Tories accused of driving down pay

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Indy Politics
The political battle over low pay intensified yesterday as Labour attacked the Government for using new benefit rules to drive down wages - but came under renewed pressure to put a figure on its own promise of a minimum wage.

Harriet Harman MP, Labour employment spokeswoman, condemned rules for the Jobseeker's Allowance - set to replace Unemployment Benefit in April 1996 - which will force the unemployed to answer the question: "What is the lowest wage you are willing to work for?"

Labour has tabled a new clause of the Jobseeker's Bill, to be debated in the Commons tomorrow, which requires the Government effectively to introduce a minimum wage. The clause, in the name of Tony Blair, reads: "A claimant shall have the right to refuse employment which offers an income below a minimum level, to be specified by regulation, without affecting his entitlement to the Jobseeker's Allowance."

Ms Harman said yesterday: "I challenge the Government: in Tory Britain, what is the lowest wage people should be willing to work for? The Government plan to ask the unemployed that question. The Government should be prepared to answer it."

However, Labour's attack draws attention to Mr Blair's indication in Sunday's Jonathan Dimbleby television programme that Labour would not set the level of the minimum wage before the next election.

Phillip Oppenheim, the junior employment minister, said: "I find Labour's position fundamentally dishonest. On the one hand they are trying to convince the less well-off that there's an instant solution. On the other hand, they won't put a figure on their minimum wage because they know it would mean job losses."

Ms Harman insisted: "This is not about the rate. This is about whether or not there is a floor. They are in government. When we are in government, there will be a floor."

Ms Harman also joined the shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown, yesterday in launching an attack on the Government on another front. They published a report called Worse Off Under The Tories, designed to highlight next month's tax rises - produced by cuts in mortgage tax relief (a typical tax rise of £125 a year) and the married couples' allowance (a rise of £94 a year).

Mr Brown said that, since April last year, "the typical family is £1,000 a year worse off, while the 10 highest paid utility directors are now £1,000 a week better off than they were a year ago".

Since tax rises were announced in 1993, Mr Brown has campaigned to throw back in their faces the Tories' pre-election charges that Labour planned a "tax bombshell" that would hit voters for £1,000. This has now been combined with the attack on executive's high pay in privatised utilities.