General election 2017: pay and the cost of living

With just a few days until the election, UNISON looks at what the main parties have to say on two of the issues most important to our members

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For UNISON members, pay has not kept pace with inflation – whether they’re in the public sector or delivering public services in the voluntary sector or a private company.

Pay freezes and pay caps

Public sector workers saw their pay frozen in 2011 and 2012 – except for those on less than £21,000 a year, who got £250. Since then, everyone has been subject to a 1% pay cap, which Conservative chancellor Phillip Hammond announced in March will continue until 2019.

Between 2010 and 2016, mean average public sector pay increased by just 7.8%, while the retail price index went up by 18.7%.

Over the same period, gas prices rose 24.1% and electricity by 27.8%. Since 2010, private rents are up 14%, train fares up 25% and house prices by over 28%.

Between 2010 and 2015, cumulative rent increases were at 24.2% as opposed to cumulative inflation (CPI), which is at 14.1%.

In the last year, the cost of food has already started rising rapidly.

That’s a lot rises in the cost of living.

At the same time, child benefit has been frozen, while other in-work benefits for those on low incomes have been hit too.

It’s no wonder that we’ve heard reports of public service workers having to turn to food banks and pay-day loan sharks to survive.

In May, a report from ratings agency Standard and Poor showed that zero-hours contracts and insecure employment have a negative impact on pay levels.

So what do some of the party manifestos say on these issues – issues that affect UNISON members on a daily basis?

UNISON has called for an end to the public service pay cap

The Labour Party’s manifesto pledges to do just that.

In other moves that would affect household incomes, it would raise the minimum wage and “immediately” scrap benefits sanctions and the bedroom tax.

A Labour government would also reinstate housing benefit for under-21s, end the cuts to bereavement support payments, and “reform and redesign” universal credit with the intention of reversing the government’s “attack on low-income families”.

The Liberal Democrats would end the pay cap too, while establishing an independent review to consult on how to set a genuine living wage across all sectors: “We will pay this living wage in all central government departments and their agencies, and encourage other public sector employers to do likewise.”

The party adds that it would create a “fair benefits system – reversing unfair Conservative policies that attack the poor and vulnerable”.

The Conservatives have given no indication of a rethink on the pay cap, but say that, if returned to government, they would “continue to increase the national living wage to 60% of median earnings by 2020 and then by the rate of median earnings, so that people who are on the lowest pay benefit from the same improvements in earnings as higher-paid workers”.

The manifesto also notes that, since public services are “dependent upon the public servants who run them”, it would “establish in law the freedom for employees to mutualise, where appropriate, within the public sector” and even will “review the honours system to make sure it commands public confidence, rewards genuine public service and that recipients uphold the integrity of the honours bestowed”.

On benefits, the Conservative manifesto says it currently has no more plans to make any more major changes to the system.

The Green Party would scrap age-related wage bands for the national minimum wage, move toward a universal basic income and phase in a four-day working week.

It would also close the NHS spending gap … and ensure “staff are fairly paid”.

Plaid Cymru says it would create “50,000 new, well-paid jobs from public sector contracts, each paying a genuine living wage.”

It would also scrap bedroom tax and benefits sanctions.

On public sector pay, the SNP recognises “that at a time of rising inflation, public sector pay caps become increasingly unsustainable”.

The SNP supports the repeal of the Trade Union Act and the end of the “cruel and punitive sanctions regime”, while also saying that it would increase the national minimum wage.

Stop the use of insecure, zero-hours contracts

Noting that, in “real terms pay is still lower than before the [2008] crash, and jobs are increasingly low skilled and insecure”, the Labour manifesto says that it will act on “insecure work”, banning zero-hours contracts, and will also use “public investment to upgrade our economy and create high-quality jobs”.

The Conservative manifesto says that it will ensure that people working in the ‘gig’ economy are properly protected.

The Liberal-Democrat manifesto says the party would “stamp out abuse of zero-hours contracts and modernise employment rights” to make them “fit for the age of the ‘gig’ economy”.

The SNP supports a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Tackle the rising cost of living

The Labour Party says it would implement a major house-building programme, including council homes.

It would also make three-year tenancies the norm for those in the private rented sector, with an inflation cap on rent rises.

Noting that, while energy customers are “overcharged an enormous £2 billion every year … many people don’t have the time to shop around”, it also promises an “immediate emergency price cap” to ensure that the “average dual-fuel household energy bill remains below £1,000 per year, while we transition to a fairer system of bill payers.”

The Conservative Party has little to say on the affordability of housing, although its manifesto reiterates a pledge to meet the party’s 2015 general election commitment to deliver a million homes by the end of 2020, with half a million more by the end of 2022.

It says a Conservative government would address a “dysfunctional housing market”, adding that this would mainly be a case of building more homes to meet demand.

The manifesto also promises a cap on domestic energy costs – echoing a Labour Party policy proposal that the Conservatives themselves loudly decried as “Marxist” back in 2015.

The Liberal Democrats promise to build 300,000 more homes by 2022.

The party also wants to “promote longer tenancies of three or more years for renters and inflation-linked rent increase only”.

On energy prices, it says domestic customers are paying too much, and pledges to change the situation by improving energy efficiency and backing community energy schemes.

Plaid Cymru pledges “fair fuel prices for everyone”.