Is it possible to have a Business Secretary that is too flexible?

Last week, Vince Cable grabbed a few headlines with a notably insightful speech about labour market flexibility. In what looked suspiciously like a significant attempt to differentiate Cable’s Liberal Democrats from their Coalition partners, the Business Secretary quickly got to his point by posing an interesting set of questions:

“Is it possible to have labour markets that are too flexible? Are we in that position now in the UK? If so, how do we maintain the advantages of flexibility – for workers and firms – while reducing the costs?”

As is often the way with politicians, Cable had some ready answers to his own questions. Noting that, due to welfare reform and other Coalition policies, “the incentives to work, particularly in low skilled jobs, have never been sharper”, he suggested that “we need to ensure is that this doesn’t produce an entrenchment of low pay, low productivity jobs”.

Now, this may be the right time for me to advance my theory that Cable actually wrote this speech in 2010, but was never allowed to deliver it. So the speech languished at the bottom of his filing cabinet until last week, when he dusted it down and sneaked off to the Resolution Foundation without telling Dave, Nick or George. Had he delivered it in 2010, the speech might have enhanced his reputation as an avant-garde thinker on economic issues. Now, it just sounds rather too much like the rusty hinges of a dilapidated stable door swinging shut, several years after the horse has bolted.

Whatever, Cable had a number of specific ideas on how to prevent the entrenchment of low pay, low productivity jobs. You know, the entrenchment that hasn’t yet happened.

The most headline-grabbing of these was the suggestion that workers on a zero-hours contract should have a “right to request a fixed-hours contract, building on the model we already have for flexible working”. This is so left-field that I can’t decide whether it’s a stroke of brilliance or just plain daft. Perhaps some kindly #ukemplaw person could put me right on this.

Rather more mundanely, Cable suggested that, alongside “encouraging companies to invest in training their workforces”, the government should be ensuring “a strong structure to protect the minimum wage and strengthen [its] enforcement”.

Now it just so happens that Cable is the government minister in charge of protecting the minimum wage and strengthening its enforcement. So this is one area where he could really crack on with preventing the entrenchment of low pay, low productivity jobs.

And, to his credit, Cable has recently (if somewhat belatedly) increased the financial penalties for non-compliance. Furthermore, not only has the HMRC minimum wage enforcement division escaped the worst of the Coalition’s austerity cuts, but at 180 the number of NMW enforcement staff is actually some 20 per cent higher than when Labour left office in 2010 (though the number of compliance officers is much the same).

On the other hand, since Cable and his Coalition colleagues took office in 2010, not one employer has been prosecuted for criminal non-compliance with the minimum wage. And, since Cable introduced a process for ‘naming & shaming’ employers found by HMRC to have flouted the minimum wage in early 2011, just six employers have been so ‘named & shamed’ by Cable’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS).

As recently as October last year, that ‘naming & shaming’ scheme was revamped, with Cable’s then junior minister, Jo Swinson, boldly asserting that the new, streamlined process would “give 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”.

However, since that ministerial fanfare, just five (small) employers have been ‘named & shamed’ by BIS. Yet HMRC tell me (in response to a FoI request) that about 270 employers were issued with a Notice of Underpayment – the trigger for ‘naming & shaming’ under the revamped process – between 1 October and 28 February. Even allowing for the appeal process that Cable has indicated takes “roughly 150 days”, with the end of May approaching it is deeply puzzling why fewer than two per cent of those 270 “minimum wage rogues” have so far been ‘named & shamed’ by Cable’s department.

Has the process of ‘naming & shaming’ employers proved more difficult than Cable and Swinson envisaged? Or is their department simply being too flexible when it comes to tackling the entrenchment of low pay jobs?

Update (8 June): BIS has today named & shamed a further 25 (small) employers. But this still means that only 30 of the 270 minimum wage rogues caught by HMRC between 1 October and 28 February have been named & shamed under the new scheme. What about the other 240? How many have successfully appealed against being named & shamed? We really should be told. As the Independent notes, the 25 small employers named & shamed this week between them accounted for just £43,000, or less than one per cent, of the more than £4.6 million in underpayments identified by HMRC in 2013/14. And not one of the 25 firms will have paid anywhere near the current maximum penalty of £20,000, let alone the proposed new maximum of £20,000 per underpaid worker that Vince Cable seems to think is needed.

Update (16 June): Brilliant detective work by Michael Reed of the Free Representation Unit has uncovered the surprising fact that at least three of the 25 businesses named & shamed by BIS on 8 June were dissolved several years ago, in one case as long ago as 2009. Is BIS padding out its lists of those named & shamed with some ancient cases from the HMRC archives?

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