Jayne Dowle: Bolshie Boris is right about the need for a living wage

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AT last Boris Johnson has said something which makes sense. He is telling companies which don’t pay their workers enough to “cough up” more money and increase their wages. Good point. We can’t have enough voices arguing for this. The culture of bosses paying as little as they can possibly get away with has been ingrained for far too long in this country.

And then this newly-bolshie Boris tops it off by warning David Cameron and George Osborne not to “hack back” on state benefits until greedy chiefs get their act together and start to pay at least a living wage. He gives the example of underpaid workers at “gigantic” supermarket chains subsidised to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds with benefits whilst the bosses milk their bonuses and ride around in private jets.

Any more of this and he’ll have the Red Flag flying above City Hall. His comments come just a few days after the Prime Minister announced that a further £12bn must be shaved off the welfare bill in the next few weeks, ready for the July budget. What’s this? Boris Johnson, champion of the workers? It all sounds a bit, well, rich, coming from a fully-paid up, champagne-quaffing member of the upper classes. Really, it’s not the kind of behaviour we expect from his sort.

Or is it? Excuse the cynicism, but let’s not forget that the rumours that Johnson might one day run for Conservative leader refuse to subside. He’s not daft. If these outspoken comments are his way of attempting to appeal to a wider demographic, he’s going the right way about it. And let’s give him a bit of a break. His job as Mayor of London brings many perks, but it also must make him realise that without the army of low-paid workers who get up before dawn every day to clean streets and offices and public transport, serve coffee and open up shops, our capital city would grind to a halt.

In his characteristically colourful style, he brings alive the most pressing issue on the Government’s domestic agenda – the Catch 22 that is the benefits system. The problem is infinitely complex, yet it seems to me there are two main challenges: to persuade individuals that work is a viable option and preferable to a life on benefits, and to convince those in work that working will pay their bills so is worth doing.

Without employers stepping up to the mark, neither of these aims can be achieved. For years, bosses have been allowed to get away with underpaying their workers, reducing their contractual obligations under such measures as “zero hours” contracts and generally attempting to squeeze as much profit as they can.

Meanwhile, low-paid workers are increasingly relying on state benefits such as tax credits to pay their household bills, raise their children and keep a roof over their heads. This is costing the country billions of pounds. Put simply, we can’t afford it. One option being considered is the idea of cutting child tax credit back to levels last seen in 2003, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates would save £5bn. It would however, cost 3.7 million low-income families an average of £1,400-a-year.

Clearly, it’s an unsustainable situation. Something must be done. The Prime Minister talks of ending the benefits “complacency” that has “infected our national life”. He is right to tackle this. None of us benefit from huge numbers of people claiming benefits when they could be in work and helping to create a strong economy. The knock-on effects of employment are entirely positive, at every level from personal well-being to boosting trade in local shops and businesses.

Yet Cameron speaks of only one side of the coin. Until employers, and that means big business and small business, are held to account, the books will never add up. He says he wants a “higher-wage, lower-benefit” economy, but in order to do this he must address the issue of what a sustainable minimum wage is, and how employers can be prevailed upon to implement it. So far, the focus is much too skewed; to squeeze further those who have nothing left to give.

The problem is, as Julia Unwin, chief executive of the York-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out, cutting welfare without addressing the root causes of poverty will do far, far more harm than good. It will put children at risk – literally – from starvation and neglect.

What’s even more worrying, the Government is even proposing to reinvent the boundaries on how child poverty is measured. Officially, it is getting worse, but the Prime Minister describes as “absurd” the current measure used to assess how many children are said to be poor. You have to ask, from his privileged position, how is he qualified to say so? We can’t sit back and let him dictate terms. Yet public protest after protest doesn’t seem to make an iota of difference. If David Cameron and his Cabinet won’t listen to us, perhaps they just might listen to one of their own?

Boris, I wish you luck.