Earlier this year I won the chance to introduce a Bill into Parliament on any subject of my choice. It marked the start of my campaign to strengthen the National Minimum Wage and make work pay. You can read my Bill in full here.
On Friday 28 November my Bill was scheduled for discussion in the House of Commons. The debate never took place however because two Tory MPs - who have both previously campaigned to undermine the Minimum Wage - spoke for over two hours to sabotage a seperate debate on a bill to tackle revenge evictions. This sadly meant there was no time for my Bill to be considered.
My Bill will be scheduled for debate in Parliament again in the New Year. With the Tories having blocked its progress today though, the Bill now has virtually no chance of becoming law.
Had I had the opportunity to make my case, this is the speech I would have made:
Thank you Madame Deputy Speaker.
I beg to move that the Bill now be read a second time.
It is a privilege to present my Private Members’ Bill.
A Bill to make work pay, to strengthen the national minimum wage, to give greater powers to the Low Pay Commission, and to tackle the scourge of low wages, that blights the lives of too many people across Britain today.
I move this Bill mindful that many honourable and right honourable members have been in this place a great deal longer than me, but never had the good fortune of being drawn in the ballot.
So although I fear time may be against me, I’m very pleased to have this opportunity to raise an issue that means so much to so many across my constituency, my community and our country.
Mr Deputy Speaker, choosing the subject of my Bill was a difficult decision. And I had no shortage of helpful suggestions….
Ultimately, it was the story of one woman that made up my mind.
I wanted my Bill to make a difference to people like Catherine.
Catherine is a cleaner and housekeeper in my constituency.
She juggles six different jobs working in six different locations across Barnsley, working more than 50 hours a week on the minimum wage.
Like many people, Catherine struggles to make ends meet.
Her pay packet doesn’t stretch as far as it used to – especially as the real terms value of the minimum wage has declined since 2010.
When I asked her how this affected her life, she said she’d had to cut down on what she described as “luxuries.”
Soon I realised she meant she couldn’t afford essentials like new clothes.
“I just work to exist,” she said.
“I can’t afford nice stuff. I just work to keep my head above water.”
Madame Deputy Speaker - Catherine doesn’t have time to take notice of polls or political pundits.
But what happens in our politics, what goes on in this place, and the governments we choose to serve us here – will shape her life more than most.
It’s easy to take for granted now that Catherine earns a National Minimum Wage at all.
Before 1997, many workers like her were expected to work for as little as £1 or £2 an hour.
In its first months of its existence, The Low Pay Commission found appalling cases of factory employees earning only £1.22 an hour, care home workers taking home just £1.66 an hour, and even a chip shop worker from Birmingham forced to make do with 80p an hour.
It took a Labour Government to end this scandal – led by Sir Ian McCartney, the former Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, who piloted the National Minimum Wage Act through this House, and the right honourable member for Derby South, who led the effort as Secretary of State. And it is a source of great pride that she is one of the sponsors of my Bill today.
Madame Deputy Speaker, the National Minimum Wage was one of Labour’s greatest achievements.
And it is worth remembering today that it came about in the face of the fiercest opposition from the Conservative Party.
It’s path to law included a record sitting in this House of 26 and a half hours, as members from the party opposite sat through the night, opposing the bill line by line,
to stand in the way of working people getting a decent wage for a hard day’s work.
Today, their fears have failed to materialize, several of those critics are sitting in the Cabinet.
They were on the wrong side of history then Mr Deputy Speaker, and if members opposite do have concerns about my Bill today, I hope they will bear that in mind.
Madame Deputy Speaker, I am bringing this Bill today because a generation on since the National Minimum Wage became law, the low pay challenge for our country has changed.
The National Minimum Wage did help root out exploitation and extreme examples of poverty pay.
Today however, we have huge numbers of people across Britain that do a hard day’s work but are still living on the breadline.
Catherine, whose story I shared earlier, is just one of more than 5 million people across Britain stuck on low pay – up from 3.4 million in 2009 and an all-time record.
Women and young people are hit hardest.
A third of all working women and nearly two fifths of 16 to 30 year old employees do not earn a decent wage.
And if we look at the proportion of our workforce that is low paid, Britain is towards the bottom of the pile – coming 25th out of 30 OECD countries.
Moreover, the real terms value of the Minimum Wage is losing ground.
The Low Commission has acknowledged that is now less than it was in 2004.
This partly explains why the Government now spends more now on tax credits and social security for families in work than it does unemployed.
