Although the economy is healing, workers are still feeling the pinch as wages remain stagnant, and prices remain high. Nowhere is the squeeze felt more than those on low incomes. In Britain today, 1.4million workers earn the Minimum Wage, and even though the Minimum Wage has been uplifted by a modest amount each year since its introduction, it has decreased by over 10% in real terms since 2008.
Therefore, as the party of hard-working people, Conservatives should look at increasing the National Minimum Wage rate for over 21s, in real terms, so that it keeps up with inflation.
Currently, a full time worker on the minimum wage earns just £12,500 per year. This is simply not sustainable. For a fair day's work, one should receive a fair day's pay. Not only is it morally just to do this, but it is also economically effective. Increasing the Minimum Wage eliminates the poverty trap, cuts the benefits bill, and encourages more people to get back into work.
It is also right to recognise the differences in the cost of living up and down the country. For example the cost of living in the South East is much greater than the cost of living in the North East. One way of reforming the Minimum Wage, so that it more fairly reflects an individual's local cost of living, would be to introduce a regional minimum wage top up above the National Minimum Wage. This is already reflected in the Living Wage campaign, as London has a higher living wage level than the rest of the UK to compensate for the disparity. A similar system should be extended across the UK, to ensure people are rewarded for their work fairly, regardless of where they live.
However, whilst it is important to support a fair wage, we have to be sure that we do not hurt small businesses, and harm employment in the process. Therefore caution must be exercised to ensure that the Minimum Wage is not raised to unsustainable levels.
Whilst these are potential short term solutions to help with the cost of living, our objective should be to achieve a living wage by reforming the tax system. There are several ways that this can be achieved.
First, the 10p tax band that was axed by Labour could be reintroduced. This could halve the income tax bill for those on Minimum Wage, and significantly reduce the cash gap between the Minimum Wage and the Living Wage. It would also cost less than raising the personal allowance, and ensure that people would continue to 'pay into' the system, whilst letting them keep more of their own money.
Alternatively, the threshold for income tax could be raised further. So far, the government has raised it to £10,000. This means that in 2013, 24 million people paid £600 less income tax than they paid in 2010, and two million of low earners were lifted out of income tax altogether.
Despite this however, National Insurance remains a burden. Lifting the National Insurance threshold, beyond £7,500 so that it matches income tax would help the five million low earners across the UK, who all earn below £10,000 per year. It would take all of these people out of tax altogether, and help their money go further.
As Conservatives, we say that we are on the side of hardworking people. For this reason it is right that the government has increased the personal allowance. If, however, the slogan 'for hardworking people' really is to mean something, the Conservatives have to become the Workers' Party.
A real terms rise in the National Minimum Wage, a regional top-up, and raising the National Insurance threshold would give the Conservatives legitimacy as the party standing up for millions of workers - not just millionaires.
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