It's time to get tough on non-payment of the minimum wage

At least 300,000 workers in the UK still do not receive the legal minimum. The current compliance system is in desperate need of reform.

The national minimum wage, now 15 years old, is one of the most significant institutional innovations in Britain’s political economy. It has established a baseline for earning that no worker should fall below. Yet according to a new report, Settle for nothing less, out today from the Centre for London, at least 300,000 workers in the UK still do not receive the bare minimum to which they are entitled. This is not good enough in 21st century Britain: no one here should have to work for less than the legal minimum.

Compliance with the minimum wage is enforced nationally by HMRC on the government’s behalf. This arrangement costs about £8m per year but only identifies roughly £4m of arrears owed to short-changed workers. As well as securing the return of these arrears, it imposes fines on non-compliant employers and, on rare occasions, pursues them further in the courts.

In too many parts of the workforce, though, this system is not working. Thousands of home carers, doing some of the most important work in our society, are not getting paid for their travel time between clients. Apprenticeships are part of the answer for the million young people in our country now out of work, but their abuse in sectors such as hairdressing is endemic. Internships too often amount to proper work yet remain unpaid. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, especially when their employer also provides the roof over their heads. General awareness of basic entitlements is low and the current regime of sanctions for non-compliance is weak. Moreover, workers who are being exploited are unlikely to pick up the phone to report their employers to a remote and distant Pay and Work Rights Helpline.

It does not have to be this way. Today’s report argues for change to address systemic challenges to minimum wage compliance, specific concerns about migration, low levels of awareness and negligible sanctions, and an institutional framework for the delivery of minimum wage enforcement that can be improved. 

The report’s recommendations include:

  • building a schedule that requires minimum wage payment into local authorities’ home care contracts;
  • abolishing the first-year apprentice rate of the minimum wage;
  • banning the advertising of unpaid internships;
  • removing the cap on fines for employers flouting the minimum wage;
  • prosecuting repeat offenders;
  • and naming every employer found to be in breach.

But the single best thing we could do to increase compliance with the minimum wage is to devolve primary responsibility for its enforcement to the local level.

Local authorities are much closer to the ground than HMRC could ever be. They already do enforcement work with local employers when it comes to trading standards, waste, health and safety, planning, licensing and more. The businesses that ignore these regulations are often the same businesses that flout the minimum wage. Local authorities know the employers in their patch – both the bad ones that may need investigating and the good ones who have a vested interest in leveling the playing field.

The current system for minimum wage enforcement is excessively centralised and exploited workers suffer as a result. From hotel cleaners paid unfair rates per room rather than per hour to migrant domestic workers treated as modern slaves, localised enforcement of the minimum wage would heighten the prospect of their unscrupulous employers getting caught.  

Empowering local authorities to enforce the minimum wage would help us ensure that it is worth the paper it is written on. After all, it is supposed to be a right, not a perk.

Andy Hull is a Research Associate at the Centre for London.

A restaurant worker protests against employers who pay less than the minimum wage outside Pizza Express on September 27, 2007. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories