Last year, Islington's Fairness Commission, co-chaired by professor Richard Wilkinson, the author of Spirit Level, made 19 recommendations about how the borough could tackle local poverty and inequality. We have already begun work to turn one of those ideas – a commitment to paying and promoting the London living wage – into a reality.
At first, I had doubts about how realistic it was to promote the London living wage during an economic crisis. As budgets tightened, would employers, whether public or private, be willing to pay at least £8.30 an hour – £2.22 more than the legal minimum wage?
An early step was to explain the business and social justice arguments in favour, drawing on research by the Greater London Authority, KPMG and others. One event saw a local vicar and poverty campaigners speak passionately and persuasively about the impact of low wages on families and children.
Simply getting the message out has led to a range of organisations in Islington adopting the living wage. These include the Business Design Centre, City and Islington College and Voluntary Action Islington. It is a courageous choice, and for some not a cheap one.
The council itself is now seeking Living Wage Employer accreditation from Citizens UK's Living Wage Foundation; we hope to achieve this by the end of March. This means not only paying all our own staff the living wage, but putting a plan in place to make sure council contractors follow our lead.
Ensuring our own staff are paid fairly simply meant an increase of our lowest pay point by 4p per hour last summer. We also decided to pay our 16-19-year-old apprentices the living wage for the three days a week they work.
Encouraging fair pay
Sorting out the living wage with our contractors is a different ball game. For 25 years the public sector has driven down costs through competitive contracting, from waste collection to adult social care. We have celebrated the "efficiency gains" of ever-cheaper contracts and distanced ourselves from the wider consequences of low wages.
Committing to the living wage is a sea change. Now we are sifting through the council's hundreds of contracts to see if a living wage is paid – and if not, to establish a way forward.
We've achieved a lot by simply sitting down with existing contractors to discuss the situation on a case-by-case basis. We are having positive discussions with big contractors in leisure services and waste management on transition arrangements for paying the new rate. Regular meetings with contractors have actually reinforced the council's ongoing commitment to a living wage.
Of course there are obstacles, such as endemic low pay in many industries and complex pay discrepancies between permanent, casual and agency staff. Other challenges include keeping reasonable pay differentials between staff historically paid below the London living wage and their immediate supervisors, and the issue of staff whose duties include work outside London.
With new contracts, we have to assess on a case-by-case basis whether it's in the council's best interest to require the London living wage on a contractual basis: some recent contracts have included this. One key factor is the law; we must be careful not to breach EU procurement rules, and this is carefully considered in each case.
But despite all the obstacles, progress is being made. It's not easy and it often feels like I'm standing on the faultline of fairness, but many more people in Islington are finally getting a decent wage for a hard day's work.