And why for the first time ever, there are more people in poverty who are in work than in retirement or looking for work.
Madame Deputy Speaker, John Maynard Keynes famously once said that ‘when the facts change, I change my mind.’
The argument at the heart of my Bill is that as the challenge has changed, our approach to tackling low pay needs to evolve with it.
Many of our country’s leading business voices have already called for the minimum wage to increase faster than it has in the recent past.
They include Sir Ian Cheshire, the chief executive of Kingfisher, Steve Marshall, the executive chairman of Balfour Beatty, Jeremy Bennett, the chief executive officer for Europe for Nomura.
And there is Professor Sir George Bain, the first Chair of the Low Pay Commission.
He has described the organisation as ‘a child of its time’ and called for an ambitious target to bring the minimum wage closer to average earnings.
Let me turn then to how this Bill would put this into action.
It preserves everything that has helped make the Low Pay Commission such a success:
Decision-making based on strong research.
A balance between the need for wage growth and concerns about impact on employment.
And a partnership approach between the employers who create the jobs and the employees who work the shifts.
It contains three straightforward clauses.
Clause 1 would mandate the Secretary of State to set a target for the National Minimum Wage to increase over a Parliament, at a rate higher than median earnings.
I have not included a specific target within the Bill – different people will have their own views on that, and we as a Labour Party have already expressed our ambition for a minimum wage closer to 58% of median earnings.
The important point is that the act of setting a target alone would deliver a more ambitious approach to tackling low pay, and a greater focus on what progress we are making.
A clear long-term target like this would give firms certainty and time to adapt their business models to boost productivity and support higher wages.
It would also bring us closer to other countries like Australia and European economies like Belgium and Germany.
All the evidence there shows that it is possible to support a higher minimum wage without any negative impact on employment.
And the Low Pay Commission would retain its leadership role in delivering the target, and set out a plan for how it could be achieved.
We know that the success of the Minimum Wage has been built on an approach that works hand-in-hand with industry and takes account of the state of our economy.
My Bill retains that flexibility.
Clause 2 makes this clear.
In the event of significant economic shocks, the Low Pay Commission would be able to present compelling evidence to the government and to Parliament, setting out why it is not possible to meet the target during the proposed timeframe.
They would also be empowered to make further recommendations to get progress towards the target back on track.
And this links to a further issue, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Because I believe if we want to win the fight against poverty wages, then the remit of the Low Pay Commission needs to be expanded.
It shouldn’t just be a ‘National Minimum Wage Commission’ setting the level of wages, but a body that leads our national effort in tackling the problem of low pay.
My Bill would give new powers to the Low Pay Commission to investigate the causes and consequences of low pay in different areas of our economy.
We know there are sectors with particular systematic problems of low wages.
More than half of cleaners, 48% of hospitality workers, and over 40% of hairdressers are paid less than £7 an hour.
At the same time, there are other sectors – the banking sector for instance – that could potentially pay a higher minimum wage.
That’s why Clause 3 would empower the Low Pay Commission to bring together taskforces of key stakeholders to develop a strategy to tackle these issues, and make recommendations to the Secretary of State where appropriate.
Madame Deputy Speaker, those are the key points of my Bill.
If honourable or right honourable members feel there are areas that could be improved, I am sure these issues could be resolved in Committee.
I know that the realities of parliamentary procedure mean that the odds are stacked against my Bill today.
So I want to put on record that if we are unsuccessful today, then the next Labour government will put this right if we are elected in six months’ time.
We will set a national goal to halve the number of people on low pay in our country.
We will introduce a target for a minimum wage of at least £8 by 2020.
We will use tax incentives to encourage more firms to pay a Living Wage.
And we will make a world of difference to working people like Catherine.
When I asked her what difference a higher wage would make to her life, she couldn’t quite imagine it.
“I could cut down my hours, couldn’t I?” she said.
“I would have some time to do other things?”
That’s the important difference that I am arguing for today.
So I would like to end, Madame Deputy Speaker, with the words spoken in this place by the right honourable member for Derby South, –
The words used during another Second Reading debate 17 years ago. These words were true of the case for introducing the National Minimum Wage then, and they are true for the case for strengthening it now.
“This policy is right, it is fair, it is just and it is sensible.
“It is a clear example of how a Labour Government can and will make a real difference to the lives of people across Britain, contributing to fairness and prosperity for the many, not the few.
"And I commend the Bill to the House."