NMW naming & shaming: a start, but not much of one

So, Vince Cable has (sort of) stuck to his word. Back in January, he told MPs that he expected to see “a significant number” of employers, found by HMRC to have flouted the National Minimum Wage, to be ‘named & shamed’ under the new BIS scheme “by the end of February”.  The new scheme came into being on 1 October last year, replacing a previous scheme, introduced in January 2011, under which only one employer was ever named & shamed.

And so, on the very last day of February, BIS has just issued a press release in which it names five offending employers:

  • Peter Oakes of Peter Oakes Ltd, Macclesfield, neglected to pay £3619.70 to 2 workers
  • Lisa Maria Cathcart of Salon Sienna, Manchester, neglected to pay £1760.48 to a worker
  • Mohammed Yamin of Minto Guest House, Edinburgh, neglected to pay £808.56 to a worker
  • Anne Henderson of Chambers Hairdressers, Middlesbrough neglected to pay £452.22 to a worker
  • Ruzi Ruzyyev a car wash operator in Carmarthen neglected to pay £225.38 to a worker

However, as the TUC was quick to point out, all five are “small businesses who’ve underpaid [just one or two] members of staff. There are companies out there who are cheating hundreds of staff out of a legal minimum wage. These are the biggest offenders and their pay crimes must be made public too.”

Moreover, I’m not sure I’ll find any dictionary that defines ‘five’ as ‘a significant number’.  HMRC imposed penalties for flouting the NMW on just over 700 employers in 2012-13, and over 900 employers  in both 2011-12 and 2010-11.  So it seems reasonable to conclude that HMRC has imposed such penalties on some 250-400 employers since the new ‘naming & shaming’ scheme came into force on 1 October last year (and yes, I have asked for the actual number, by means of a FoI request, but HMRC has declined to answer).  Even allowing for the appeal process, which Cable said in January takes “roughly 150 days” – though quite why it should take that long in all cases isn’t at all clear – we might have expected a first tranche of at least 60 employers to have been named & shamed by now.

So, why have only five (small) employers been named & shamed to date?  And will a significant number of employers be named & shamed in the coming weeks and months?

Time will tell. But, credit where credit’s due, at least BIS has made a start.  Let’s hope those press releases keep coming.

NMW ‘naming & shaming’: Vince Cable gives hostage to fortune

You may by now have forgotten – always assuming you noticed in the first place – that, last Wednesday, Labour devoted one of their precious Opposition Day debates to the National Minimum Wage (NMW).  And you’d be in good company, for the entire Labour front bench seem to have done their best to forget it too.  And with good reason.

The most obvious reason is George Osborne’s brilliantly-timed NMW coup on Thursday evening, which seemed to catch shadow ministers not just napping but comatose.  And the real genius of Osborne’s strike was in crudely tossing aside the 15-year-old political pact that setting the NMW rate will be left to the Low Pay Commission (and, bar a few growls from the CBI, getting away with it).  For Osborne knew Ed Miliband couldn’t use his set-piece speech on the economy the following day to launch a counter-attack – “I’ll see your £7.00 per hour, George, and raise you £7.50 per hour”, perhaps – without the trade unions throwing their toys out the pram.

But even before Osborne launched his coup via Nick Robinson and the BBC, shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves, who kicked off Wednesday’s debate, had blasted both barrels of her shotgun through Labour’s own feet by launching a puerile and ill-informed ad hominem attack on business secretary Vince Cable, over his non-attendance at crucial votes on the then National Minimum Wage Bill in 1998.  An admirably restrained Cable initially declined to rise to the bait, but when he did it was both dignified and devastating:

Vince Cable: The Honourable Member for Leeds West [Rachel Reeves] made a great deal of the fact that, as she put it, the Conservatives opposed the national minimum wage and many Liberal Democrats opposed it. She speaks with all the self-confidence of somebody who was not here at the time.

Chris Bryant (Labour): You were and you didn’t vote.

Vince Cable: I did not particularly wish to raise this, but I am being asked personally to explain why I did not vote [in 1998]. It had a lot to do with the fact that my late wife was terminally ill at the time and I was in the Royal Marsden hospital. That is why my voting record at the time was poor on that and other issues.

As Isabel Hardman noted in a scathing Spectator blog post the following morning, “it’s not the first time someone has made the mistake of assuming that non-attendance at a vote has a sinister rather than sad explanation, but it rather blunted Labour’s attack on the Liberal Democrats” and was “all the more surprising given [Labour’s] recent rage over a Sun article describing Lucy Powell as ‘lazy’ when she had in fact been on maternity leave”.  Both Reeves and Chris Bryant later apologised to Cable.

For Labour and the hapless Reeves – who must surely be looking for a new researcher – it was all downhill from then on, and I’d be very surprised if anyone in Labour ever mentions this car crash of a debate ever again.  Cable was even able to parry Labour’s pledge to increase the civil penalties for non-compliance with the NMW (or ‘fines’, as shadow ministers wrongly insist on calling them) by confirming plans, first announced by the Prime Minister in November, to substantially increase the penalties from next month.

However, before sitting down Cable himself made a comment that I suspect may also come to be seen as something of a mistake.  Without having been pressed to defend the fact that only one employer has been ‘named and shamed’ for non-compliance with the NMW by his department since he introduced the practice in January 2011, the business secretary volunteered that “new guidelines for the naming and shaming process were issued to HMRC in October” – as indeed they were.  And he went on to say:

“There is also the question of due process.  Companies that are about to be named and shamed can appeal, and it is estimated that that process takes roughly 150 days.  I imagine that a significant number of cases would begin to emerge by the end of February; we can test that when the issue arises.”

The new guidance issued to HMRC in October under “revamped plans to make it easier to clamp down on rogue businesses” is certainly wider in scope than the original, clearly duff scheme.  According to the BIS press release at the time, “the revised scheme will name employers that have been issued with a Notice of Underpayment (NoU) by HMRC. This notice sets out the owed wages to be paid by the employer together with the [civil] penalty for not complying with minimum wage law”.  And, every year, HMRC issues some 700 NoUs.  So, were every employer issued with a NoU to be ‘named and shamed’ under the new scheme, then allowing for Cable’s 150-day due process we might indeed expect a first tranche of some 60 employers to be ‘named and shamed’ in late February or early March.

However, shortly after this revamp of the naming and shaming scheme came into force in October, the BIS employment relations minister, Jo Swinson, let slip on Twitter (in an exchange with the magnificent @HRBullets) that employers will not be ‘named and shamed’ via some kind of central, publicly-accessible register, as one might reasonably expect, but “through [BIS] press releases to maximise coverage” in “local [and] regional newspapers”.  So, either BIS will be issuing an awful lot of ‘naming & shaming’ press releases each month, or it will be releasing one or two press releases each containing the names of dozens of employers.  And, frankly, neither scenario sounds terribly likely to me.  Certainly, Jo Swinson didn’t take the opportunity provided by the Twitter exchange to confirm that all employers issued with a NoU by HMRC will be ‘named and shamed’ by BIS.

Whatever, as Vince Cable says, come the end of February, we will be able to test the issue.  And I will be very happy to be proven a cynic.

Postscript: Since posting the above, I have come across this written statement by Jo Swinson’s maternity cover, Jenny Willott, in the House of Commons yesterday in response to a PQ by Paul Maynard MP:

The revised NMW Naming and Shaming scheme which came into effect on 1 October 2013 made it easier to name employers that break national minimum wage law. By naming and shaming employers it is hoped that bad publicity will be an additional deterrent to employers who would otherwise be tempted not to pay the NMW. We anticipate naming employers very soon.

Has the Low Pay Commission jumped the shark?

It is a truth not previously acknowledged that one way to unite the TUC and CBI in outrage is to suggest that the Low Pay Commission has outlived its original purpose, and that control of the national minimum wage (NMW) rate might now be best reclaimed by the people we elect to run the country.

I know this because, late on Tuesday evening, after a day of ever more surprising media reports of machinations within the Coalition over a possible ‘inflation-busting’ hike in the NMW rate, I was impertinent enough to make such a suggestion on Twitter.

