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A matter of social justice

24th November 2006

The Government takes an interesting approach to health promotion – widen social inequalities, deprive millions of citizens of adequate money to live on and then encourage them to ‘choose health.’ The Food Magazine asks: what income do people need to have a decent life?

Living Wage EmployerOrganisations that recognise their responsibility to out-sourced cleaning, catering and security staff that work on-site, as well as to their own employees, can apply for the right to call themselves Living Wage Employers.

Even conservative measures suggest that around ten million people are living in poverty, including three million children, which means, amongst other things, that they don't have enough money to buy a healthy diet. And the percentage of the UK population that is poor is getting larger.

If you find that hard to believe, perhaps they're just not shouting loudly enough about it, as not everyone wants to admit that they can't always afford to put dinner on the table.

A year nine girl, in a struggling secondary school in South London, sums up the contradictions in the Government's health eating messages perfectly, "Most of us will probably wind up in prison, on the dole or dying young, why are you bothering?"

A couple of schoolmates of hers, year seven boys, at just age 12, have been asked to produce a poster as part of a research project to improve school food. Their slogan is Stay healthy, Rob longer.(1) Hideous cynicism at a young age? Or, perhaps, a realistic appraisal of life chances in a society that institutionalises inequalities and then expects the poor to climb happily onto the healthy living bandwagon?

Junk food posterA poster produced as part of a school food project by two 12 year old boys with ‘Stay healthy, Rob longer’ in the top right corner. These boys worked hard on the project but were pessimistic about how their lives were going to turn out. 

"For years I have worked all night driving a taxi so I could support my four children. I get home early in the morning so I can get them ready for school, do all the shopping, cooking, get a bit of sleep and pick them up again. Then I go back to work. It has been hard work to manage, but they have done well and I am very proud of them," says one of the parents we spoke to.

Her story is essentially typical of so many people in the UK; they work hard at home or in their jobs, they do their best for their families and still it is difficult to manage. Plus they're dogged by the prejudices of so many who persist in thinking that sheer stupidity or outright bullheadedness lead them to waste their money on chips, high fat ready meals, sweets and fizzy drinks.

As campaigners have long known, the majority of the poor manage their budgets very well within tight constraints. Cooks in these households know that experimenting with new foods can mean waste, then hunger, know full well how long it can take to shop around for the best prices and how hard it is to have a meal out or a coffee with friends.

After her recent experiment living on the £21 a week food budget of a young, pregnant woman on benefits, Labour MP Helen Goodman commented, "I found it was a daily choice between filling up on cheap foods like potatoes or choosing a wider range of fresh foods that left me hungry. Although I shopped very sensibly and went for the cheapest products, I found it impossible to eat the five fruit and vegetables per day that is recommended."

The Government says it wants to get rid of child poverty by 2020, but part of the problem is that there has been a failure to say exactly what that means, as Jonathan Bradshaw of the Family Budget Unit at York University notes, "Current debates about reducing or ending poverty in Great Britain suffer from the absence of a socially agreed, empirically based minimum income standard."

He and colleagues from Loughborough University Centre for Research in Social Policy have embarked on a major piece of research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) that aims to answer: What level of income is needed to allow an acceptable standard of living in Britain?

In lay terms this means that at the moment, the National Minimum Wage (£5.35 an hour) and benefit levels are essentially political figures, not only has no one made sure it is possible to live on current amounts, research from a range of sources, including the Family Budget Unit, suggests that it is in many cases entirely impossible, even with full benefit and complementary benefit take up.

According to Deborah Littman of UNISON, the union most active in funding research into minimum income standards, including what campaigners call the living wage, "The remit of the Low Pay Commission has always been to set a National Minimum Wage that doesn't have a negative impact on business, it has never been asked to find out how much people actually need to live on."

The JRF research is developing a method for doing just that; it will cost out a basket of goods, including one for food, that is needed to afford an acceptable living standard. To do this it will involve people living on a low income in discussions about what is included in the basket. The aim is to develop income standards that are not aspirational or based on wants, but that are about fulfilling more than just needs.

As Elizabeth Dowler, Reader at Warwick University, and longtime food poverty activist puts it, "A least cost diet is something nutritionists have been devising for 50-100 years. It's nonsense, it's not how people live. Least cost expenses are higher than people assume and people are social beings so are setting out to meet needs other than the purely physiological. There is also no reason why those who are poorer should have to live differently from anyone else. This is a matter of social justice of true justice as much as the application of nutritional science and cooking skills."

A broad coalition is uniting around the issue of the living wage, and with around one in seven London workers living on poverty level wages and over half the capital’s chidren living in poverty, the Mayor of London has become a keen advocate. His Living Wage Unit now recommends £7.05 as a living wage for London. "He has set a powerful example in implementing this pay rate in the GLA group and across its contractors. The London Living Wage has already made a material difference to thousands of London's low paid workers, and this in turn is helping communities across the capital," says Littman.

Matthew Bolton of London Citizens, the lead organisation campaigning for a living wage, says, "If work doesn't bring you out of poverty what is the point? At the moment employers get away with paying a low wage which is then topped up with taxpayers' money from the benefits system. We'd like to work towards a living wage of £10 an hour in London, that would mean people no longer needed to rely on benefits at all to have a decent living standard."

At the Royal London Hospital (RLH) in Whitechapel, campaigners recently succeeded in ensuring that all employees, including those working for contractors, will be paid on NHS payscales, with the lowest wage set at £7.50, up from a low of £5.25. Recent research has for the first time measured the impact of a move to the living wage on workers' lives, focusing on RLH.

The proportion of hospital workers who say they had enough money to buy food for themselves on the new wage was 85.2%, up from 41% on their old wage. 80% say they now have enough to buy food for their children with only 37.5% agreeing they could before.(2)

Cleaner at Royal London HospitalCleaners at the Royal London Hospital have benefited from Living Wage employment practices, which guarantee not only a living wage, but also 20 days paid holiday a year plus bank holidays, ten days full sick pay and free and unfettered access to a trade union.

"Getting the pay rise because of London Citizens and UNISON has meant that now I've got more money every fortnight and I can do a big food shop if I need to, saving time during the week, rather than have to go shopping for little bits here and there,” says Martin Grant, domestic and Union representative at RLH.

Campaigners hope that more and more employers will follow the lead of those like RLH, at the moment Lambeth Council has suggested it is committed in principle, and is researching the issue with a view to making a decision by early summer 2007.

Councillor Steve Reed, Leader of the Council, is very concerned that any wage increase would be funded by local taxpayers, yet those benefiting would not necessarily live or shop in Lambeth. At the moment, those lower wage earners supplement pay with higher amounts of benefit paid by central Government, so Reed is also concerned that the move would mean local Government taking on an unfair burden.

“It sounds parochial, but it is wrong in principle for local authorities in poor areas to subsidise the central government benefits system. If we decide to raise wages, we will be looking to cut a deal with government so any savings in benefits come back to Lambeth,” says Reed

Rally for a Living WageLow paid workers demonstrating for the Living Wage in London.

With no sign of central government coming out in support of a living wage, campaigners are keen that local authorities note that payment of higher wages can actually have a positive effect on community regeneration.

UNISON recently funded research from Staffordshire University Business School, The Regeneration Effects of ‘Fair Wages’, which showed that bringing the pay of around 500 private sector care workers, in Stoke-on-Trent, up to the level of local authority colleagues, would boost the local economy by £1.5 million a year.

"Low paid workers spend a lot of the money they earn locally, so increasing their pay gives a real stimulus to local businesses. We found that for every additional £1 of income paid to these workers, the local economy would benefit from an extra 63p of income creation,” says one of the study authors, Ian Jackson.

We wait with bated breath to see Government reaction when recommended minimum income standards are released by JRF next year, but while we wait the storm clouds gather over the state of health of the poor of our nation. The Food Commission strongly suspects that the findings from the Food Standards Agency's much delayed Low Income Diet and Nutrition Survey report will show the dire consequences of poverty on the health status of children and adults throughout the UK.

Over a hundred years ago recruits to the Boer War were found to be too small and under-nourished to be taken into the army. Now the army says many potential recruits are too fat. Many are undoubtedly also deficient in vitamins and minerals.

And, as one older person recently put in a letter to Professor George Davey Smith, an epidemiologist specialising in social inequalities and health, it was all so obvious to start with: “I've just read the headlines regards your 'Richer the taller' investigations & I have this to say. We were six children and one parent & once we had but one egg between us all & eating apple cores found in the gutter was common. Our groceries were bought on Saturday & gone by Tuesday. I cannot believe you didn't see the connection between ‘height & money’ in the first place and you got paid for this? Unbelievable.”

1) Draper, A et al. (2004). Methods to Access Consumer Views on Food Policy Issues, Food Standards Agency.

2) Sokol, M et al. (Queen Mary, University of London, 2006). The impact of improved pay and conditions on low-paid urban workers: the case of the Royal London Hospital. Available on the London Citizens website:

Useful resources

For information on campaigns and projects see Sustain’s Food Access Network at

The Family Budget Unit at The University of York: