I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce a debate on enforcing the minimum wage. I am raising the issue in the House this afternoon because of a recent case from my constituency, which in turn highlighted a number of wider problems with the national minimum wage and its enforcement.
The national minimum wage is one of the big success stories of this Government. By one estimate, its introduction has brought at least 1.3 million people extra income and it has been particularly beneficial for women, who make up 70 per cent. of the beneficiaries. Part-time workers have also benefited—about two thirds of the jobs affected have been part time. Despite the hysteria in some quarters when it was introduced—I am referring to the official Opposition—the national minimum wage has not cost jobs; in fact, the evidence is that it has created jobs.
It is a success story, but to reap the full benefits the national minimum wage must be enforced. Minimum wage enforcement teams throughout the UK have had a degree of success. According to figures given in various sources, in the past year the teams identified more than £3 million in underpaid salaries throughout the UK, and they have helped to return more than £27 million to about 80,000 underpaid workers since 1999. To give an example, recently, as a result of only one call to the helpline, 180 employees of a company in the London area shared a total payout—they were owed the money, of course—of more than £100,000.
Many cases, however, slip through the net, which is what I want to concentrate on today, and in particular on one case from my constituency. About two years ago, a woman, a foreign national, who worked in a restaurant, came to my surgery with her partner. I will not give her name for reasons that will become obvious when I recount her story. She was on low pay and discovered that she was being paid less than the national minimum wage. She found out about the wage and how to assert her rights. She complained to her boss, but made no progress on receiving her rightful minimum wage. After a while, her boss sacked her because of her requests.
My constituent complained to the national minimum wage helpline. She was here legally and had a work permit, but its terms required her to find a new employer within four weeks if it was not to become invalid. However, her boss let it be known to others in that sector of the restaurant trade that she was a trouble-maker because she complained that she did not get the minimum wage, so she had difficulty finding a new employer. Thanks to the intervention of the Department responsible for such things at the time—it was either the Home Office or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—she was given an extension on the period in which to find a new employer to three months, and was able to get a new job and stay in the UK.
My constituent worked with the national minimum wage enforcement unit to try to get the money that she was due from her previous employer, and they worked out that she was due more than £6,000 in back pay because of the low wage that she had received. I intervened to try to sort out the difficulty caused by her work permit, and was in contact with her up to the stage at which she was trying to get the £6,000 she was owed. I thought that the case had been solved, that there had been a satisfactory result, and that the woman had got her due rights.
However, a few weeks ago, my constituent came to my surgery with the same problem, because the story did not end as happily as I thought it would. I was told that the enforcement unit, because of a heavy work load, had not been able to bring the case to a conclusion in almost two years. During that time, my constituent’s family had been threatened with violence, presumably to persuade her to withdraw her claim here in the UK, and the employer resisted making payments. Eventually, at the request of the enforcement unit, which wanted to bring the case to a conclusion, my constituent agreed to settle for a lesser sum than she thought was due. She agreed to receive £4,000 and, as I understand it, an order to that effect was made by an employment tribunal, after which her employer, which was a limited company, went into liquidation without paying her a penny. She is pursuing the matter as best she can, but the outcome was that when she tried to enforce her rights, she found that the enforcement unit was unable to act as quickly as she felt it ought to. As a result, she has not received a penny for the wages that she was due some two years ago.
I emphasise that my constituent does not complain about the individual officers in the unit; she feels that they worked very hard to help her with her case. She was told, however, that the officers’ work load was such that they were not able to put the time that they would wish into individual cases.
That case led me to make inquiries about the enforcement of the national minimum wage, and it now seems to me that there are a number of ways in which to make enforcement more effective. According to the Government’s estimates, almost 300,000 UK workers are being paid less than the minimum wage. I shall not go into all the case studies that I have seen because of the time, but organisations such as Citizens Advice suggest that it is a big problem in many areas of the UK. Indeed, since the national minimum wage was introduced, there have been only three successful criminal prosecutions for offences involving disregard of national minimum wage regulations by employers. Many more cases resulted in payments of back pay, but criminal prosecutions have been rare.
We had a similar debate on poverty a week or two ago. Does my hon. Friend recall the last pre-Budget statement by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer? He announced that the Government were increasing the resources to tackle non-compliance by 50 per cent.—£3 million or more. Does my hon. Friend know how that money was used? There appears to have been a steady growth in the number of cases of failure to pay the national minimum wage, not only by direct employers but by outsourcing at arm’s length through agencies. The latter arrangement is difficult to tackle.
My hon. Friend raises a good point and the Minister will doubtless answer his question. Certainly, more resources have been put into enforcement of the national minimum wage—I was coming to this point—some of which have gone into hiring an extra 20 enforcement officers, which is welcome. Various tougher penalties are being imposed upon employers who break the law, which I also welcome, but more needs to be done on grass-roots enforcement to get the full benefits to those who deserve the Government’s support to get the wages that they are due.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing an excellent debate this afternoon. Given the context of his constituent’s case, have any criminal charges been brought in Scotland, where there is a separate jurisdiction for criminal law? Does he believe that the staff in the minimum wage enforcement unit are familiar with the practices under Scots law and is there sufficient co-ordination between them and the Justice Department in Edinburgh?
I hazard a guess that my hon. Friend thinks that the answer is no. Nevertheless, she raises an important point. The unit has to take account of the situation in different parts of the United Kingdom, particularly where a Department in another Government has some responsibilities in this area and where there is a separate legal system. My hon. Friend makes a good point to which I hope the Minister will respond today, or at a later stage. I do not know of any prosecutions in Scotland. That is important, because as well as enforcing legislation, prosecutions of this nature are an effective means of giving an exemplary reminder to employers who do not meet their duties of what can happen if they do not fulfil the requirements of the minimum wage.
I recognise that the Government have put in extra staff and resources, which is good news, and hopefully that will lead to results. We must look seriously at providing more staff and resources to enforce the minimum wage on the ground. From what my constituent was told by the officers concerned, her experience was that they felt unable to keep up with all the complaints made to them as quickly as they would like to. More staff resources should bring results in terms of real cash going to people who are not getting the money to which they are entitled. There needs to be an investigation, at least, into providing more staff.
From the story that my hon. Friend related earlier, it appears that a lot of low-paid workers are too intimidated to apply for an inspection to allow them to be paid the minimum wage. Would it not be better to have a much more rigorous, proactive inspection regime in which employers are checked regularly by inspectors to ensure that they are paying the minimum wage, rather than leaving the onus on employees to make a complaint in the first place, because they might be intimidated into not doing so?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, particularly given that in certain sectors, about which all hon. Members know, there is more likelihood of exploitation of the type he mentions and it is more likely that people will be paid below the minimum wage. One statistic suggests that, on average, a business could be expected to be visited once every 330 years by wage inspectors. In some ways that is a meaningless statistic, but it makes the point that there is in respect of certain sectors a strong case for much more proactive enforcement of the minimum wage regulations.
The role of the employee or other members of the public in reporting non-payment of a minimum wage is crucial. We need to consider making changes to the publicity of the national minimum wage, so that people can understand what it is, what they are entitled to and how to complain about non-enforcement. There are advertising campaigns, which I welcome, including a recent national and regional online advertising campaign, which may still be ongoing. A bus campaign has visited many parts of the UK; however, I understand that there is just one bus, not a fleet of buses. One bus will take quite a while to reach most parts of the UK, even allowing for fast progress between different locations. That suggests that we should pay more attention to publicity.
We need to do more to target ethnic minority workers, who are often underpaid and are often, for all sorts of reasons that hon. Members can appreciate, the most vulnerable in respect of irresponsible and criminal employers. There is material in ethnic minority languages, and other work of that nature is being done. However, from my knowledge of my constituency—I am sure that this is replicated elsewhere—a lot more could be done to make a particular effort to target ethnic minority workers in their workplaces and where they gather, and through their media outlets and in other ways.
May I apologise for arriving late, Dr. McCrea?
Would it be appropriate to ask local authorities, which are major employers, to make sure that the minimum wage is part of the subcontract detail when they subcontract? They should be ensuring that the minimum wage is paid.
Indeed; that is another important method that could be used.
I mentioned targeting publicity on the enforcement of the minimum wage at ethnic minority workers. This is a delicate area at the moment in some political debates, as colleagues will recognise. However, there is an issue—there is no point in hiding it—in many parts of the country where there is a feeling that ethnic minority workers can undercut UK workers. That is actually happening in some cases—there is no point in denying that—and it leads to all sorts of tensions and resentments between ethnic minority workers and the UK citizen work force. Of course, ethnic minority workers are not necessarily UK citizens.
One of the best ways of reducing the possible tensions is to remove as far as possible the opportunity for people to feel threatened by being undercut for their work, and to prevent their being paid less than the national minimum wage. The more that we can do to ensure that ethnic minority workers get at least the national minimum wage and are not exploited, the more we benefit the resident UK work force, be it ethnic minority or not. We can do a lot to benefit ethnic minority workers and the wider work force, and to benefit or improve inter-community relations in a way that leads to a win-win situation.
Having spent time in Crewe toward the end of the recent by-election campaign, I heard a lot of anecdotal evidence on the doorstep—no doubt this is so in lots of other towns throughout the country—that eastern European workers were undercutting in ways that breached the national minimum wage legislation. Is it not possible for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to establish a roadshow, for example, to promote the minimum wage and act as a point of reference in towns from which complaints are received, in order to put the case in the public spotlight?
That is a good point. My hon. Friend mentions anecdotal evidence. It may be anecdotal but it is also true: such anecdotes are soundly based. There are instances of migrant workers, rather than ethnic minority workers, being exploited in this way. The more we direct efforts to ensure that they are not exploited, the more everyone benefits, including both the migrant and the domestic work force.
I have been involved in campaigns in my constituency with trade unions and representative organisations from migrant worker groups. Although some material on these issues in various languages is available from Departments and from the Trades Union Congress and other organisations, not a lot of material is available and there is not a lot of easily accessible information that could allow maximum take-up of these rights by both UK and migrant workers, who might be from ethnic minorities.
Is my hon. Friend concerned, as I was, about a recent report in The Guardian, which said that, until there is an increase in expenditure on advertising the minimum wage hotline, the amount spent by the Government is a sixth of that spent on a recent Government campaign urging people to use tissues when they sneeze? Does he not agree that now is the time for us to give this issue much greater priority throughout the UK, particularly, as he has mentioned, for ethnic workers and low-paid women?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point that, unfortunately, has taken away the last, ringing point that I was going to make. That again highlights the fact that, despite the number of workers who are entitled to and receive the national minimum wage, there are still too many who are not getting that to which they are entitled.
I return to where I started. Introducing the national minimum wage is one of the biggest success stories of this Labour Government, and we should do everything that we can to ensure that all those who are entitled to it receive it. That requires spending money to bring about reinforcement. Spending money in that way will benefit not just the workers concerned but the wider community. In some cases, it may also benefit the Exchequer. As people receive more income, they will enter the wage system in a way that they previously did not. For all those reasons, I urge the Minister to consider ways in which her Department, working with other Departments, can increase the uptake of the national minimum wage. I look forward to other hon. Members’ contributions to this debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing this very important debate. Many constituencies face issues that reflect his concerns about non-enforcement.
I do not want to give three cheers for the minimum wage, because it deserves only one cheer—possibly two, at a stretch. We know the stories: £1.50 an hour in the security industry and £1.50 an hour in the forestry industry before the minimum wage. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) telling us about the wage rates in his local industry. The reality is that the wage rate has become a poverty trap for many workers. People are being paid less than they would if we had proper trade union legislation and if we returned to the system of industry wage councils, which worked well before they were collapsed by the Conservative Government to allow massive exploitation and the driving down of wages to the point at which people were getting £1.50 an hour.
When we introduced the wage in 1999, it was £3.60, which was far too low. We were afraid of the propaganda that was put out by the Conservatives and by many people in British industry who did not want to see any security for workers. They were quite happy to use the exploitative environment in which the Conservatives had left the working people of this country after 18 years of misrule. The rate was too low, and it has not risen quickly enough. The adult rate of £3.60 has risen to £5.52. It will go up again in October. That is a 53 per cent. increase. It has only gone up by half from a very low base since 1999. That is an average of 6 per cent. a year.
People may say that that is great and that 6 per cent. is a lot more than people are receiving on average. However, it is certainly not comparable with the massive rip-off wages of the people who work in the City or the people who have exploited the oil resources of this country. The finance markets and the domestic markets for fuel are in an unacceptable state, yet the wages returned to those people have gone up by hundreds of per cent., rather than by 6 per cent. per annum.
I want to speak about the development rate. What is a development rate? Where did that phrase come from and what does it mean? The former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), is here and he put it through, but it is a mystery to me what development is supposed to go on between the ages of 18 and 21 that justified us giving people only £3 an hour instead of £3.60, and at this moment only £4.60.
We made one major improvement in 2004; we recognised that those aged below 18 were being ripped off lock, stock and barrel, because they were not covered by the minimum wage until 2004. Therefore, industries such as burger bars and shops would employ young people aged between 16 to 18, because they were not covered by the minimum wage. At least, we have corrected that. Although we have not given them a great deal, we have at least brought them into the structure.
There is an argument that, at 16 and 17, people should be encouraged to stay in school and not go into employment. Sadly, in my constituency, there are still many people who leave school and end up not in employment, education or training. Eventually, they end up in some low-paid, temporary and pointless job, which pays them a small wage.
What is a development wage? At the age of 18, a young person can fight and die for their country. They can go out on the front line of a battle and die. They can legally drink in a public house and legally purchase alcohol, and by the age of 21, they can do anything that any citizen would wish to do. They can vote at 18, but they cannot get a man’s wage. I married when I was 21 and my wife was 19. If we had been that age now, we would be getting paid a development rate if we did not have some other way of finding employment. I used to go out and work on a building site. I did that before I was married; during the holidays I married, and I went back on to that building site. I was paid a man’s rate, because I did a man’s job.
Today, when a youngster goes on to a building site, someone does not say, “You’re getting less of a job and you’ll get development.” No, they are given a pick and shovel, or some other implement, and told to get in there and work with the rest of the squad. So what is the development rate about? It is a sop to the rip-off merchants who run many of our industries today.
In the retail industry, which is prevalent in West Lothian, everyone who works in a shop is paid the minimum wage or below—they are paid the minimum wage, but they are below the age of 21, so they get £4.60. The top rate of pay for the supervisor who runs the shop is £6.40 an hour. That is the environment to which people have been driven, partly because the minimum wage is so low. It is reprehensible, and we should have done what the trade unions suggested at the time and set the wage at half the median income for the country. Until we start thinking about that and about giving every 18 year old and above the same rate of pay as everyone else on the adult minimum wage, we are offending greatly against the principles that I certainly came into the Labour party to pursue.
I now want to turn to my pet subject—the Minister probably anticipates this—of the minimum wage and the treatment of tips. The famous regulation to which I refer is not in the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. It is so well hidden in the National Minimum Wage Regulations 1999 that when I talked to Professor George Bain, who chaired the Low Pay Commission for four years, he said that he did not know that it existed. He did not know that such things went on. Regulation 31(1)(e) says that, if tips are paid through the payroll, it counts towards the minimum wage. For 2 million people working in the hospitality industry, a large number get their wages from their tips. The minimum wage is not a wage with an addition for the tips that we give them; it is made up of those tips.
What is a tip? As defined by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, everything that is a gratuity, tip, service charge or cover charge is a tip. It has defined that quite clearly for the purposes of tax and national insurance. When we enter a restaurant and it says at the bottom of the bill, “A 12.5 per cent. service charge has been added to this bill”—sometimes it says that that is voluntary and sometimes it does not—we are paying a tip. If we pay that on our credit card—this matter has been judged all the way up to the European Court of Justice—we are paying it to the owner of the restaurant or the hotel premises that we are in. However, if we pay cash and it is paid through a kitty or tronc, which it mainly is, and it goes through the payroll, it still counts towards the minimum wage. So if we give cash, we might not be giving it to the proprietor, but we are still paying the minimum wage with it.
After I introduced a ten-minute Bill in the House, I discussed the matter with the Minister and officials from the Low Pay Commission. I say pejoratively that I found them to be useless. They said, “If we take that away, and tips are in addition to the minimum wage, we will have to find out how much tips people are getting and enforce the tips.” However, that is not correct. All they have to do is ensure that people get the minimum wage. The law should say that everything that is paid as a tip or gratuity will have to count on top of the minimum wage. That would redress the balance between the customer and the person who is serving them.
The French word for a tip is a “pourboire”, which means “for to drink”. That is what a tip is: an additional sum of money on top of someone’s wages that they can have some leisure or pleasure with, but that is not so in this country. In this country, because of the regulation I have referred to, tips are paying the wages—a minimum wage—of many people in the hospitality industry. It is time we stopped that. It is also time that we paid a decent minimum wage and the same rate to all adults. People who are above the age of 18 are adults—they have adult responsibilities, and they usually work an adult shift.
If we get rid of the tips anomaly, people who work in the hospitality industry, particularly in this city, would find that they are due what they are given by their customers. If people want proprietors to get more money, put up the cost of the facility or the food. Anything on top of that is what the customer chooses to give as an extra to the staff for the quality of service. That would redress some of the imbalance that occurs at the moment. The issue was recently illustrated by the Daily Mirror and Unite launching the fair tips campaign, which called for a fair tips charter to be displayed by good premises that pay the minimum wage, on top of which tips are paid. I hope that the Government will shortly do something to correct the tips anomaly.
Although it was a huge step forward when Labour brought in the minimum wage, which benefited millions of the lowest paid workers, it is appalling that estimates from the Office for National Statistics show that around 300,000 workers are still in jobs that pay below the minimum wage. As we all know, that is only the tip of the iceberg.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing this timely debate, and I very much agree with the points that he made about strengthening staffing resources and publicising enforcement. I also agree with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) about 18 being recognised as the age at which the adult entitlement for the minimum rate should apply, and I think that we all found his arguments persuasive in relation to his convincing obsession with tips.
Although progress has been made on the minimum wage, part-time workers, maternity and paternity rights, holiday entitlement, the rights of union representation and the recent agreement on temporary and agency workers, a great deal remains to be done. That was graphically illustrated in the excellent and chilling report, “Hard Work, Hidden Lives”, by the Trades Union Congress commission on vulnerable employment. The report sets a compelling agenda on which the Government must act further to improve workers’ rights and to ensure that they can access the rights that they are already supposed to have. We must have more debates and campaigns on the wider issues to keep these vital matters at the forefront of people’s minds and to secure further progress.
I shall focus on two particular points about minimum wage enforcement that have been brought to my attention by my trade union—the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk referred to the important role of trade unions in these matters. We all have a responsibility to act to counter such abuses, but we must respect and recognise the role that trade unions can play.
I want to make the case that third parties should be able to take representative or group cases to employment tribunals to enforce the minimum wage. At the moment, underpaid workers request that they get their due by contacting the minimum wage helpline and taking a case against the employer to an employment tribunal. Every worker who believes they have been underpaid needs to be named on the application, otherwise they will not be affected by the case, even if they are underpaid.
As we know, if an employer is underpaying one member of staff, in most cases, others are also being underpaid. Workers who are being paid less than the minimum wage are some of the most vulnerable people, as we have heard. Most fear losing their jobs if they take action against their employers to demand the higher pay to which they are entitled. The system identifies every such worker and leaves them vulnerable to reprisals from the employer, as we heard in the awful case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith.
There are obvious difficulties related to those circumstances and to persuading workers to put their name on an employment tribunal application—let alone being the first on the list. Although workers are protected from day one against unfair dismissal for enforcing the minimum wage, as we know, there are all sorts of ways that an employer can make it impossible for a vulnerable worker to continue their job—for example, unreasonable shifts, denying holiday requests, changing job content, and so on. Many cases of minimum wage underpayment are therefore never brought and that allows unscrupulous employers to think they can get away with it.
To move forward to a solution, we need to revisit the present restrictions whereby trade unions and other third parties are prevented from any involvement in cases of minimum wage enforcement. If a third party makes a complaint to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, they are not even allowed feedback on the outcome of the case. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister addressed that in her reply. As we know, representative actions and group litigation orders are allowed in the courts in certain circumstances. Therefore, it seems anomalous that employment tribunals cannot hear representative action and that their powers to manage group litigation in a way that would help to defend low-paid workers from exploitation are less extensive than those of the courts.
I shall try to hurry through my comments, because other hon. Members want to contribute. A further point relates to the wider remuneration package and employment issues. I want to put the case for HMRC minimum wage enforcement officers to be given the powers and training to enforce wage-related employment rights, including rights to paid holidays, statutory sick pay, maternity and paternity pay. Presently, if an employer fails to pay the minimum wage, they often also deny their staff other rights, including holiday leave, sick pay and maternity and paternity pay.
Even if minimum wage enforcement officers find evidence for such underpayments, they do not have enforcement powers. The only option for a worker to enforce their entitlement to those rights is to take an individual case to the employment tribunal. However, there is no protection against unfair dismissal for a worker who has been in employment for less than one year and who is seeking to enforce their legal rights to such payments. As I said, even if an employee has been in the same job for more than 12 months, an employer can find numerous ways to make it difficult for them to stay in their job and complain about their rights. There is little recourse for vulnerable employees who have been denied those payments. That makes the employment rights that we are proud to have carried forward under this Government of limited practical use to the most vulnerable employees, about whom we should be most concerned.
Given that HMRC inspectors have considerable expertise in dealing with wage issues and unscrupulous employers, there is surely a case for extending their role. With additional training, they could seek out and enforce compliance with the other wage-related employment rights issues. They could also ensure that vulnerable workers are protected and that employers have more to lose than they presently do from evading the law.
The introduction of the minimum wage and other employment rights has been a huge step forward. However, if all workers—particularly the most vulnerable—are to enjoy the minimum civilised standards for which we surely all ought to be fighting, enforcement needs to be strengthened, including in the ways that I have suggested.
It is not often that former Ministers are present in debates such as this, not to defend themselves, but to think aloud about where we should take things.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) said that he would give the minimum wage two out of three; I would give it three out of three. That is not because I was the Minister responsible for it or because I am totally loyal to the Government, which I am on two counts—one historical and one factual—but because, 10 years ago, a debate such as this would have been about the principle of the minimum wage and whether it is a viable option in a modern labour market. That argument has been won. Conservative Members sit over there, but there is absolute, or almost absolute, silence from them. Yet, the Conservative party tries to convince us that it is an anti-poverty party.
We started a campaign to establish the Low Pay Commission, and the national minimum wage is now a reality. Under their contracts, constituents working in Burger King were earning 10p an hour. When there was no work for them to do in the early evening, they had to sit and wait until their employer told them to get back behind the counter. While they were waiting, they got no pay whatever.
When the national minimum wage started, it was £3.60 an hour, which was not a lot of money, but it was better than 10p an hour. The big thing about the minimum wage, however, is that it is not just a minimum wage; it is about the state taking responsibility for its citizens—for workers who are vulnerable, disorganised or unorganised and who do not have the capacity, individually or even collectively, to negotiate better pay and conditions.
