The coalition needs to go much further to uphold the minimum wage

Naming and shaming employers is a smart move but the maximum fine remains just £5,000 and enforcement is still lax.

Much to their later regret, both the Lib Dems and the Conservatives opposed the minimum wage when it was introduced by Labour in 1998. Now in government, they are increasingly keen to advertise their commitment to what is rightly considered one of the greatest policy successes of the last 15 years. Earlier today, Lib Dem business minister Jo Swinson announced tougher plans to name and shame employers who don't pay their workers the legal minimum. Under the previous scheme, the amount owed to workers had to be at least £2,000 and the average per worker at least £500 before an employer could be referred to the Business department from HMRC for naming (just one has been since 2011). The revised version will remove these restrictions so that any employer who breaks minimum wage law can be named. Swinson said:

Paying less than the minimum wage is illegal. If employers break this law they need to know that we will take tough action.

This is why I’m making changes so it is easier to name and shame employers who break the law. This gives a clear warning to rogue employers who ignore the rules, that they will face reputational consequences as well as a fine if they don’t pay the minimum wage.

All of which is commendable but falls short of what is required. The maximum fine for not paying the minimum wage is £5,000, a negligible amount for large companies (the Resolution Foundation's James Plunkett points out that it is ten times smaller than that for fly-tipping). Labour has rightly called for the level to be doubled, a pledge the government would be wise to match. 

In addition, there are still far too few resources committed to enforcement. There was just one prosecution for failing to pay the minimum wage in the first nine years after its introduction and none at all in 2011 or 2012. For now, naming and shaming is a necessary but insufficient condition of protecting workers from exploitative bosses.

Business minister Jo Swinson speaks at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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A good apprenticeship is about more than box-ticking

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. 

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. Playing a numbers game often means the quality and the personal touch that turns a placement into a career opportunity can be lost. The government has set a target of three million new apprenticeships by 2020. In London Boris Johnson set a target for 250,000 apprentice starts, but fell short by over 100,000. Both targets miss the point; any target should focus on outcomes, not just numbers through the door.

Policy makers need to step back from the rigid frameworks and see what works on the ground.  For me this involved eating a bacon sandwich, which is arguably a risky exercise for politicians.  I was seeing how the owner of the Bermondsey Community Kitchen and Café, Mike, has transformed the space above his café into a training kitchen teaching young unemployed people the skills they need to gain qualifications to work in restaurants.

The posters on the wall spell out the choices available to the young people. They make it explicitly clear that there is an alternative to a life in prison, which some of the trainee chefs have already experienced, with pictures of celebrity chefs including Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Gordon Ramsay outlining how they worked their way to where they are now. None of the young people have had an easy start in life. Barriers they face include autism, lack of literacy skills, insufficient funds to pay the fare to the café and criminal records. But Mike and the team running the kitchen are determined to give them the chances every young person deserves. From City & Guilds qualifications, work placements and ensuring they have a job at the end of the process, this is the type of grass roots project that the government could learn from. With two groups of eight students over three half days, this is skills training that is about as personal as it gets. The young people are enthusiastic about the course, the practical skills they are learning and optimistic about the future.

The project is funded partly through the café, but mainly through grants and donations (including pots and pans from Raymond Blanc and funding from trusts as well as the local council). Mike has plans to expand. He wants premises with space for a nursery so young mothers who might otherwise struggle to complete a course can attend, he has a vision for two or three more similar enterprises across Southwark. I have no doubt he will achieve this but the challenge for policy makers is making it easier for people like Mike who are delivering flexible qualifications and delivering better results. Bureaucratic processes, lengthy forms and refusals would have put less determined people off. As the funding for skills is devolved, there is both an opportunity and a challenge to look at how innovative models can be supported. Unless more is done to ensure groups that might be defined as ‘hard to reach’ get opportunities, there will always be significant numbers falling through the gaps in a sometimes impersonal system.

Over 60 per cent of the apprenticeships in London focus on low level qualifications with little prospect of employment upon completion. Many skills based apprenticeships fail to match demand, the booming construction industry for example is crying out for skilled workers and with all parties agreeing new homes are a priority its surprising to learn that in London only 3 per cent of apprenticeships are in construction.

Apprenticeships need to focus on leading to work, and work that is skilled and pays enough to live on. They should be about opportunity not opportunistic employers. In a report published in October 2015, Ofsted was critical of apprenticeships saying too many of them ‘do not provide sufficient training that stretches the apprentices and improves their capabilities. Instead they frequently are being used as a means of accrediting existing low-level skills, like making coffee and cleaning floors.’

The new apprenticeship levy charged to businesses with a wage bill over a certain amount could be a useful way of enhancing opportunities but the definition of apprenticeship needs to be refined. On a recent visit to the iconic Brompton Bikes factory, the London Assembly Economy Committee was told that although the firm has to pay the new levy as a result of its size, they have a bespoke way of training their apprenticeships so they have the skills to get jobs with Brompton Bikes at the end of the process. Because this tailored training doesn’t meet the narrow government criteria they aren’t formally accredited apprenticeships and thus Brompton are unable to claim any funding back from government despite their excellent work.

I am increasingly frustrated that the most exciting and inspiring projects I visit don’t always meet the criteria for funding. We are doing something wrong if people are asked to fit something that works into a form that meets criteria rather than rewarding their successes. Instead huge amounts of public money are being put into funding low quality low skilled apprenticeships that sometimes appear to be more about avoiding the minimum wage. This is not just a waste of money; it is a waste of the lives of the young people. As the Bermondsey fishmonger we bumped in to on the way out of the café told us, sometimes what works is smashing the box, not ticking the box.