As I type these words, this has been a day of defeat for the government. Its bid to cap benefits at £26,000 – forcing some families to face the prospect of losing their homes – has been defeated by the Lords, while in the Commons, MPs totally failed to cap the spectacularly high amounts paid to (for example) bankers.
The link between the two is the average amount of pay earned by workers in the UK today. The government says this is £26,000, which Tory MP Margot James seems to think is a large amount of money. I wonder how she describes the current average salary for an MP like herself, which is £65,738, two-and-a-half times as much. In addition, MPs receive allowances to cover the costs of running an office and employing staff, having somewhere to live in London and in their constituency, and travelling between Parliament and their constituency – and we all know that no MP has ever – ever – abused those allowances, don’t we?
The fact is that on a day when the Royal Bank of Scotland has been asking the government to allow it to pay bonuses worth £500 million to staff who have put that firm into the red by £750 million in the last six months, £26,000 is not a high figure. It is a derisory figure. A pittance.
People on benefits, and those speaking for them, have argued that this figure will not be enough to keep many of them in their homes. That is why the Lords voted to exempt Child Benefit from those included in the cap – in order to offer children a stable environment in which to grow up.
The question arises: If it isn’t enough to keep families on benefits in their homes, how do working people who are earning less than this amount manage to make ends meet?
My own experience colours my answer to that: Very badly. When I was last in a full-time job, the salary did not cover all my outgoings and I had to give it up for that reason. Simple as that. Fortunately my partner finally succeeded in a years-long battle to claim Disability Living Allowance shortly afterwards and I became a carer – and we’re better off that way. That’s not an indictment of the welfare and benefits system; it’s an indictment of the way wages have been depressed below the rate of inflation for the last 30 years or so.
I’m told the firm lost business after I left. To me, that indicates a lapse of judgement in allowing me to go, and that bosses might have been better off if they had offered me a sum that would have allowed me to go on living comfortably, rather than worrying about a long, slow slide into debt (to the bank! where the bonuses happen).
I would rather be in a paying job than a carer. I don’t believe I’m betraying my partner, who needs the care, by saying that. But I don’t believe I can earn the amount we would need, in order to get a better quality of life, for her or both of us.
What’s the solution? Obvious, really: pay working people the living wage they deserve!
If the average wage was a reasonable amount (and I feel no need to bind anyone’s thinking here, so I won’t suggest one) then, firstly, the poor working man or woman would not feel so hard-done-by, with people on benefits pulling down as much as them or more yet having done no work for it, and bosses taking home obscene amounts generated by the efforts of other people.
Those on benefits would have less reason to feel victimised because the average amount at which their benefits will be pegged would be high enough for them to survive, and possibly even enough for them to think about how to get back into work and earn more money for themselves and their families (if they have them), rather than focusing solely on survival.
All this hinges on the bosses who, as we know, are extremely reluctant to share out the profits they haven’t earned for themselves. I have no sympathy for those on obscenely large salaries and bonus schemes – those in FT350 companies whose salaries have multiplied seven times in the last 20 years, while the firms’ performance has improved by only 23 per cent and the wages they pay their workers has risen by just 27 per cent (less than the rate of inflation). They can take a smaller slice of the cake and put up with it.
But what about the bosses of smaller firms who might be struggling to keep their heads above water? They might not be taking very much more than their workforce. What’s the solution for them?
To my way of thinking, they need to be competitive, and a demoralised workforce does not make a business competitive. Also, they need the tools to do their job properly and I can foresee a time when the economic situation will mean their equipment will be out of date.
Perhaps this is a time for the government – either local or national – to come forward with a match-funding scheme of some kind to keep these firms on their feet; but with one major condition. The companies should re-form into co-operatives, in which every worker has a stake in the profits. This would re-fire their enthusiasm and, hopefully, improve performance, leading to a knock-on increase in wages and bonuses that are not unearned drains on resources but based on real profit.
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