George Freeman outlines the Government’s commitment to enforcing the national minimum wage in the care sector

23rd March 2016

George Freeman outlines the Government’s commitment to the new national living wage and the enforcement of the national minimum wage law in the care sector.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences (George Freeman): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on bringing this debate to the House. It has been a very helpful opportunity to focus attention on this important area, and it gives me a chance, on behalf of the Government, to make clear our commitment to ensuring that this issue is properly dealt with. I know he is a robust champion of workers in the care sector, and I want to praise him for his work in representing them here today.

I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and others who have taken such an interest in this issue. Opposition Members may be surprised to hear me single out and congratulate Unison and the Resolution Foundation, which have done really good work on behalf of workers in the sector by shining a light on the complex issues and some of the completely unacceptable practices that have gone on for too long.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to our nation’s 1.5 million care workers, who, as hon. Members have said, work tirelessly to provide invaluable support to some of our most vulnerable citizens. Without their support in caring for the frail, the disabled and the elderly, we simply would not be able to cope as a society with the pressures of an ageing population. Hon. Members are right that we must ensure care workers are treated fairly by their employers and receive the money to which they are legally entitled—and that is a priority area for the Government, for this Minister and for the Minister for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who leads on this within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Perhaps I could take this moment to make it clear, lest anybody watching the debate is in any doubt, that this generation of Conservatives in government strongly supports the national minimum wage. We are very proud that we have gone further and introduced the national living wage, as well as increasing penalties from £5,000 per employer to £20,000 per employee, which last year saw one investigation lead to a fine of half a million pounds.

We have also increased the budget for compliance by 50% since 2010 and strengthened the naming and shaming provisions. Let me send the strong signal that we will not tolerate non-compliance with the national minimum wage. It applies across all sectors, and the nature of the work that these care workers do, in a fragmented, challenging and geographically difficult sector, is no excuse for non-compliance.

I want to make it clear that any employer who treats the Government’s commitment to this space with contempt needs to be very careful. I am very disappointed to see that the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s request for Mike Ashley from Sports Direct to come and give evidence has not been responded to. Let me take this opportunity to say that contempt for this area of law is not acceptable, and to welcome the recent court case in which Caroline Barlow successfully prosecuted MiHomecare. It led to the court ruling that she and, by implication, others should have been properly paid. I welcome that, and the signal should go out very clearly to businesses, councils and all those who employ the low-paid that they have to abide by their duties under the law.

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Barbara Keeley: Most Members here would agree with the Minister about Mike Ashley, I am sure, and would applaud the Chair of the BIS Committee and the Speaker for the way in which they are handling the situation.

The key point I want to make is this: although it is good that the Minister is proud of the Government’s policy on the minimum wage, does he not think that the Government should have funded that? Is not the key problem the one that I outlined: the 2% precept will only raise £1.6 billion, but my local council will need £2.7 billion just to deal with these pressures? We cannot get to a position in which those in the care sector can pay the minimum wage unless there is funding for it, and that is the Government’s responsibility.

George Freeman: I will come on to the funding of social care, which is a major issue that we all face as a society and will require some pretty deep thinking over the years ahead. I will also describe the extra money that the Government have put in. Although there is never enough money, we have made this priority very clear.

It may help if I review how we got to be where we are today. In 1999, the national minimum wage came in. It was the first time that legislation had been introduced in the UK to ensure a minimum level of pay for virtually all workers. Its aim is to help as many low-paid workers as possible, end extreme low pay and ensure a level playing field for employers. We are absolutely clear that anyone who is entitled to be paid the national minimum wage or, from 1 April, the national living wage must receive it.

Melanie Onn: Will the Minister give way?

George Freeman: I will continue, if I may—I am under a tight time limit. The enforcement of the minimum wage is therefore essential to its success and we are committed to cracking down in every sector across the economy on employers who break the minimum wage law. Our approach is simple: through effective national minimum wage enforcement, we are able to support workers and businesses by deterring employers from underpaying their workers and removing the unfair competitive advantage that underpayment could bring.

