NMW enforcement: David Cameron ramps up the rhetoric (but not much else)

Late last month, prime minister David Cameron used an article in the Times – Parliament is just so yesterday, dahling – to announce that he is putting enforcement of the so-called national living wage (or increased national minimum wage rate for workers over the age of 25, if you prefer) from next April at the heart of his ‘One Nation’ agenda. According to the Guardian – for ideological as well as financial reasons, I am physically unable to read the Times – the prime minister wrote that the national living wage will only work if it is “properly enforced”. And, to that end, “a new labour market enforcement director will be appointed to ensure that firms comply” with the new rate of £7.20 an hour for the over 25s.

Somewhat surprisingly, none of the crack political correspondents reporting the prime ministerial ‘announcement’ spotted that this represents something of a policy climbdown by Cameron. As recently as May this year, he and other ministers were talking of creating “a new labour market enforcement agency” to “crack down on the worst cases of labour market exploitation”, including non-payment of the national minimum wage. Now, that “new agency” has shrunk to just one extra, director-level official. Woo hoo.

On the plus side, Cameron reportedly said his Government will “significantly increase” the budget for enforcement of the national minimum wage, which has already seen welcome increases under the Coalition, from a miserly £8.3m in 2013/14, to £9.2m in 2014/15, and £13.2m in 2015/16. At a time when departmental budgets are being slashed, such increases are not to be sniffed at. Unfortunately, the prime minister gave no indication of the size of the further “significant increase” he has in mind.

Furthermore, the rate at which financial penalties for non-compliance are calculated will be increased from 100% of the underpayment, to 200% (though the current maximum penalty of £20,000 per underpaid worker will remain). And there will be a new team in HMRC to “take forward criminal prosecutions of those who deliberately don’t comply” – in recent years, such (relatively expensive) prosecutions have been even rarer than they were under the last Labour government.

To “unscrupulous employers who think they can get Labour on the cheap”, wrote the prime minister, “the message is clear: underpay your staff, and you will pay the price.”

So it’s surprising that, since the general election in May, ministers have ‘named & shamed’ just one tranche of 75 unscrupulous employers found by HMRC to have breached the minimum wage. For some 50-60 such employers become eligible for ‘naming & shaming’ each month and, as recently confirmed by BIS in answer to a parliamentary question by Jo Stevens MP, the failure to ‘name & shame’ more than 75 since the last tranche of 48 in March means there is now a growing ‘backlog’ of more than 500 unscrupulous employers that BIS has yet to ‘name & shame’. Will it ever do so? We should be told.

Indeed, in late July, BIS announced an effective amnesty from both financial penalties and ‘naming & shaming’ for those NMW-breaching employers that self-report to HMRC. So much for ‘paying the price’ for underpaying your staff. Understandably perhaps, BIS ministers appear somewhat reluctant to say how many unscrupulous employers they have let off ‘paying the price’ since July.

All in all, the message is not quite as clear as the prime minister would have us believe. Underpay your staff, and you might pay the price. Or you might not.

Looking at the details of the tranche of 75 employers ‘named & shamed’ in July, it’s easy to see why Cameron’s announcement did not include any increase in the maximum penalty per worker, as not one of the 75 had to pay anywhere near £20,000 in penalties. The average total underpayment (and so penalty) was just £2052.86, and the average underpayment per worker just £1247.37. In 37 of the 75 cases, the total underpayment (and so penalty) was less than £1,000, and in all but ten it was less than £5,000. In 46 cases, just one worker was underpaid, and only in five cases were ten or more workers underpaid by the employer. One case involved 57 workers, and another 46 workers, but the underpayment per worker in those cases was just £71.41 and £6.61 respectively.

As with previous tranches of ‘naming & shaming’ then, we’re talking about relative small fry – the local hairdressers, beauty salons, pubs, cafes and second-hand car dealers. Indeed, looking at all 285 unscrupulous employers ‘named & shamed’ to date, it does seem that HMRC sees hairdressers and beauty salons as easy targets for keeping its ‘strike rate’ up. Then again, among the 14 hairdressers and beauty salons in this tranche were five of the ten employers found to owe more than £5,000.

NMWnamed

Will BIS meet the compliance challenge of Osborne’s Not-A-Living-Wage?

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.