Brown fights shy of raising national minimum wage

THE NATIONAL minimum wage would add only 0.6 per cent to the nation's wage bill, according to confidential estimates by the Low Pay Commission.

Fewer than one in 10 of the working population would receive a pay rise on the basis of the statutory minimum suggested by the Commission in its unpublished report, details of which have been seen by The Independent.

The Commission has recommended pounds 3.60 an hour for employees over the age of 21 and pounds 3.20 for 18-to-21-year-olds, but in the teeth of opposition from Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, Gordon Brown wants lower rates for 18-to-24-year-olds.

The report from the Commission, which has provoked a potential rift in the Cabinet, also estimates that only 3 per cent of full-time male workers would enjoy a pay rise under their recommendations, adding only 0.3 per cent to the wage bill for this category of employees. While some 22 per cent or 1.1 million female part-time employees would receive more money, their pay bill would only rise by 2.7 per cent.

The calculations are revealed on the eve of what is likely to be a heated debate on the issue at the annual conference of public service union Unison, the Labour Party's biggest affiliate.

Ian McCartney, a trade minister, who is fully behind Mrs Beckett's campaign to ensure that all the commission's recommendations are implemented, will be speaking to the 2,000 delegates today.

The leadership of the union has tabled a highly critical motion demanding that far from watering down the Commission's recommendations, the Government should set its sights far higher.

The conference is expected to endorse a demand that the minimum wage should be pounds 4.61 an hour and should apply to all employees carrying out a "full job". A motion recommends that the figure should be uprated to two-thirds of average earnings calculated at pounds 6.06 an hour by Unison officials.

Delegates will also call for: the minimum to be regularly up-rated - a policy which has met opposition from the Prime Minister; industrial action to improve the statutory minimum on pay "where appropriate"; and a national demonstration protesting at the LPC's recommendations.

Rita Donaghy, a senior Unison figure and a member of the commission, could come under fire today for failing to produce a "minority" report upholding union policy. Left-wingers are demanding the Commission be made up of a majority of trade union members.

Employers are increasingly treating absence because of sickness as malingering and therefore a disciplinary offence, according to a survey of Unison branches. The union says that employers are introducing various measures to try to control absence rates such as "return to work" interviews, contacting staff at home and "counselling" sessions. The union claims that dismissals for sickness are on the increase.

Officials at Unison argue that the two main reasons for this tough new attitude are a shift in responsibility for payment of statutory sick pay from government to employers and cuts in public expenditure.

In its annual analysis of union support, the TUC reveals its concern over a "worryingly low" level of mem- bership among the "new" jobs in the growing service sector. Only 9 per cent of sales personnel are union members, it has found. While around half of professional and "associate professional" employees are union members, only a quarter of the "less skilled" were members, according to the report.

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