Within a few minutes, my tweet had prompted sharp responses from both Nicola Smith, Head of Economic & Social Affairs at the TUC, and Neil Carberry, Director of Employment & Skills at the CBI.  This in itself was intriguing, as neither Nicola nor Neil had previously exhibited any great inclination to respond to anything I might have said or written.  But what most tickled my interest was the degree of solidarity Nicola and Neil showed in seeking to pour a large bucket of cold water over my impertinence.

Every year since 1999, the Low Pay Commission has laid waste to a small forest in producing an inch-thick report on the NWW that is read by few if any outside a small circle of NMW policy geeks (and the handful of unfortunate civil servants charged with drafting the government’s response).  In my last job I had a whole shelf of these reports, and laid across a road they would easily have stopped a marauding tank.

But have these hefty reports, and the existence of the Commission itself, done much in recent years to improve the plight of the five million or so workers in the UK economy who now languish on low pay?  The Commission is, after all, the Low Pay Commission, not the Minimum Wage Rate Commission.

Well, with all due respect to the hard work and undoubted integrity of the individual members of the Commission, I’m not sure that low paid workers have been terribly well served by the Commission in recent years.  A succession of paltry, below-inflation NMW rate increases since 2009 have resulted in an hourly rate some 45 pence below what it would be if it had risen with the cost of living since June 2010.  The critical issue of enforcement of the NMW has been woefully neglected.  And where has the Commission been in debate about the shocking growth of in-work poverty?

How dare I even think such heresy! “Over time NMW workers have done better than both inflation AND wages”, retorted Neil Carberry.  However, as the Low Pay Commission itself noted in its 2012 report, “most of the real and relative increases in the minimum wage occurred as a result of the comparatively large up-ratings from October 2001 to October 2006. Since that time, the adult rate of the minimum wage has risen more or less in line with average earnings, but has lagged price increases”.  The largest up-ratings were in 2001, 2003 and 2004, and those relative hikes were entirely justified given the excessively cautious (i.e. low) rate at which the NMW was introduced.

Nicola Smith, meanwhile, was even more extravagant about the recent influence of the Commission: “without the LPC would we even still have a NMW?”  Well, yes, I’m sure we would Nicola, as I don’t think even Nick Clegg could have convinced his MPs, let alone his party membership, to tolerate abolition of the NMW itself – always assuming that the Liberal Democrats would have needed to take such a stand.  Any mooting of abolition by deep blue Conservative ministers would have faced strong internal opposition from MPs and think tankers such as Matthew Hancock, Guy Opperman, Robert Halfon and Ryan Shorthouse.  And, as of this week, Conservative ministers and MPs of all shades of blue are madly trying to outbid each other both in their regret for their party’s past opposition to the NMW, and in their personal enthusiasm for a substantial hike (of as much as £1.00 per hour) in the NMW rate now.

So, given where we are now, with all three main parties scrabbling to position themselves as the shoutiest champion of the NMW, what are the “very big risks to ending the Commission approach” that so alarm the TUC and CBI?  Apart from, that is, the terrible risk of the TUC and the CBI having a tad less direct influence on government policy.

Well, I’m not sure that I can see any significant risks. The Commission and its plodding, bipartisan approach were products of the excessive caution and timidity of the first New Labour government in relation to any policy that might possibly fetter corporate power.  And, in the early years of the NMW, that approach undoubtedly served a valuable function: to take the politics out of the NMW whilst it bedded in.

But to my mind the NMW is now safely cemented into the UK’s labour market policy architecture.  In the words of the Conservative pressure group, Bright Blue, “there is now a strong academic consensus that a sensible minimum wage does not cause unemployment.  Firms adapt well: reducing profits or pay differentials, or boosting productivity”.  And, armed with data, analysis and advice from civil servants, advisory bodies and political advisers, our elected politicians routinely take positions on, and make decisions about, any number of economic issues at least as consequential as what the NMW rate should be.  In short, the Low Pay Commission has – just like the Happy Days of my youth and Sherlock last weekend – jumped the shark.

It’s time to put politics back into the National Minimum Wage.