Whatever the rate of the minimum wage in the future, it will always be just that—a minimum wage. For many workers at the edges of the labour market, it will always be vulnerable, and there will always be employers who are prepared to undercut it. If we accept that that is the reality, we have to ask what we, as parliamentarians, can do to improve the system in the light of our experience since the implementation of legislation.
Everyone in Parliament who followed the minimum wage process from concept to reality will commend my right hon. Friend’s efforts to promote it and to tackle issues relating to temporary workers and the working time directive. We all owe him a debt of gratitude, and every worker in the country should realise that.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I was not being defensive. I was one of many people involved in the process, and the truth of the matter is that I was lucky to be the right person at the right time. Although I was certainly enthusiastic about the job, it was a collective agreement.
The consultation on the Employment Bill will take its course, and I hope that the Government will respond positively to the recommendations that USDAW, Unison, the TUC and others have made to improve its workings. I want, however, to concentrate on the current regime.
We asked HMRC’s predecessor to take responsibility for investigation and implementation because it was the one organisation that had the capacity to look at employers who refused to pay the minimum wage on request or as a simple matter of principle. Those were the same employers who refused to introduce minimum health and safety standards and who failed to recognise trade unions, pay appropriate tax and national insurance contributions and do all the other things that a good employer does as a matter of course. HMRC is the one agency that has the capacity, intellectual ability and skills mix to have a relationship with every employer in Britain. It is a powerful tool in implementing a national minimum wage and dealing effectively and quickly with those who refuse to pay it.
First, it was always the intention that every HMRC inspector would have direct or indirect responsibility for ensuring the implementation of the minimum wage. When inspectors check whether VAT, tax or national insurance contributions have been paid, they also have the capacity to check on wage levels, and vice versa. HMRC does not have just a handful of individuals in a region with a particular skill, but a large number of people in each region of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who can implement the minimum wage. It uses an army of people, rather than a small number of people within that army, to implement the minimum wage. However, it is worth considering whether it can utilise its resources more effectively.
Secondly, when vulnerable workers think of making a complaint, the first question that they ask themselves is, “What will happen to me?” Nine times out of 10, they are not in a trade union, and nine times out of 10, they are in a part of the economy where the trade unions are disorganised or not organised at all.
Thirdly, regardless of whether workers are married, unmarried or in a relationship of any sort, and regardless of whether they have responsibilities of any sort other than to themselves, we can be sure that their wage will be the only wage that they have.
May I make a point about the second issue that my right hon. Friend has raised? In many areas, such as my constituency, the vast majority of employees work in small companies and are often not entitled to join trade unions, because trade unions are not recognised. That is one of the changes that could be made.
No, that is okay. It is more than a fair point. The minimum wage was so important, because it was meant to help workers who could not organise to get a higher rate. We must ensure that we deal effectively with the barriers to making a complaint in the first place. We did that by treating the minimum wage as a day-one right, which could be claimed by the worker themselves or by someone representing them, which is important. In other legislation, we have tried to improve the capacity of unions to get into small and unorganised workplaces, but the unions still have a low base in the low-paid sector, although they are beginning to expand, speak up and speak out.
On a daily basis, the practical truth is that workers will still be on their own. That is why HMRC and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority are important. Now that we have established those bodies, we may have to look at ways to bring them together more effectively—in a single agency or whatever—so that they have the capacity to intervene immediately when an employee or group of employees makes a complaint about their wages.
It is important that those who decide not to pay up immediately in keeping with the regulations face a further penalty. Workers should be entitled not only to back pay, but to compensation. That is vital, given the trouble that people go to simply to claim the minimum wage. Few of them are in a trade union, so all communication—whether it is telephone calls or whatever—involves a cost to them. There is the cost to them in terms of worry and concern, and there is also the cost of trying to borrow money from somebody else when their employer does not pay them the wages to which they are entitled and which they need to meet their bills. They can be hard-working, but they can still be unable to meet their bills. So getting back the £300, £400 or even the thousands of pounds that people are owed is not enough; we need to see whether there should be a compensation package. I hope that the Government will consider introducing in the Bill the capacity not only to repay people where they have been underpaid, but to compensate them.