Mr Andrew Smith: Will the Minister give way?

George Freeman: I will very briefly, but I am going to run out of time if Members keep intervening.

Mr Andrew Smith: Does the Minister not agree that those efforts would be very strongly buttressed if the power were taken under section 12 of the National Minimum Wage Act for mandatory statements showing compliance?

George Freeman: I will deal with the right hon. Gentleman’s points, with which I have a lot of sympathy, if I am given time to crack on.

Hon. Members have rightly raised the issue of non-compliance with the minimum wage in this sector. I want first to set out the measures that we are putting in place now and that we have put in place already, before touching on some things that we may go on to do in due course. HMRC responds to every complaint made by workers through the ACAS helpline. When a third party reports suspected non-compliance, HMRC evaluates the report and investigates the employer when there are grounds to do so.

Since HMRC began enforcing the minimum wage in ’99, it has identified more than £65 million in arrears. Between April and November 2015, HMRC took action against 557 businesses, clawing back over £8 million for 46,000 workers who had been illegally underpaid. That is already the largest amount of arrears identified in any single year since the national minimum wage was introduced and is possible as a result of the increased investment and extra measures we have put in place to support enforcement.

We are going further. The Prime Minister has committed to a package of measures that are currently being implemented that will build on Government action to date and strengthen the enforcement of the national minimum and living wage. First, we are increasing the enforcement budget from April 2016, demonstrating our ongoing commitment to ensuring that the hardest-working and lowest-paid people receive the pay that they are entitled to. HMRC will also continue to promote compliance with the law and respond when employers have got things wrong.

Secondly, the Government are further increasing the penalties that employers will have to pay when they break the law. From 1 April, the calculation will increase further, to 200% of the arrears that an employer owes. By increasing the penalties for underpayment of the national minimum wage, we intend that employers who would otherwise be tempted to underpay comply with the law and that working people receive the money they are legally due.

Furthermore, under changes being implemented through the Immigration Bill, we are creating a statutory director of labour market enforcement, who will set out a single set of priorities for the enforcement bodies across the spectrum of non-compliance. That should ensure a targeted approach that addresses problems and best helps victims.

Under the Immigration Bill, we are also creating a new type of enforcement order. That labour market enforcement undertaking will be supported by a criminal offence for non-compliance. We want to tackle employers who deliberately, persistently and brazenly commit breaches of labour law and fail to take remedial action. That cannot always be done satisfactorily through the repeated use of existing penalties or offences, which may lead to the continued exploitation of workers.

Christina Rees: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he provide examples of where that happens in the care sector? He is quoting a lot of statistics overall about the national minimum wage and recovery, but they are not specific to the care sector.

George Freeman: Perhaps I can come back to the hon. Lady on specific cases—I do not have them to hand. I just want to talk about what we are doing to deal with the issues that have been raised, but she makes an interesting point.

In the care sector, we have a particularly high incidence of workers who have not been paid the national minimum wage in the right way. Other sectors are hairdressing and retail, and there is some dispute about where the worst practice exists, but the care sector clearly has a major historical problem. That is in part attributable to the fact that many of the more complex rules on calculating working time are prevalent in the sector—for example, the calculation of travel and sleeping time. On those points, although I am sure that Members will appreciate that I cannot comment on individual cases, I want to restate the Government’s position: when workers are performing work under their contracts, they must be paid the minimum wage.

It is also worth noting that there is no perfect measure of non-compliance within the sector, and there is a possibility that current estimates of non-compliance overestimate work time and underestimate pay, because the information is reported by workers themselves. That is why we are continuing to work with the Low Pay Commission, the Office for National Statistics and others in order to improve our estimates and better understand the scale of the problem.

On the point that was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and others, the Low Pay Commission’s proposals on transparency merit serious consideration, and we are looking at those and a number of its other recommendations. We are determined to continue to drive forward and send the very clearest signal to companies and employers that we are becoming less tolerant of non-compliance, and we want them to recognise that.

