Alison McGovern – 2020 Speech on the Living Wage at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games

Below is the text of the speech made by Alison McGovern, the Labour MP for Wirral South, in the House of Commons on 11 June 2020.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Before I say a few words on the importance of the living wage, I just want to say that the games are a massive opportunity for Birmingham, one of the most important cities in our country, and the west midlands. I pay tribute to all those, including my predecessor in this role, who have seen the Bill through its stages so far. Glasgow, Manchester, Edinburgh, London and Cardiff have all hosted the games at various points in their almost 100-year history. Birmingham more than fully deserves this opportunity, particularly given the circumstances under which the city has taken on hosting the games. I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to everybody in the west midlands who I know is working very hard to get ready for the games. It is a challenge made all the more difficult by the current virus outbreak, but I know they are working with complete dedication to make sure that, as much as possible, Birmingham will be ready for the games.

In a way, the situation we are in makes 2022 all the more important as a date to look forward to. I know that sport is only relatively important, whatever people from my native Merseyside might think, in comparison to the challenges we face as a country, but I know that many people will be looking forward to the Commonwealth games as a moment that near enough represents a return to the great sporting culture of our country. In many ways, the Bill is made more important by the current coronavirus context.​

This week, we think about our diversity as a country. It is poignant to end this week in Parliament with a Bill that will enable one of our country’s most diverse cities to host an esteemed sporting event which, as well as competition, has at its heart a celebration of that diversity. We will celebrate the games bringing together 71 teams from around the world, and it will feature 24 disciplines from across 19 different sports. Three new sports will be introduced—women’s cricket, beach volleyball and para-table tennis—and I am sure the Minister will join me in celebrating that this Commonwealth games has the potential for more female medals than male medals, and will also host a fully integrated para-sport competition. So sport can be—I stress can be, not necessarily is—an important vehicle for diversity.

With those words of introduction said, let me turn to new clause 1. This new clause is about the living wage, and I am tempted to spend a long time debating low pay in the United Kingdom, the labour market and the importance of a real living wage for people in this country, but I think that might tempt you to intervene, Madam Deputy Speaker, given the scope of the Bill. However, I just want to point out a couple of important facts and small matters of history that have led us to table this amendment.

As everybody in the House will be aware, the national minimum wage was established in 1998, and it brought about the Low Pay Commission, which set the legal minimum wage for the first time in our country and did a huge amount to protect workers from the scourge of low pay. Unfortunately, however, the problem of low pay in this country is a light sleeper; it always re-emerges. That is why the Low Pay Commission’s work is very important, and the campaign for the living wage was established to try to improve wages for people in this country.

Meanwhile, a previous Chancellor decided to rebrand the national minimum wage as a living wage. However, the national minimum wage that we now refer to, which is set by the Government, is not the same as the real living wage, and the difference is how they are set. The real living wage, which is accredited by the Living Wage Foundation, is a rate that refers to the real costs that people pay—the real challenges that people have to face in paying their rent and for food and for all the things they need in society. The difference is not nothing. The current national living wage—the so-called living wage, as we might refer to it—is £8.72, while the real living wage for the UK is £9.30. That is a big difference for those who are working and who are struggling to put food on the table, as unfortunately many people are at the moment. It is a major difference.

Whether rebranding the national minimum wage undermined the fight against poor pay in this country is a discussion that is perhaps beyond our debate, but the point remains that many of us rightly aspire to a real living wage, and the Government and all their associated arms, including the organising committee of the Commonwealth games, should use their power to raise people’s wages. Sporting events, valuable as they are in themselves—valuable as the happiness that sport brings about is in and of itself—also have an important economic power. We know that for many regional economies across the United Kingdom, sporting events play an important part. Sport not only brings fame around the ​world that drives the visitor economy, but also enables a lot of people to take up roles and create jobs that otherwise would not be there. So it is highly important that we take every possible opportunity to use sport to have a positive influence on the labour market.

As I have said, low pay is a light sleeper in the United Kingdom. It is an ongoing battle to make sure that low pay in business is not perpetuated by people who are prepared to undercut each other and make workers pay the price for their business practices. That is why sport’s positive role in improving wages is so crucial. The value must be spread as widely as possible; it must not just be held by those who host major sporting events and those who are already involved, but must also reach every single person who is involved in creating these games. We want that sense of influence over the labour market, using this fantastic sporting event, which will raise the ambitions and aspirations of so many.

That leads into my final point. I will not tempt your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, by going into the many arguments in favour of the living wage that we wish we could rehearse, but we do know that there are short-term gains for the individuals concerned when their wages are raised and that there are long-term productivity gains, too. That is because people who are better paid can afford to retrain, and they can use their time in a way that helps them to get more out of the labour market over the long term.

The last time that I was aware of it, the Treasury had significant ambitions for productivity improvements in our country. I simply say to the Minister that if the Treasury wants to improve productivity in the UK, it needs to think first and foremost about those at the bottom end of the labour market, who are earning the least. It should ask itself the question, in the context of the Commonwealth games: if we raised our sights and ambitions for people’s wages, would they not have a bit more time to engage in training and development and give themselves a better chance of earning more in future, and more broadly, would it not do the right thing for our country and improve our labour market and economy? It might seem like a big ambition for the Commonwealth Games to have such a positive impact on our labour market, but I think that in sport and in everything else, ambition is nothing to be sorry about.