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.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear