Speech on the Living Wage 29 April 2010

I congratulate all those who were involved in the living wage campaign throughout the United Kingdom—I think that it started in London—and those in Scotland who have pursued it. They have played an important role in addressing and in asking us to challenge poverty and low pay.

Tackling low pay has not always been an area of consensus. Indeed, even inside the Labour and trade union movement, there was a long argument about the extent to which free collective bargaining would ensure that low-paid workers would be properly remunerated. There came a time when we considered the fact that there was a disproportionate number of women among the low paid and we recognised that the trade unions in themselves could not protect low-paid workers. Therefore, our movement came to the view that Government intervention was necessary to protect people's entitlement to a basic level of pay to save them from the exploitation that some of us remember all too well, such as security guards being on £1.50 or £2 an hour.

Such exploitation was justified in the name of the economic growth and prosperity that are mentioned in the Tory amendment. It is significant that, when the economic crisis emerged, the first solution that some people within the business community proposed was that the national minimum wage was a problem, so perhaps we should get rid of it. We should commend the businesses that are responsible and that recognise that part of good business and their being in partnership with our communities is that they ought not to exploit people.

The briefing from the Poverty Alliance recognises that, in the debate, the living wage is not the same as the safeguards that have been put in place through the national minimum wage and the tax credit system. One is not a substitute for the other, but they reinforce our commitment to ensuring that people do not languish in low pay.

We have to consider whether any measure will make a difference to the people about whom we purport to care. The Tory amendment talks about economic growth as being the best way out of our difficulties but, beside that, we must have shared prosperity, which will not happen by accident. Government must introduce measures that will make that difference. The national minimum wage presents such an example, and the living wage creates such a challenge for us all, wherever we are.

Rob Gibson talks about the big picture—the huge issues—but that cannot be an alibi for not doing what we can, where we are. The Scottish Government must be challenged on its priorities. It usually describes its anti-poverty strategy in terms of three issues: the council tax freeze, the extension of free school meals, and free prescriptions. Any equality assessment of that strategy will tell us that those do not benefit the poorest people in our communities.

Jeremy Purvis's party talks about exempting from paying tax anyone who earns less than £10,000 a year, but the Institute of Fiscal Studies tells us that the beneficiaries of that policy would be three of the four wealthiest groups in the income table. I wonder what equality assessment has been done on that. We need an honest and focused approach, and we need tough targets and monitoring. I regret that the Scottish Government has not continued the challenge of producing an annual report on whether it is meeting its targets on poverty, because such reports can be a spur to action.

I would like the minister to clarify what has been done by the Scottish Government. I understand that although Nicola Sturgeon costed a package for introducing the national minimum wage to the NHS, it was vetoed by John Swinney. Is that true? Has the Government considered how it can use procurement policy not just in its powers to address the needs of public sector workers but to challenge the private sector to improve the scandal of private sector low pay? Will the minister support Glasgow's approach? Will he acknowledge housing associations that are implementing the minimum wage? Will he, when he sums up, identify not just the principle that he believes in, but the areas in which he has control and power in terms of that principle's being implemented?