Exclusive: The rural workers who live below the breadline

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu. Picture by Simon Hulme
The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu. Picture by Simon Hulme
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CLOSE to 40 per cent of people working in rural parts of Yorkshire earn less than they need to meet even the basic costs of day-to-day life, new figures show today.

Statistics released by the Cabinet Office show 37.8 per cent of all employees across the largely-rural constituency of East Yorkshire earn less than the so-called “living wage”, the hourly rate which academics say people require to cover the basic cost of living.

The region-wide figures show that in 20 of Yorkshire’s 54 Parliamentary constituencies, more than a quarter of employees earn less than the living wage – currently set at £7.65 per hour for places outside London.

And it is starkly clear that hardship and poverty are not confined to the region’s inner-cities, with three of the five lowest-pay constituencies covering large rural areas.

In addition to East Yorkshire – a sprawling constituency stretching from Pocklington, near York, out to Driffield and Bridlington – more than 30 per cent of employees in Skipton and Ripon, in North Yorkshire, earn less than the living wage. In neighbouring Richmond, the seat of Foreign Secretary William Hague, the figure is 29.5 per cent.

The data also reveal huge disparities between different parts of the region, with the figure falling to just 13 per cent in some parts of Leeds and Sheffield.

But poverty remains widespread in some urban areas too, with Barnsley East, Hull North and Doncaster Central all home to large numbers of people earning less than the living wage.

In a report last month the Living Wage Commission, chaired by the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, found that nationwide the number of people earning less than the living wage rose by nine per cent in 2013, with one in five workers across the UK now below the breadline. The Archbishop has called on employers to end the “scourge” of low wages.

“The problem facing the country now is one that strikes to the heart of the moral fabric of our society,” he said. “The nature of poverty in Britain is changing dramatically. Work is no longer a route out of poverty for millions of hard-pressed people.

“The millions of people in low paid employment are having to rely on benefits and debt to get by. It is no longer guaranteed that work alone is enough to provide for a family.

“Low pay is a scourge on our society, and we all pay for it. Low pay costs the taxpayer between £3.6bn and £6bn a year in tax credits, in-work benefits and lost tax receipts.”

The UK living wage is set annually by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University. Academics make a detailed assessment of average rents, council tax bills, childcare costs and other essentials that a working family outside of London would need.

The hourly rate rose from £7.45 to £7.65 in November.

The actual national minimum wage remains significantly lower, at £6.33 per hour – though the Low Wage Commission recently recommended it be raised by three per cent to £6.50.

The campaign to encourage firms to pay the living wage is firmly backed by Labour, with party leader Ed Miliband announcing last year that he 
will offer participating companies a 12-month tax break if he becomes premier. Exactly 25 per cent of employees in his own Doncaster North constituency are paid less than the living wage. “Just as in the 1990s the minimum wage was a signature achievement of the last Labour Government, so in the coming years the living wage will be central to our work,” Mr Miliband said in a speech last November.

“I urge businesses to examine whether they can afford to pay the living wage, and if they can to move to do so.”

A number of Labour-led councils across Yorkshire have already agreed a policy of paying the living wage, including York, Sheffield, Calderdale and Barnsley. York announced in January it was extending the policy to 120 casual workers, in addition to its full-time staff. Conservative-led Scarborough Council also pays its staff the living wage.

This week, however, Labour-led Leeds City Council rejected proposals to introduce a living wage rate for employees. Neighbouring Bradford has also expressed caution. David Cameron, too has been cautious in his support, despite stating prior to the 2010 election that the living wage was “an idea whose time has come”.

And Business Secretary Vince Cable has warned that forcing the living wage on all employers would cost jobs. He said the minimum wage should continue to be set by the independent Low Pay Commission, which takes into account the likely impact on employment figures of any increase.

“I can see the advantages of having a measure which individual employers can strive for as an example of good practice,” the Lib Dem said. “I do, however, worry about the living wage becoming a policy tool which Governments are expected to apply. If you have general application of the living wage at the kind of level being discussed, it would have very considerable impacts on employment.”

Graphic: Yorkshire beauty spots where thousands are on the breadline