So, George Osborne so enjoyed his upstaging of Labour on the minimum wage in January 2014 that he cunningly reprised it as the final flourish of last week’s Budget – without bothering even to consult the Low Pay Commission, that will now have the job of translating the Chancellor’s political con trick into a workable plan. (And, according to the House of Commons library, that may well require new primary legislation).
In the days following the Chancellor’s flooring of Harriet Harman in the Commons, there was a small tsunami of newspaper comment pieces and blog posts seeking to analyse the deeper consequences, both political and economic, of the move. Among the more sanguine assessments were those by former Resolution Foundation wonk James Plunkett (The UK’s minimum wage just grew up) and the LSE’s Alan Manning (The National Living Wage: a policy experiment well worth trying), while even the Living Wage Foundation managed to utter a welcome through gritted teeth.
For all this hullabaloo, Osborne’s second minimum wage coup actually didn’t advance very far on his first. In January 2014, he asserted that the UK “economy can now afford” a minimum wage rate of £7 per hour. Now – a full 18 months later – he wins acres of news coverage for committing to a rate of £7.20 from April 2016. Never have so many journalists and wonks got so excited over a difference of 20p.
Whatever, a rate of £7.20 from April 2016 is still a hike of almost 11% from the current rate of £6.50 (due to rise to £6.70 in October). So I was just a little surprised that it wasn’t until Sunday – when the Observer carried an outstanding take-down by Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Foundation – that I saw any commentator give more than passing attention to the potentially significant compliance challenge this will pose for some employers, especially in sectors such as social care where – it is commonly agreed – non-compliance is already systemic. Gavin Kelly notes:
When it comes to employers, many sectors should be able to absorb this wage hike relatively easily, despite inevitable carping. But it will pose a severe challenge in some, above all in social care, where endemic low pay means two-thirds of all care workers currently get paid less than today’s [real] Living Wage. The truly heartening news is that more than 700,000 should now receive a pay rise. The worry is that if more public funding is not forthcoming to accommodate this increased wage bill we can expect an escalation in law-breaking by employers dodging their pay responsibilities, and an intensification of service rationing for the vulnerable.
So, was there anything meaningful in the Budget to address this “severe [compliance] challenge” and likely “escalation in law-breaking by employers dodging their pay responsibilities” from April 2016? No, there wasn’t [but see comment by Craig Gordon and my response]. Indeed, as welcome as any significant hike in the minimum wage rate (except for the under 25s) must be, it’s very hard to see any underlying strategy on the part of the Chancellor, beyond providing a deeply cynical fig leaf for his poverty-inducing slashing of tax credits.
Indeed, two months after taking office, the new crop of ministers have yet to give any indication that they consider compliance with the minimum wage to be much of a priority. It is now four months since BIS named any ‘NMW rogues’ under the ‘naming & shaming’ scheme revamped by the then (Liberal Democrat) ministers in October 2013. Which – according to the answers given by BIS to parliamentary questions tabled by Ian Murray in January and Caroline Lucas this month – means there is now a ‘backlog’ of some 340 employers to be added to the 210 named & shamed to date (under the revamped scheme, all employers issued with a Notice of Underpayment by HMRC get named & shamed, regardless of the circumstances and size of the underpayment involved).
At the end of his answer to Caroline Lucas, BIS minister Nick Boles states that BIS “expects to name more employers shortly.” Which does at least suggest that ministers have not completely given up on the naming & shaming scheme. But either the next BIS ‘naming & shaming’ press release will be very long indeed (the largest to date included just 70 NMW rogues), or ministers will have to be more selective than the scheme provides for (e.g. naming only the ‘worst’ offenders among the 340+). And, from April 2016, that choice is likely to be even more stark.