I was giving evidence yesterday to the Scottish Parliament Local Government and Regeneration Committee as part of their living wage inquiry.
It can be argued that there has been a greater focus in recent years on tackling poverty in families with children and older people than those at work. The living wage is a key element in tackling poverty for those at work and the Scottish Living Wage Campaign has been at the forefront of efforts to extend this concept in Scotland.
The living wage is intended to provide a level of pay that adequately allows workers to provide for themselves and their families. The current rate in Scotland is £7.20 per hour. This is paid to staff in the direct employment of the Scottish Government including the NHS. Seven local authorities have adopted the Scottish Living Wage, most notably Glasgow that has also encouraged a wider take up in the city.
This still leaves 18,432 workers (7%) in local councils who are paid below the living wage. There are also around 350,000 workers in Scotland earning below this level including many in the private and voluntary sector who provide public services. For this reason the committee focused in my panel on how we can expand the coverage of living wage.
Some local authorities claim they can't implement the living wage because of single status and equal pay. This is simply an excuse for inaction. The easiest way to implement is by collapsing increments at the bottom of the scale as in NHS Scotland. While this may impact on differentials, it doesn't of itself create an equal pay claim. The other is by a top up payment that might create a theoretical equal pay claim. However, there is a Genuine Material Factor defence that can be objectively justified on several grounds.
Expanding the living wage to the voluntary and private sector can be done through procurement. Legal advice to government and councils has highlighted the risk of challenge under EU procurement rules. Again there are ways of addressing this following the example of London and other councils elsewhere in the UK.
Finally, all those giving evidence emphasised the importance of establishing a Living Wage Unit. It could promote the living wage, give advice on the perceived barriers and provide practical support to public and private sector bodies that recognise the value the living wage brings to their organisation and the wider economy.
In all a very good evidence session and I hope the committee brings forward some positive recommendations.