None the less, increasing compliance with the minimum wage in the sector remains a top priority for us and we are taking a number of steps to promote compliance and take stronger action against those who break the law. First, HMRC continues to focus on tackling non-compliance, but that activity is no longer reliant on worker complaints and instead targets employers with the highest risk of non-compliance based on a range of intelligence and information. HMRC can now analyse information from, for example, other Departments, trade union representatives and the Low Pay Commission, and the evidence indicates that this targeted approach in the care sector is working. From April 2013 to January 2016, HMRC opened 443 cases in the social care sector and closed 308 of those. Of the 308 closed cases, underpayment of the national minimum wage was found in 32% of investigations—for total arrears of £442,000 to 3,000 workers, with penalties issued for a total value of £100,000.

Members have also raised the important issue of affordability within the sector, given the introduction of the national living wage. That pay rise for the lowest paid could be seen to be a threat in terms of increasing non-compliance. That is partly why we are taking steps to signal strongly our commitment to clamp down on it.

With an ageing society, social care funding is a major strategic issue for the country and this Government. We are engaging closely with all the relevant stakeholders on that issue to ensure that councils recognise the need to increase the price that they pay for care in order to cover costs and to reflect rising costs and, not least, the national living wage. That is partly why we are giving local authorities access to an extra £3.5 billion of new support for social care by 2020, to be included in the better care fund. Councils will also be able to introduce a new social care precept, allowing them to increase council tax by 2% above the existing threshold. Taken together, the new precept and the additional better care fund contribution mean local government has access to the extra funding that it will need to increase social care spending in real terms by the end of this Parliament.

Barbara Keeley: I thank the Minister for giving way again, but there is a two-year gap. There is nothing from the better care fund this year, only £100 million next year, and—as I said in giving the example from my local authority—the 2% social care precept only covers about half of what is needed. Nationally as well as locally, that is the problem and that is why the Local Government Association asked the Government to bring forward £700 million.

George Freeman: I understand. These things are never straightforward or simple. As the right hon. Member for Oxford East pointed out, a lot of creativity is required from councils and the healthcare sector. There is best practice across the country to ensure that health and care are better integrated. [Interruption.] It is all very well for Opposition Members to shake their heads as if this were an easy problem to solve. It is a problem we inherited from the last Government. I am trying to be reasonable in setting out our commitment to deal with it, but it should be remembered that we inherited the problem from the Members who are shaking their heads and suggesting that it is easily solved. I hope that the measures I have set out provide reassurance that we are taking the matter seriously.

Perhaps I may conclude by framing the central elements of the package that we are putting in place. We have toughened up the sanctions and made it easier to name and shame. We have now named 490 employers, raised over £1 million in penalties and recovered over £30 million in unpaid arrears. We are now running at a 94% rate of naming since our revisions to the code in 2013.

Several hon. Members made the point about four-year delays, including my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood). I think that that is completely unacceptable. Although we are seeing progress in the speed and rate at which investigations are being pursued, I will talk to the Minister for Skills to make sure the very strongest signal is sent to HMRC saying that we cannot tolerate such delays.

As I have signalled, we are seriously interested in looking at the Low Pay Commission’s recommendation on payslip transparency. It is important that employers are held to account and that employees, particularly when it comes to individual elements of time, can see clearly what time they are being paid for.

I want to highlight the fact that the advice available for employees is free and confidential and that we have introduced important measures to ensure that, when HMRC has information from a third party to carry out an investigation, it keeps the complainant’s identity confidential and that that should trigger a whole workforce investigation.

I also want to highlight the fact that HMRC offers a free service to any employee who believes they are not being reimbursed properly. HMRC also has powers to enforce the reimbursement of expenses. That gives me the chance to highlight the fact that all expenses properly incurred by care workers in the course of doing their duty, often in a sector that requires them to travel extensively across large areas, should be, must be and the Government expect will be, properly reimbursed.

I hope that that helps to set out the Government’s real commitment to tackling the issue. I again thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central on raising it and giving me the opportunity on behalf of the Government to set out how strongly we support cracking down on non-compliance.

4.12 pm

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