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The Government's 'National Living Wage' Isn't An April Fool - But You Could Forgive Those Who Think It Is

31/03/2016 09:19 | Updated 01 April 2016

It's darkly apt that 1 April is the date the Government has picked to introduce what it is calling a 'national living wage'.

From April Fool's Day it will be a legal requirement for employers to pay at least £7.20 an hour to everyone over 25, up from their previous minimum wage of £6.70 an hour.

This national living wage is a great step forward. At least 1.5million people will get a pay rise, and higher earnings for those at the bottom mean a better quality of life.

But it's also an outrageous trick.

Calling it the 'national living wage' is wrong. It's not a living wage at all. It is simply an increase to the national minimum wage - albeit a significant one.

A 'living wage' is not some vague, idealistic concept that sounds virtuous. It's a specific amount, calculated annually by actual scientists for years, in an actual building called the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University.

It's based on the cost of living, and is currently £8.25 per hour for people outside London.

The government's 'national living wage' is calculated using median earnings in the UK, and raising the pay of those at the bottom so it's at least 55% of median. It has no connection to the cost of living.

Worse than that - worse than the name being completely incorrect - this disingenuous move will damage work being done by activists who are fighting to get businesses to pay people a genuine living wage.

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A campaign called the Living Wage Foundation has been calling on companies to pay a (real) living wage for 15 years, working hard to explain that it's good for morale and productivity if your workers can afford to eat, travel, heat their homes and have a home at all.

It has worked - the Living Wage Foundation's efforts, with minimal resources, have made the issue of low pay and the cost of living fashionable, creating what one campaigner described to me as a "halo" effect.

The government clearly wants to share in some of this public enthusiasm, by piggybacking on the goodwill that the Living Wage Foundation has worked to build - whilst offering workers nowhere near the remuneration they are calling for.

Their attempt is not even disguised - the website URL that the government has created, livingwage.gov.uk, is disturbingly similar to the URL for the Living Wage Foundation: livingwage.org.uk.

Pretty funny, you might say.

But it's not funny for the Living Wage Foundation. As a result of the government's casual theft of its name, the campaign now has to spend a significant amount of its time explaining that the living wage it has long-campaigned for is not the wage that the government has introduced.

It has been forced to edit its materials, guidance and website, and every time it sends out a press release it adds and table explaining the difference. With a staff of only five until the end of last year, this waste of this organisation's valuable time is tragic.

Sources close to the foundation tell me it fears its work could be undone as people believe that they are being paid a real living wage, or are confused about what they are entitled to.

Just in case I'd got the wrong end of the stick, I called the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ask them to explain.

A nice government spokesman told me the 'living wage' name was designed to "capture the government's ambition to see a significant increase in what we call the pay floor for the lowest paid".

Sure, nice idea, but it's not based on the cost of living. It's not a living wage. Did he have a further explanation for that specific name?

He did not. Did he not think the public could get confused by the government renaming the minimum wage the national living wage, when there is already a different and well-established concept of a living wage?

He didn't think so. He pointed out that the government has run a "significant communications campaign" to tell people about the national living wage, adding "really in our interest to... not confuse people".

Indeed, a very significant £4.95million has been spent to spread the word about the new national living wage. But he confirmed to me that not a single line has made the move to clarify that national living wage is unrelated to the existing living wage.

And what about that rather familiar URL for the government's site? "The URL might be similar but all of the communications that drive people to the website, and the website itself, are all very clear that it's the government's national living wage."

That's nice, but couldn't they have made the website a little more different to the existing campaigns, to remove any of that unwanted confusion? "I think it would probably be quite a long URL if we were to put thegovernmentsnewnationallivingwage.org [or something similar]."

Very true. So could the government not, in fact, have just called this new wage the National Median Wage... given that's what it is?

"I'm not sure that's so catchy," the spokesman responded.

It may be more catchy, but this sleight of hand may have cost us dear in the fight to ensure more people can afford to live.

That the government can tell me - as the spokesman did - it is "very much behind" the Living Wage Foundation's campaign while simultaneously crushing it, is staggering.

The choice to sacrifice honesty for good PR means it will be harder to change the fact that most people living in poverty are in working families, and that many are faced with a daily choice between eating and having heating. Dark humour indeed.

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