Bringing the Living Wage to Scotland – an idea whose time has come

“An idea whose time has come”. 

Not my words, nor even those of the Living Wage Foundation, on whose website the quote is so prominently featured, but David Cameron, the Tory Prime Minister, speaking about the Living Wage.

The momentum behind the Living Wage has been growing for some time. From its roots in a London Citizens campaign in 2001, it spread to Scotland where the Scottish Living Wage Campaign was established in 2007 following a Poverty Alliance conference.

The London Living Wage is now firmly established, with the Olympics being a high profile signatory to ensuring contractors and employees working on the site were paid. In Scotland,  those directly employed by the Scottish Government and NHS employees are all now recipients of the Living Wage following the last Scottish Parliament elections, where three political parties, Scottish Labour, the SNP and the Scottish Greens, all had a commitment to introducing the Living Wage for public sector workers. Both Labour and the Greens also committed to setting up a government-based unit to push the living wage as widely as possible among employers in Scotland.

It is with this background of cross-party political support and a strong voice from the third sector pushing for more action that I launched my consultation document on my proposed Living Wage (Scotland) Bill last week. The Bill focuses on utilising the significant powers the Scottish Parliament already has on public sector procurement.

Specifically, the Bill proposes to require private sector employees working on public sector contracts to be paid the Living Wage and it will also seek to require the Scottish Ministers to prepare and report to the Parliament on a strategic plan to promote the Living Wage across all sectors in Scotland.

Scotland’s public sector spends a tidy £9bn a year on procurement. I believe that those private sector companies who benefit from public sector contracts should spread that around in the most effective way possible and I want to make sure that level of spending reaches as far as it can into our local communities.

Over 28% of those employees in Scotland who earn less than the Living Wage are in the private sector. By introducing the living wage into the procurement process, the Bill is deliberately intended to help address low-pay in private sector employers who make profit from public sector contracts.

Much media coverage has been gained on the first proposal of my Bill to extend the payment of the living wage beyond the public sector by utilising procurement processes in Scotland but the second proposal is equally important.

As a backbench opposition Member in the Scottish Parliament, my powers to effect change obviously aren’t bolstered by the ranks of civil servants that a Scottish Government Minister would have at his or her disposal. However, this second part of my proposed legislation aims to utilise those very people in a constructive manner by placing an onus upon Government to promote the Bill to the private sector, encourage take-up of the Living Wage by all employers, monitor its implementation and report annually to Parliament on progress on disseminating the Living Wage throughout Scotland.

The proposals are not without controversy. In my opinion, the Scottish Government are currently hiding behind advice they have sought from the European Commission on the procurement side of it.  This is despite bringing forward their own procurement bill (a consultation on which is running concurrently with mine), and they have indicated they do not intend to bring forward any relevant  legislation to include the Living Wage.

Despite the warm words from the Prime Minister about the Living Wage, I don’t believe we can rely on either the Tories or the SNP to extend it beyond the public sector. What we are witnessing now from the Scottish Government is the classic absence of political will which is needed to drive this issue forward. Too often, you only get the answers to the questions you ask and I don’t believe the Scottish Government – either through deliberate choice or by accident – have asked the right questions regarding the European angle on procurement.

Currently over half a million Scots receive less than the Living Wage and 6 out of 10 poor children in Scotland live in families that suffer from in-work poverty. Surely those figures alone are enough to convince us that we must be bolder to deliver a living wage to those in work. It is certainly an idea whose time has come.

John Park MSP is a Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Region of Mid Scotland and Fife. He is a member of the Parliament’s Energy, Economy and Tourism Committee. His consultation document (including details of how to respond) can be accessed here and closes on 3rd December.

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