OPINION: A voice for the working poor

Lisa Harker, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

The recent demise of the London-based Low Pay Unit prompted well-merited cries of regret. Its untimely end leaves us without a powerful national voluntary-sector voice on behalf of the working poor. Trade unions continue to campaign to improve the minimum wage. But we have lost a vital organisation with a labour market-wide view of the problem.

Whatever the ins and outs of the circumstances that led to the organisation's demise, it reminds us of how difficult it is for the sector to work on issues which are perceived to have been "tackled" by the Government.

In many ways, the Low Pay Unit's decline started with the introduction of the minimum wage in 1999. Yet this was a landmark achievement, a triumph for those who had spent decades campaigning for measures to tackle poverty pay and a proud moment for those in government. It was the beginning, rather than the end, of a new approach towards low pay. Help for those on low earnings has continued to be strengthened through tax credits - support that will be further extended next month when new tax credits are introduced.

But the problem of low paid work has not disappeared. While the Government has taken the problem of low pay seriously, this is not the time to let up on the determination to reduce the number of working poor.

To do so would not only disappoint the working poor who so badly need voluntary-sector organisations to give them a voice. The Government also needs independent organisations to keep up the pressure if it is to convince the electorate of the value of taxpayers' money being put towards tackling the low pay problem.

Many of those working in the voluntary sector will recognise the difficulty the Low Pay Unit faced. Government action has all too often weakened rather than strengthened the case for funding policy and campaign work. But when it comes to making a difference, voluntary organisations know that they need to remain steadfast in campaigning for change, but do funding bodies?

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