Boris Johnson will declare he wants to move Britain to a “high wage” society on the same day as his government comes under fire for cutting the incomes of millions receiving benefits.
His Conservative Party conference speech comes as reports suggest the party leader is only weeks away from signing-off on a minimum wage rise.
The Times said the lowest earners on the so-called national living wage – the minimum wage paid to those over the age of 23 – could receive about £9.42 an hour, an increase of just over 5 per cent.
Mr Johnson was pressed about a possible hike in the hourly floor rate by ITV News ahead of his speech, and did not rule out a rise, saying: “We will take guidance from the low pay commission, and we will see where we get to.”
The Low Pay Commission (LPC) advisory body, set to submit its proposals by the end of October, estimated that its recommendation would be an increase to £9.42 an hour in a report earlier this year.
Asked about the scale of the possible rise ahead, senior cabinet minister Dominic Raab told BBC Breakfast: “We will take any recommendations the [LPC] makes very seriously.”
Any increase would be to the government-set national living wage, which is different from the voluntary living wage set by the Living Wage Foundation.
Labour was critical that the prime minister’s speech comes on the same day that his government will carry out its cut to the £20 per week universal credit uplift, which was brought in at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sir Keir Starmer’s party plans to drive a van around the perimeter of conference venue Manchester Central during Mr Johnson’s speech, displaying a poster urging ministers to “cancel the cut” to the household incomes of millions of people.
Mr Raab said on Wednesday that the government wanted to wean UK businesses off the “cheap drug of unskilled labour from abroad”.
Asked about the end of universal credit uplift, the deputy PM said: “The £400 billion that the government has put in to supporting the economy, workers and the most vulnerable is just clearly unsustainable long term. The universal credit uplift was always going to be temporary.”
As well as the furore around the benefits reduction, Wednesday’s closing speech comes against the backdrop of a supply chain crisis that has seen military drivers drafted in to deliver petrol and warnings of empty shelves in shops at Christmas.
But despite consumer and industry concerns, Mr Johnson will defend his restrictions on foreign workers and insist there will be no return to the “same old broken model” of “uncontrolled immigration”.
The PM brushed off concerns that increasing pay for lorry drivers and other shortage occupations will drive up prices in the shops – saying on Tuesday there is “no alternative” to wage-fuelled inflation.
Mr Johnson will use his conference speech to say: “The answer is to control immigration, to allow people of talent to come to this country but not to use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment or machinery they need to do their jobs.”
His goal is to move “towards a high wage, high skill, high productivity economy that the people of this country need and deserve, in which everyone can take pride in their work and the quality of their work”.
One of the problems he will highlight is adult social care, which the Tories have promised to reform using money raised from a manifesto-busting 1.25 percentage-point rise in National Insurance.
“We are dealing with the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society. The problems that no government has had the guts to tackle before,” he will say.
The prime minister’s promise to “level up” parts of the country that had missed out on the economic success of London and the south-east was a key part of his pitch to voters in former Labour areas – the so-called Red Wall.
But the Chesham and Amersham by-election defeat in June has caused concern among Tories about the focus on northern areas. Mr Johnson will attempt to bridge that gap by insisting that all parts of the UK can benefit from his plans.
On levelling up, he will say, “helps to take the pressure off parts of the overheating south-east, while simultaneously offering hope and opportunity to those areas that have felt left behind”.
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