Chronic low wages are not only driving Dorset’s young people out of the county to find work – but may also be contributing to suicide rates and poor health.

Professor Phil Marfleet says that while the incidents of people taking their own lives in rural Dorset increased by almost 40 per cent last year, in neighbouring Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch it reduced.

Some of the poorest and most deprived areas of the country are in South Dorset – which also has one of the lowest average household income figures.

Profesor Marfleet told Dorset Councillors at their February meeting in Dorchester: “chronically low wages are driving away our young people. Many of those who can leave - especially if they have appropriate qualifications - do leave, and don’t return. Among those who remain, job opportunities are depressed by employers who take advantage of the low-wage economy by violating the law on pay, contracts and in-work benefits. This is becoming a systemic problem, especially in South Dorset – and especially in leisure, hospitality, retail and the care sectors, which dominate the local economy.”

He said that in a few years the ratio of those in work in the area, compared to those who are economically inactive, will be 1:1 – a ratio which he says is not sustainable and will leave the county in deep trouble.

“Chronically low wages have their impact on local businesses – less to spend, less commercial income and more business failures. This is part of the syndrome which leads to a collapse in new business starts. Weymouth & Portland dominates the Dorset Council area demographically … but here, where wages are lowest, the number of new companies is a fraction of those established elsewhere in the county and in Bournemouth Christchurch and Poole.”

He says that other councils with similar problems have intervened – with Cornwall and Bristol guaranteeing the real living wage of £9.30 an hour to its lowest paid, compared to just 12 registered Living Wage employers across the whole of south and west Dorset.

“Next door to us in Devon, East Devon District Council is discussing a poverty strategy that addresses issues of incomes, rent, rural isolation, debt and general well-being. So if you live in Honiton or Axminster the council is actively engaged in addressing your problems. If you live over the border in Lyme or Beaminster – or if you’re in Sherborne or Wyke or Swanage or Ferndown … bad luck!”

He said that so far, despite Dorset Council setting up a panel to investigate, it had made no recommendations:  "Other local authorities are intervening directly to tackle wage poverty and social deprivation. Why is Dorset Council apparently unable to take the initiative? “

Fellow speaker Jenny Lennon-Wood said that one third of children now live in poverty in the Dorset Council area.

“Parents frequently go without food so that their children can eat. Even so, children often go to school hungry and, during school holidays, food banks do their best to make up for the loss of the main daily meal. Hungry children can’t get the best out of their education and impoverished parents can’t afford extras like school trips. So the one-third of Dorset’s children who live in poverty are doubly disadvantaged in the education system,” she said.

She also highlighted the area’s gender pay gap – at 29% compared to 8.9% nationally.

“This grim situation serves only to bring down the economy of the county as a whole,” she said.

Cabinet brief holder Cllr Gary Suttle says that work an economic growth report is expected by the council later in the spring.

“In the short-term the council is providing leadership to drive improvement and is working with partners to deliver interventions such as the work of the Careers Enterprise Company.  In tandem with the Careers Hub focussed on Weymouth & Portland this will raise aspirations amongst young people, develop linkages between schools and business, and identify appropriate pathways for progression.”

He said the other initiatives included special events in the coming months to raise awareness of careers in science, technology and maths subjects, and jobs in construction.

Cllr Suttle said that the impacts of equal pay and adopting minimum wages needed to be“fully appraised, and if considered appropriate could take significant time to deliver.”