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National Minimum Wage

Volume 836: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the case for increasing the national minimum wage to £15 per hour for workers across all age groups.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Question. The Government are increasing the national living wage by a record 10% in April this year to £11.44 per hour. This increase will end low pay for those aged 21 and over, and meets the target threshold of two-thirds of median hourly pay. Any further increases in the national living wage will need to be carefully considered, regarding the economic impact, balancing the cost to business and benefit to workers. The Government will continue to base these decisions on increases on robust evidence and recommendations from the Low Pay Commission.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. I think it is interesting that none of us knows how you can live on £10 an hour and run a family and pay your rent. The minimum wage is not very near the living wage, so we have to find a way of morphing the minimum wage towards the living wage. I ask this rather strange question: what happens if you take a third of what is on the books at the moment and increase by a third the minimum wage? The reason I ask it is: will the Government change the situation where we keep producing low-paid jobs and low investment so we have an enormous number of people who cannot earn a decent wage? That means that we have to increase the way that we trade. We have to push up prosperity, and that is the job of the Minister’s department.

I thank the noble Lord for that reminder. I think all of us in this place and the other place can be very proud of what has happened over the past 25 years on the minimum wage. This wage increase will benefit 3 million workers. Remember, we have 33 million people working in the UK, out of 66 million, so those in the bottom 10% are getting a 10% increase. That has a knock-on effect for a further four million. This is a big impact. If we look at the past eight years, since it came in in 2016, the national living wage has gone up by 60% versus inflation at 30%, so there has been a real increase in wages for those at the lower end of the wage scale.

My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Bird, would agree that there are too many working people who have to rely on the minimum wage in this country and that those at the bottom of the wage cycle are the ones who suffer most when there is low growth. A key statistic, if the Minister wants to trade statistics, is GDP per capita, which is falling. Our productivity is falling because there is insufficient investment in skills and capital machinery. The reason there is insufficient investment is because businesses do not have stability or confidence going forward. Does the Minister agree that this Government do not have a plan and are not providing the facility that can deliver the growth that will help the people the noble Lord, Lord Bird, is talking about?

I thank the noble Lord for that. We have record levels of employment in this country, with 33 million out of 66 million people working. Average public sector pay is £19 an hour and in the private sector it is £16. We are now taking the minimum wage up to £11.44. The noble Lord is quite right to indicate that if we want to ask businesses to invest more money, perhaps we should be asking them to invest in more productivity per employee rather than just more wage per employee, and perhaps more inclusion and diversity, along the lines of John Lewis and Timpson.

My Lords, there is no justification for discriminating against young people under any circumstances. People can join the Army at 16, they can be on the front line at 18 putting their lives at risk for King and country, but they cannot receive the full national minimum wage until they are 21. This cannot possibly be right. Does the Minister agree?

I thank the noble Lord for that. There is a wage scale, as he will well know. For those aged 18-20, it is £8.60 an hour and for those under 18 it is £6.40 an hour, an apprentice rate. The point of this is a scale. We all start work on lower wages and increase our wages as our skill levels increase. We must not be in a situation where we, in effect, lock young people out of the market. We must ensure that young people get into the market earning wages and then increase their skills and their wages. The noble Lord will know well that many studies have been done on the wage scar, which blights young people if they do not get into a job early and get training. We want young people in a job early, trained up, so they can increase their wages.

My Lords, has my noble friend the Minister’s department made any assessment of whether these increases in the minimum wage, which go well above and beyond average wage increases, have impacted the ability of companies to take on interns, which is normally the main route into employment; whether they have had an impact on speeding the adoption of automation and assimilating the upfront costs; whether employers respond by cutting in-work benefits, discounted meals and so on, to compensate; and, not least, what the impact is on the price rise of the finished product, because often people on minimum wages are also consumers of minimum wage products? If, for example, fast food becomes much more expensive, it is not going to be hedge fund managers who pay.

I thank my noble friend for that. The cost to business is a consideration that we must consider. The cost of this particular increase will be £3 billion over six years and I emphasise that it will fall largely on the SME community. Some 99% of our companies are SMEs, with 2.5 million VAT-registered companies. Setting aside the 10,000 companies that employ 30% of the workforce, 60% of the workforce are employed in SMEs and they are bearing the brunt of exactly these wage increases. We survey employers and they want to pay higher wages. We want a good, well-paid workforce but we must do so in a way that balances the needs of business and workers.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for his tireless campaigning to tackle homelessness and poverty. Even at my advanced age, I enjoy celebrating birthdays, but I have never believed that my hourly work increases by 50% simply by ageing a year—yet that is implied by the national minimum wage banding between 17 and 18 year-olds. These days it is a real struggle to survive on the full national minimum wage. Does the Minister agree that lower rates represent unfair age-based discrimination and send the wrong message to young people at the start of their working life?

I thank the noble Lord for that. I think I have already addressed that question. We have to set the national minimum wage as high as possible for young people without damaging their prospects. We have to encourage them into the workplace. We have to avoid the longer-term scarring effects from long spells of unemployment that I have talked about. That is what this metric achieves.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is shocking that social care workers—who perform incredibly skilled and precious work for all of us but the majority of whom are paid less than the real living wage of £12 an hour outside London—are paid so little, and that a quarter of them are on zero-hours contracts? How much do his Government believe a social care worker is worth?

I think everyone on all sides of the House agrees with the noble Baroness that we owe a great deal of gratitude to those who work in the social care sector. It is a fact that a lot of them are on lower wages and we would like them to be paid more, but at the end of the day we now have 10% of the workforce on a national living wage that underpins their prospects, and it is now the responsibility of businesses and employers to increase the training and skills of our workforce so that they can earn more in the market.

My Lords, my question follows on from the Minister’s answer to the noble Lords, Lord Woodley and Lord Leong. The Minister spoke about young people being scarred by periods of unemployment, but just imagine trying to live on £6.40 an hour for an under-18, which is what it is going up to in April, or £8.60 an hour for 16 to 20-year-olds. Does the Minister not think that young people are being scarred by the inability to afford healthy food or decent accommodation, or indeed to live any kind of life, while struggling to survive? Their costs are no lower than anyone else’s. Surely they should be paid enough money to live on.

I thank the noble Baroness for that. The ambition that we should all share is for everyone to have rising wages as they improve their skill levels and for our young people to get meaningful jobs out of school that allow them to be trained and earn more as they progress in their career.