Monthly Archives: August 2013

“How and why did we let it become acceptable for a full time job not to pay enough to live on?”

In the New Statesman earlier this week (reported on here, here and here, but no direct link available to the article at time of writing), Guy Opperman, the Conservative MP for Hexham in Northumberland, called for employers to pay their employees a Living Wage. This is significant in that he is the first Conservative MP to proactively call for employers to do this. David Cameron has previously called the Living Wage ‘an idea whose time has come’ and Boris Johnson is a big supporter, but it is not a subject that Conservative MPs regularly promote and only one Conservative council has become Living Wage employers, to the best of my knowledge.

We have also heard in recent weeks that the Conservatives may be attempting to position themselves as the ‘party of the low paid’ in the North. One could choose to see Guy Opperman’s announcement in this light, but we shouldn’t forget that he has ‘form’ in this area already. He was also the first Conservative MP to speak out against regional pay. At the time he said there was ‘no economic argument’ for regional pay and highlighted the importance of public sector pay in supporting and hopefully stimulating the region’s economy

“I am very concerned that regional pay would lead to a reduction in the pay packets of some public sector workers in the North East. I do not believe reducing public sector pay will help stimulate private economic growth.”

All of this is, therefore, very interesting for the North East. We have one of only two Conservative MPs in the North East arguing for a Living Wage, in a region with no Conservative controlled councils – but also a region with no public sector employers paying all of their staff the UK Living Wage of £7.45 per hour. So, as someone remarked to me on Wednesday, you could argue there is definitely room for a bit of competition for the votes of low paid workers in the North East.

Of course, if this is part of a Conservative plan to become the party of the low-paid, there are lots of other issues that Mr Opperman’s colleagues could address as well as pay. We know that low paid jobs are very often part-time and/or temporary and the recent attention on zero hours contracts highlights the insecurity of much low paid work that is one offer at present. Becoming a Living Wage employer doesn’t make a great deal of difference to employees if they’re only working a couple of hours a week – or none at all.

For now though, we should be grateful that MPs in the region are talking about this issue (Middlesbrough MP Andy Macdonald recently announced his desire to see Middlesbrough becoming a Living Wage town and, to be fair to him, we didn’t give that the coverage it perhaps deserved) and it is particularly heartening that a Conservative MP in the North East is offering the glimpse of a political consensus on improving the pay of our lowest paid workers.

You can – and should – follow Guy Opperman on Twitter – @guyoppermanmp


The (invisible) problem of riches


Last week on this blog, Jonathan Bradshaw argued that our ‘benefits system’ wasn’t broken and highlighted how the tax system in the UK did not do anything to help tackle poverty as it failed to redistribute wealth effectively. Whilst the tax system may not directly redistribute wealth, if everyone (including organisations) paid the tax that they were supposed to, and paid it on time, the government would have, at a conservative estimate, around £60billion more at their disposal to tackle poverty. (around £32billion ‘tax gap’ & £28billion tax debt) A phrase Jonathan has used in a presentation about the previous government’s approach to tackling poverty always stays with me. He claimed that the ‘treatment was right’ but that ‘the dose wasn’t strong enough’. A potential extra £60billion would certainly provide a metaphorical ‘shot in the arm’ for anti-poverty work in the UK.

Jonathan was absolutely right to bring the tax system back into discussions about welfare in our society. And we should also include discussion on the state of our democracy if ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ allows large sections of the same ‘people’ to live in poverty when there is no need and no absolute lack of resources across our society. Shouldn’t we be asking if parliament is broken, or at least not working, if government decisions about ‘tax and benefit reforms can account for almost all of the projected increase in child poverty over the next few years’? And which bit of Britain is ‘broken’ if public attitudes to people claiming benefits are indeed hardening?

If we continue to focus attention solely on the ‘benefits system’ or what most people call the ‘welfare state’ in our efforts to tackle poverty we risk ‘othering’ the welfare state, to use Ruth Lister’s concept. She describes othering as “a discursive practice which shapes how the ‘non-poor’ think and talk about and act towards ‘the poor’ at both an interpersonal and an institutional level.” The concept can easily be applied to how politicians, sections of the media, think-tanks and even ‘taxpayers’ and ‘hard-working families’ think and talk about the popular understanding of the ‘welfare state’. Claiming that the ‘welfare state’ isn’t working and/or needs radical reform surely misses the point that it is largely the product of the society and democracy it can be found in and is only as well-resourced as politicians allow it or want it to be. To use another phrase that I always find myself returning to, this time from John Veit-Wilsons ‘Horses for discourses’:

‘Ensuring that all the members of society, residents in or citizens of a nation state, have enough money is a clear role which governments can adopt or reject, but they cannot deny they have the ultimate power over net income distribution.’

Many people have argued that in the investigation of the causes of poverty, we need to examine and understand the causes of wealth, which often remain relatively well hidden. As long ago as the 1700s, Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that ‘we see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent’.  In 1904, Joseph Rowntree, in a memorandum on the proposed trust he was to set up (The Joseph Rowntree Foundation today) suggested that ‘Perhaps the greatest danger of our national life arises from the power of selfish and unscrupulous wealth’. More recently Peter Townsend argued that wealth and poverty have ‘common roots in the unrestrained exercise of economic power’. Unfortunately, we (ourselves included) still spend a disproportionate amount of our time debating changes to services and systems at the bottom end of the income scale and not so much time on those systems which operate for those with more money.

Perhaps, to paraphrase Tawney, if we investigate and begin to uncover the ‘problem of riches’, we may stumble upon the solution to the ‘problem of poverty’

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