It’s well known that the Conservatives have a problem with young people and, as one of Parliament’s youngest MPs, it’s not hard to see why they’re so unpopular with my generation. Since 2010 they have cut maintenance grants and ESA, hiked tuition fees, removed nurses’ bursaries and presided over the worsening housing crisis. And that’s just scratching the surface.
When Theresa May became Prime Minister she promised a change of direction with a pledge to unite the country, young and old. But since then the rhetoric has, quite evidently, failed to translate into meaningful change.
However, this Friday the Government could deliver a rare positive result for young people if they choose to back my private member’s bill to end age discrimination in the minimum wage.
Just before leaving office the former chancellor George Osborne introduced a higher minimum wage, controversially labelling it the National Living Wage. He made the unexpected choice to exclude young workers from the pay rise, meaning that under-25s on minimum wage jobs began to earn less per hour than their older colleagues; even those performing the same role.
To get a clearer picture of the impact of these changes I asked the House of Commons Library to produce figures showing the impact of the widening gap between the rates at different ages.
They calculate that someone working full time on the minimum wage, who is paid at the rate for 18 year olds, would earn £3,774 less per year than someone over 25 paid the ‘living wage’. This gap is only going to increase further as the ‘living wage’ increases towards a target of around £9 an hour.
To put this into context, if the lower income received by younger workers was a result of taxes, the difference between the ‘living wage’ rate and that received by an 18 year old would be equivalent to them paying an extra 25% in Income Tax.
Setting an age threshold at 25, regardless of experience, is almost unique to Britain. In the entire developed word only Greece has an equivalently high age requirement. Ireland and New Zealand pay the standard adult rate from aged 18 onwards, as does Germany. Even in the more deregulated US there is no age bracket to the federal minimum wage, apart from the option to pay workers under the age of 20 a lower rate for their first few months of employment.
The public are resolutely in favour of fair wages regardless of age. When Survation polled on this issue they found that delivering the same minimum wage for under-25s was supported by two thirds of respondents. Conservative supporters also backed the change, with 55% supporting an equal wage for under-25s compared to 35% who did not.
The Government maintain that this policy is for the benefit of the young. A Cabinet Minister defended it to me during a House of Commons debate saying “it is important to do everything we can to incentivise employers to take on young people”.
Yet there are serious flaws with this strategy for helping the young, not least the fact that employers that actively seek to recruit under-25s in order to cut wage costs risk falling foul of age discrimination legislation.
Any employer interviewing for a role is legally required to choose the best candidate for the position regardless of age. The monetary “incentive” the Government seem to believe will persuade employers to hire younger candidates can only be acted on if the employer discriminates against the older applicants. It’s simply not going to work.
The weakest explanation came soon after the introduction of the threshold at 25, as cabinet minister Matthew Hancock claimed young people were not productive enough to warrant the increased minimum wage. This prompted understandable anger from young people and embarrassment for the Government when they later conceded that they have no evidence that under 25s are less productive than older workers.
I have been fighting this policy for over two years now. I was delighted to be drawn in the Private Member’s Bill ballot, meaning that this Friday I’ll be introducing a bill which would remove the divisive age thresholds and ensure that all over 18s are paid the national ‘living wage’.
This would be a good first step towards fairness in our minimum wages. A Labour Government would go further still, with a true living wage for all workers over 18. This reflects the belief that minimum wage rates should always follow the principle of equal pay for equal work.
My bill has strong cross party support in Parliament but few Tories have yet to declare their backing. This is the moment for the Prime Minister to deliver on her rhetoric. She promised a country that works for everyone, will she support fair wages for everyone who works, regardless of age?
Holly Lynch is the Labour MP for Halifax