Behind the headlines

The closure of the Low Pay Unit due to a cut in funding brings
to an end nearly 30 years of campaigning on behalf of low-paid
workers. The unit has been a staunch advocate of poorly paid
workers in the care sector, among others, and many will lament its

There are fears that the unit may have been allowed to go to the
wall because the government itself has made poverty and social
exclusion a high priority with the creation of the Social Exclusion
Unit and new benefits to support the low paid including working
families tax credit. The advent of the minimum wage may also have
contributed to a sense of complacency. Grant-making trusts have
shifted their emphasis away from campaigning work toward specific
projects. This approach tends to favour client-facing activities
over the policy and research focus that characterises the

Jack Dromey, national organiser at the Transport and General
Workers Union, who worked for the unit in the 1970s, described its
closure as a “tragedy”. “There remains in Britain the scandal of
low pay for millions of workers,” he said. 

Bill Badham, development officer, National Youth
“Joseph Rowntree used to get loads of money for his soup
kitchen, but the good people of York were less happy when he
‘enquired into the extent and causes of poverty’. Now we have
government committees to eradicate poverty in a generation, in part
thanks to the Low Pay Unit ‘searching out the underlying causes’ as
Rowntree would say. But a minimum wage which is now not much more
than £4 an hour hardly heralds the abolition of poverty. It
doesn’t even apply to the whole workforce.”

Julia Ross, executive director for health and social
care, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham
“It’s hard to understand why the job of a senior executive
in the public sector is worth around £100,000 and far more in
the private sector. This is alongside basic care workers’ pay of
£10,000. I have no doubt it could be a lot worse without the
efforts of the Low Pay Unit. However, pay is consistently still
very poor and so we have to question the values of a society that
likes to think it cares but accepts this sorry state where the
value of care is counted in this way.”

Felicity Collier, chief executive, Baaf Adoption and
“It is always difficult to fund-raise for charities which
are not seen to provide a direct service but the Low Pay Unit has a
distinct umbrella role in informing and co-ordinating initiatives
across the country. Campaigning is a legitimate charitable
activity. There is surely a strong case for a government committed
to social inclusion to provide core funding to ensure the unit can
continue. Indeed, it would be seen as a sign of strength.”

Bob Hudson, principal research fellow, Nuffield
Institute for Health, University of Leeds
“Only the more senior of Community Care’s readers will
remember the time when the Low Pay Unit was not around to offer
expert advice and analysis. It seems bizarre that such an
established and respected organisation should be going to the wall
for the sake of £150,000. The fact that we have a national
minimum wage does not mean that there is no ongoing problem with
low pay, as many working in social care will testify.”

Martin Green, chief executive, Counsel and Care for the
“The closure of the Low Pay Unit is particularly sad for
the many people who work in the care sector and who survive on very
low pay. The demise of this unit highlights the increasing gap that
exists between the rhetoric of ending social exclusion and poverty
and the reality of what is going on to achieve these aims. For many
years the Low Pay Unit has highlighted and researched the issues of
low pay and without the unit there will be less monitoring of the
position and more employed people could slip into being paid
subsistence incomes.”

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