Terms and Conditions of Employment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:54 pm on 19th February 2019.

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Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:54 pm, 19th February 2019

I know that many Members across this House share my concern that Brexit and the removal of hard-won EU legislation will mean a race to the bottom for workers’ rights in the UK. In that respect, it is at least a little bit encouraging to see a commitment to continuing to increase minimum wages; however, as I have said time and again in this place, it does not go nearly far enough. The UK Government’s pretendy living wage is not enough to live on. The real living wage, as calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, is set at £9 an hour, or £10.55 an hour in London; the pretendy living wage falls short of that. For those of us who want a highly educated, highly skilled, high-wage economy, it continues to be extremely disappointing that the UK Government choose not to increase the minimum wage to a level people can actually live on.

High wages are linked to increased productivity—an issue the UK has struggled with for many, many years—increased staff retention and higher standards of workers. A substantial increase in wages is not a choice between acting in the interests of businesses and acting in the interests of employees; it is entirely possible to cover both. The attitude that I am hearing from Government Members is that the national living wage falls short of a real living wage, but we should celebrate it anyway because it represents a pay rise for working people. That shows a real lack of aspiration on the part of the UK Government—a Government who claim that they want to help people work their way out of poverty but whose actions fail those people time and again.

If this UK Government really wanted people to work their way out of poverty, they would be investing in our labour markets, increasing the powers of trade unions and improving the rights of those in insecure work. They are presiding over one of the lowest rates of real wage growth among the advanced nations of the G20. Andy Haldane at the Bank of England has described the past 10 years as “a lost decade” for workers, and the measures today will do very little to address that problem.

As things stand, the Chancellor is giving with one hand and taking away with the other. For those at the lower end of the income scale, the proposed increase in the minimum wage does not even offset the impact of the benefits freeze. I and my hon. Friends have consistently called for an end to the benefits freeze, which is a pay cut by stealth for some of the lowest earning people in this country. We welcome the Labour party’s commitment to scrap it, even if it did not feature in its 2017 manifesto.

The age pay gap is the income inequality that the national minimum wage policy creates between age groups. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy impact assessment on the policy explicitly states that the purpose of a lower minimum wage for under 25s is to

“maximise the wages of low paid younger workers, without damaging their employment prospects.”

It also says that the Government asked the Low Pay Commission to recommend separate national minimum wage rates

“by age band (16-17, 18-20 year olds, and 21-24 year olds).”

There is no real evidence to justify why that is necessary. It is insulting to young people in my constituency and across these islands to say that employers would not want them if they had to be paid a fair wage; quite apart from that, it entices employers to make hiring decisions based on age, encouraging unscrupulous employers to break the law.

Make no mistake, this is state-sponsored age discrimination. In the impact assessment, the public sector equality duty sets out that the Government must

“eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act”.

It goes on:

“The protected characteristics consist of nine groups: age, race, gender, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership.”

If women were to be paid less than men, that would be against the law because gender is one of the protected characteristics; mysteriously, however, this impact assessment does not extend to age. I would really like to see some smart lawyer take a legal challenge against the Government, because there is clear discrimination in the terms of this statutory instrument on the basis of age alone. There is no justifiable reason for this policy.

To compound matters further, the proposal that we are discussing today will increase the pay gap between age groups. The uprating that will result from the regulations means that 24-year-olds could earn £90 less a month than 25-year-olds for exactly the same job, amounting to a difference of more than £1,000 a year. The gap would increase even further within the under-25 age groups, making it even harder for young people to get by. Since the measure was brought in in 2016, 18 to 20-year-olds have seen the age pay gap between themselves and someone on the higher rate go from £1.90 to £2.06; 16 and 17-year-olds have seen it rise from £3.33 to £3.86—that gap between the highest wage and all that they are legally entitled to be paid—and for apprentices, the gap has gone from £3.90 to £4.31. No justification is given in the impact assessment for that state-sponsored age discrimination.

If I were to suggest that Members of Parliament—an MP born in 1973, perhaps, like my hon. Friend Chris Stephens, or an MP born in 1978, like the Minister, or myself, born in 1982—were to be paid different rates depending on age, I cannot imagine any MP in the House signing up to that. Why should young people face the discrimination in law that the Government are proposing today?