Barry decries ‘poverty of ambition’ as North Down fails to commit to Living Wage

Leader of the Green group on the new North Down and Ards Council, Cllr John Barry has criticised the ‘poverty of ambition’ and ‘lack of commitment’ of other parties to the council becoming a Living Wage employer.

Cllr. Barry was speaking the day after his motion on the Living Wage was rejected by the Finance and Resource committee, meeting on Monday 15 September.

He stated: ‘Unlike the Notice of Motion on the Living Wage which the council endorsed at its meeting last month, my intention was that we as a council firmly commit rather than agree “in principle” to becoming a Living Wage employer. Of course an agreement “in principle” is better than nothing, and I welcome the fact that in principle the council is supportive of becoming a Living Wage Employer. However, the fact that at last night’s meeting we as a council rowed back from a firm commitment, is disappointing, not least for those members of council staff who are on less than the Living Wage of £7.65 an hour.

‘The Living Wage is calculated according to the basic cost of living in Northern Ireland. It enjoys cross party support, with public backing from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Paying the Living Wage is good for business, good for the individual and good for society. The Living Wage is a way to bring working people out of poverty. Evidence that the Living Wage enhances the quality of the work of staff, and reduction in absenteeism and decline in staff turnover; and staff are more likely to adapt to changes more quickly.

‘Despite some of the claims at last night’s meeting about the negative economic and employment impacts of a living wage, a report from Oxford Economics commissioned by the Centre for Economic Empowerment and launched last week showed a net employment benefit of a mandatory living wage across Northern Ireland.

‘It is also the case that many council employees live in the council area and therefore any extra wage increase will be felt in the local economy as they spend it locally. Becoming a Living Wage employer means the council is also supporting the local economy, bringing much needed spending to our town centres for example. This motion was intended to send out a clear message to all our council employees in this time of change and transition, and anxiety for some of them. It demonstrates we as an employer both value the work they do and recognise that wages sometimes do not enable workers to cover their basic costs of living, a decent work-family life balance and the reality of the “working poor”.

‘Becoming a living wage employer is about investing in our staff, particularly those on lower wages. My notice of motion included a commitment to include the Living Wage in all new employment contracts and to review the extent to which the council’s Living Wage policy might be able to be applied to currently contracted-out services or as each contract comes up for renewal. Importantly, it also committed the council to encourage other employers in North Down and Ards to adopt a similar anti low-pay policy for their staff. This notice of Motion committed the council to lead the way in the council area and encourage other employers in the council area to adopt the Living Wage. This leadership role is something I am sure we should do as a council, on this, as on other issues that will arise in the years ahead. We should ensure that the North Down and Ards area is a not a low-wage area.

‘At last night’s meeting while there was overwhelming support for the Living Wage, this was not backed up by the political will. My fear is that the decision reached by the committee, namely that as part of the estimates process we try and see if there is the money, is not the same as prioritising finding the funding needed. Let me be clear, the issue is not one of finances: the latter are of course important, but there is discretion always in how we as a council spend. The issue is lack of political will.

‘Lifting those council employees to the level of the Living Wage does not mean an increase in rates, but can be found in cost savings and forgoing non-essential, discretionary spending. Only two weeks ago we had a classic example of this, the decision, which only the Green Party, spoke against, to spend in excess of £15,000 of rate payers’ money on a new coat of arms as part of the process of the council becoming a Borough council, an honorary title with not one additional power. Or the £500,000 North Down will spend on a firing range in the Hamilton Road redevelopment proposal. Which do we care for more in tough economic times – a minority sport, or our frontline staff? We have choices as to where we spend rate-payers’ money.

‘It is disappointing that the council has behaved like St. Augustine, who famously said “Make me good, but not just yet”. Last night’s decision can be described as the council saying “Make us a Living Wage council, but not just yet”. In not firmly committing to pay all staff a Living Wage we have not done the right thing, from a moral point of view and committed to pay a “just wage”. The question that has to be asked is, has justice or ethics a price? One can only imagine that similar “hard headed economic” arguments were used to defend slavery – that it would wreck the economy, the economy could not afford it, and all the rest.

‘The reality is we as a council can find the money if there is the political will: hiding behind arguments that “finances” dictate is untrue, untenable and hypocritical’.

16 September 2014

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