Leaders: Ethics of living wage | SNP scrutiny

THERE is a dangerous tendency to hear the words ‘living wage’ and unconsciously bracket this issue alongside benefits, credits and allowances.

The minimum wage in the UK is 6.50 pounds per hour. Picture: Getty
The minimum wage in the UK is 6.50 pounds per hour. Picture: Getty

For those whose lives are not troubled by such matters, it is too easy to pay little attention to the issues involved, and make no attempt to understand them.

For instance, too many of us could only hazard a guess at the difference between a living wage and the minimum wage. Since you ask, the short answer is £1.35. But it’s the long answer we need to consider.

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The minimum wage is £6.50 per hour, as enforced by law. It was introduced in 1999 to protect employees who were vulnerable to exploitation. The living wage is calculated according to the basic cost of living in the UK, and stands at £7.85 per hour (and £9.15 in London).

The crucial difference is that the living wage is voluntary. It is deemed to be the amount required to allow workers “to lead a decent life”. That could mean the ability to own a mobile phone, or take a taxi if necessary, or buy a cup of coffee once in a while. These are not luxuries, and nor can those who seek the living wage be considered to be hanging around waiting for the next handout. They are honest workers who can pay their basic bills but do little else.

Advocates of the living wage argue the commitment has an additional value as well as a cost, with a more contended workforce likely to increase productivity and reduce staff turnover.

The issue has been given additional publicity in recent months because football clubs have come in for criticism over their failure to introduce the wage. They are by no means alone. A recent poll in Scotland showed that only 10 out of 50 of the country’s biggest employers pay all staff the living wage.

In the private sector companies are reluctant to sign up to a commitment to pay the living wage because of the additional cost, with the CBI warning of job losses. The financial crisis has also been blamed.

The public sector has struggled with the living wage too, but largely because the concept is beyond the public purse. Councils face clear difficulties over the provision of services.

Today, the Church of Scotland said it has been unable to pay its care workers the living wage, partly because of cuts in public spending. The Kirk is moving in the right direction, commendably, but is unable to bridge the gap fully at this stage.

The living wage argument comes down to a question of ethics, as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Companies who jump to suggest that such a measure would result in job losses should have another look at their business model. If dividends to shareholders can only be achieved through denying employees the ability to meet the cost of living, then those organisations have a moral responsibility to re-assess their priorities.

SNP must stand or fall on its record

THIS month’s general election demonstrated unprecedented levels of support for the SNP – and, for the traumatised Labour Party in Scotland, there are already openly expressed fears that next year’s Holyrood elections will deliver more of the same.

As was said more than once during the campaign, whatever criticisms that could be justifiably levelled at the SNP made little or no difference.

But the Holyrood opposition parties should not lose heart. For the past two years – at least – the constitutional question has dominated Scottish politics, even if Nicola Sturgeon insisted repeatedly that independence was not a general election issue. Debate continues over the transfer of powers, but focus is going to return to domestic matters, where the Scottish Government has to stand by its record as it seeks re-election.

Not for the first time, Labour’s economy spokeswoman Jackie Baillie has hit the target with her criticism of the SNP’s record on education. That was confirmed when the education secretary, Angela Constance, announced today, after renewed criticism, that the Scottish Government is investing £100 million in a national attainment fund, following a report which found reading standards among Scotland’s eight and nine-year-olds have fallen by 5 per cent since 2012.

To give Ms Constance credit, she has at least avoided going for denial. But as her critics were keen to point out, the SNP has been in power for eight years: recognition of the problem and subsequent action should not have taken this long. It is a relevant point. Our children only get one chance when it comes to education. If the Scottish Government fails on education, it fails our children.