were paying £1,000 a year in income tax, and we have reduced that by £800. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I am delighted that my Conservative colleagues now agree with Nick that we should raise the tax threshold further.
I will come to those remarks in a minute. I understand the very real concern that has been expressed.
Jack Dromey talked about the money the Government spend to support people on the national minimum wage and suggested that a higher minimum wage could reduce that expenditure. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has analysed that suggestion and is not sure that that would be the result. Nevertheless, he made a powerful and passionate contribution, particularly given his experience over many years dealing with these issues. His point at the end was perhaps the most important: this is about the moral cause of ensuring people are properly rewarded for their work.
Members on both sides of the House have been understandably shocked by Lord Freud’s remarks, which, I stress, absolutely do not reflect the Government’s position and are clearly offensive and unacceptable. I am glad he has issued a full apology. Of course, my hon. Friend Robert Halfon rightly expressed his dismay that the shadow Education Secretary mistakenly accused him on television of supporting a lower minimum wage for disabled people. I hope that my hon. Friend’s intervention will have helped to correct the record, not just here, but more widely.
Order. There are too many private conversations going on in the Chamber, and it is disrupting my ability to hear clearly what the Minister is saying. If Members are in the Chamber, they are here to listen to the Minister. If they want to have a private conversation, they could step outside to continue it.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Travel times are a genuine issue. If somebody is expected to travel—during the day as part of their work, rather than to and from work—that time should be included for minimum wage calculation purposes. I shall repeat the number for the pay and work rights helpline, which investigates these complaints: 0800 917 2368.
HMRC did a major piece of work on the social care sector and found that of the 224 employers investigated between 2011 and 2013, 104 were not paying the minimum wage properly, and identified £1.2 million of arrears for more than 6,300 workers. So there is a way that people can get what they are due, but we need to look at the wider issues as well, which is why the Department of Health recently consulted on statutory guidance for local authorities to make that crystal clear. The final guidance is expected soon. It is vital that we have proper enforcement, which is why we have increased the enforcement budget by 15% to £9.2 million. The extra money will help to employ extra compliance officers to ensure that complaints can be properly investigated and proactive work undertaken to investigate non-compliance. Indeed, just last year, 22,600 workers were paid back arrears of £4.6 million as a result of HMRC’s work.
The hon. Members for St Albans (Mrs Main) and for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) mentioned interns. On this point, we already have clear rules: if somebody is expected to turn up and undertake specific tasks, they should be getting the national minimum wage, whether they are in the House of Commons or anywhere else. It is right that somebody highlighted the excellent Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme, set up by Hazel Blears, along with my hon. Friend Eric Ollerenshaw. I was involved in making that happen before I became a Minister. It is a good scheme and one that I hope will continue to be successful.
Zero-hours contracts will be discussed in more detail in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, but the Government are taking action, through a code of practice, to ban exclusivity and improve standards for people working on such contracts.
In conclusion, the Government support the national minimum wage setting minimum standards in the labour market and encourage employers to pay more. We do not agree with the Opposition’s flawed prescription on the best way to achieve this, and we do not support the motion, but we will continue to support the national minimum wage and protect the most vulnerable people, making sure that we have more jobs in the economy and lower taxes, so that people can keep the benefit of their hard work.