What are the bare essentials?

For decades British governments looking to set minimum income
levels have refused to investigate how much it costs to buy the
essential goods and services people need to live healthy lives.
This government too is setting arbitrary levels of minimum income,
based on calculations that are incomprehensible to the public.

Minimum income standards should mean that the income levels
people require to live decent, healthy lives are based on
transparent, reliable evidence. They should, however, provide
targets against which the voting public can judge to what extent
the government and employers are succeeding in eliminating poverty
and economic injustice in the UK.

The Work and Pensions Committee of MPs in the report of its
inquiry into child poverty has now backed the case for budget
standards to underpin poverty thresholds. This is the fourth time
the committee has made this recommendation in as many years. It has
been ignored by the government even though it is massively
supported by the Zacchaeus 2000 Coalition of 66 NGOs comprising
faiths, charities, trades unions and health professionals with 10
million members between them.

The Department for Work and Pensions has now received many
examples of sound research into the minimum incomes needed for
healthy living. It has never entered into discussion about the
specific, objective assumptions about nutrition, fuel, clothing,
transport etc, on which these minimum incomes have been based. It
has never attempted to justify the effect of its decisions about
the levels of statutory minimum incomes on healthy living.

Instead, in Measuring Child Poverty, published just
before Christmas, the government announced it would be using a
complex statistical formula, based on three indicators. None of
these are based on a cost of living assessment and, in fact,
obscure the most important measure of poverty which is whether
people have enough money after their housing costs have been paid
to meet the rest of their needs.

Barclays Bank recently agreed to talk to its cleaning
contractors at Canary Wharf about the terms and conditions of
cleaners including the hourly rate of pay, sick pay, holidays and
pensions rather than allowing the market to force pay down to
poverty rates.

The Telco (East London Communities Organisation) campaign for a
living wage, which inspired Barclays, is grounded in research by
the Family Budget Unit at Kings College, London. This is a small
first step towards a consensus between the community and employers
about minimum income standards, and demonstrates that businesses
can also be interested in eradicating poverty.

Zacchaeus 2000 has called on the government to set up a
commission to enable it to set minimum income standards and
negotiate a wider consensus about minimum levels of income.

The Rev Paul Nicolson is chair of the Zacchaeus 2000

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