We need to re-establish the principle of making work pay. The economic recovery provides us with the ideal opportunity to do so.
Last year as I lamented the inequality of Britain’s wage distribution, I found I had an unlikely ally on Andrew Marr’s sofa. “I am on the same page as the Archbishop,” my fellow guest said, “in terms of reducing the gap between the rich and the poor.” The gentleman on the sofa next to me was George Osborne and I was very happy to hear that low pay and wage inequality are issues that the Chancellor of the Exchequer takes seriously. It is imperative that we all do the same.
I was talking about the Living Wage Commission, an independent inquiry that I am chairing on the future of the Living Wage and how we can address low pay in the UK. Today, we release our first report on the scale of the problem of low pay in Britain.
The issue is one that strikes to the heart of the moral fabric of our society. For the very first time the majority of households in poverty in Britain have at least one person working. The nature of poverty in Britain is changing dramatically. For millions of hard-pressed people, work is no longer a route out of poverty.
It used to be the case that work was the gateway to independence and served as the means to provide for the family. However, the millions of people in low-paid employment are having to rely on benefits and debt to get by. The Trussell Trust, the organisation that runs food banks across the UK, is now reporting that people in work are turning up to collect food packages in their lunch breaks. It is no longer guaranteed that work alone is enough to provide for a family.
Support for the Living Wage extends right to the top of government. Only last month the Prime Minister told an audience at the World Economic Forum that he supported employers paying a Living Wage. But despite the comments of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, the majority of government departments are yet to implement the Living Wage in their own workplaces. Without a Living Wage, these warm words are not making a difference to the lives of the five million low-paid workers.
Together we must set about rebuilding the moral fabric of our society. We need to re-establish the principle of making work pay. We need to re-establish the notion that a hard day’s work can put food on the table, a roof over our heads and provide us with the time to spend with our families.
If we are serious about making work pay, we need to be serious about bringing an end to poverty wages.
Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York