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The so-called ‘public debate’ over whether Michael Philpott (or if you prefer, Iain Duncan Smith) typifies the sort of people who live on social security in modern Britain has effectively masked something more sinister that was put in motion this week.
The government wants the Low Pay Commission to consider the impact on “employment and the economy” of the minimum wage.
The implication is clear: The Conservatives want to get rid of the statutory lowest level of wages, in order to further depress remuneration for the poorest workers in the UK. Whether or not that is the fact, it’s what people will infer.
The timing is a classic tragedy of modern Conservatism. Having just made a bold (and entirely false) claim that its benefit cuts are “making work pay”, the Tory-led Coalition appears dead-set on making sure that it won’t.
I had an argument, on this very subject, over on the Conservatives’ (I think) Facebook page. It was a while ago, but I thought I had saved the debate for posterity. I spent much of yesterday looking for it and came up with nothing, so what follows is a paraphrase of what I said there, and the best I can remember. For that I apologise. I can only advise others reading this that you should never throw anything away, as you might need it later! (That goes for things you’ve said, mind, not sweet wrappers or other rubbish – you shouldn’t all become hoarders just because of me).
The discussion was based on the premise that, rather than pay the bare minimum, employers should in fact pay a ‘living’ wage, in line with what Labour has been proposing.
I’m very much in favour of a living wage. If a person receives enough, in return for their work, to pay their way in the world without having to take state benefits, several things happen:
They feel valued in their position, and try harder. The quality of their work improves, along with that of the other workers in the company who also receive the living wage, and as a result, the employer is likely to benefit from improved orders. The company flourishes and is able to take on more employees.
As a result of this, the firm and its employees are able to pay more taxes and National Insurance contributions – not as a result of an increase imposed by an oppressive government, but because more people are employed there. The government therefore has more cash to fund public services; it has less need to borrow money and will not have to pay as much in social security benefits – in-work benefits will be unnecessary because working people will be receiving enough to put them above the threshold for them, and fewer people will be claiming out-of-work benefits.
The government can then pay off its debts and deficit more quickly and then cut tax rates. This means everyone will have more money in their pockets – including employers, who can then plough the extra cash back into the firm with infrastructure improvements and more employment.
You see how this works?
Contrast this with what happens when you employ somebody on the minimum wage, or abolish it.
People on the absolute minimum do not feel valued. They consider their employers to be taking more than their fair share of the profits generated by the company where they all work together. They feel undervalued – and demeaned by the fact that they have to claim state benefits in order to survive. Their health may be put at risk, because they may find themselves having to work ridiculously long hours, just to make ends meet. Their work starts to suffer, and they may end up unemployed, either for health reasons or because the company is suffering (as a result of workers turning in substandard work).
The company makes cutbacks. Its bosses don’t want to take a pay cut so they cut corners elsewhere. The workforce diminishes and the quality of the product suffers. In time, the firm’s contribution to the national economy dwindles – if it doesn’t go to the wall altogether. Its tax and National Insurance contribution plummets.
The government finds itself paying in-work benefits for increasing numbers of people, and unemployment figures skyrocket. Employers and workers do not provide enough money in taxes and National Insurance to pay the bill for public services, so these are cut back and borrowing increases. The nation goes into a debt spiral.
That is the current situation.
Which of the above would you rather have?