We could debate that issue and related issues for a long time, but I know that other colleagues want to come in. However, the fact that we are having a debate shows that we still have a Labour party in Parliament that remembers where it came from, where it is going and where it needs to get to in a disciplined fashion. The longer we keep the Government where they are, the more vulnerable workers will become less vulnerable and the more workers who are being underpaid will get the minimum wage. It is critical that that happens.
The publication of information on the minimum wage raises several key issues. First, few workers understand their rights. Secondly, few can calculate what their wage should be. Thirdly, in industries where workers are vulnerable, few of those who take up work get a contract of employment that is worth the name or which informs them of their rights. Fourthly, when workers get information, it is often confused or not adequate to help them assess whether they are getting the minimum wage.
The Low Pay Commission should, therefore, have a statutory right to amend the relevant regulations to ensure that we have a different form of payslip. Workers should be entitled to a basic minimum payslip designed by the Low Pay Commission. They should be able to use their first payslip to calculate whether they are receiving the minimum wage. On the back of that payslip, there should be information about the hotline and about where people can go if they believe that their employer has miscalculated their wages.
We should take responsibility away from the unions, the employer and the employee and put an easy reckoner on the payslip to show whether the minimum wage has been paid and, if not, how people can get back the money that has been stolen by their employer. If we were to take that step, we could help hundreds of thousands of workers a year.
It would be a mistake if we went to court in the end. I would rather see the money spent on investigations. I would rather put money back in people’s pockets than spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of scarce resources on taking employers to court, when they might just bunk off in the end—many of them would do that. We have to take measures to deal with this issue as part of a prevention strategy, rather than a strategy to deal with things once the horse has bolted.
We must improve the role of HMRC and its relationship with other agencies, such as the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. We must put resources into ensuring that workers understand their entitlements from day one, so that they know when they get their first pay packet whether they are being paid the minimum wage to which they are entitled.
It is a tradition to congratulate the hon. Member who secured the debate, and it is usually a formality, but my congratulations and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) are genuine, because the debate is very timely. We think that the Second Reading of the Employment Bill will be towards the end of June, when the Government will have the opportunity to deal with the range of issues that we are covering. I associate myself, by the way, with what has been said about my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney); we would not even be having this debate if it were not for his work.
The Employment Bill will enable us to consider the issues of tips, group actions and holiday pay. I hope that Mr. Speaker will allow us to address the issue of the exclusion of those under 21 from employment rights legislation. I want to raise something else, too. Several of us have been involved in the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers campaign on minimum wages for seafarers. We have led a campaign for a decade now in which we have tried to demonstrate that seafarers working on UK-flagged ships are paid at different wage rates because of their race. The European Union intervened, and the Government introduced legislation so that those workers could not be discriminated against on the grounds of nationality. However, many of us thought, “What’s the difference?”, because employers will still get round the provision and avoid paying people a fair wage.
The concession that the Government made in the Select Committee on Regulatory Reform, which I attended, was that the minimum wage would be paid to all UK seafarers—all workers on UK-flagged ships—when they are in British waters. We thought we had a major victory, and we were about to put out a press release congratulating the Government—a rare thing for me—on their work. Then we got back to the office to discover that the change did not apply to British territorial waters, but to British internal waters, which means it concerns the Norfolk broads. Many routes from this country are not included in the provision, which has enabled shipping companies to avoid paying the minimum wage on a large number of UK-flagged ships, particularly ferries, which is a disgrace in this day and age. We shall table amendments to the Employment Bill.
I hope that we are setting the agenda for the Government, and that in three weeks—I hope it is three weeks—they will table amendments to address the anomalies that we have outlined. Also, I think that hon. Members have today constructively demonstrated how the system can be improved to achieve the original objectives that we all—certainly on the Labour Benches—supported when the minimum wage was proposed. I concur with the criticism about those who are under age, and so on, and we can deal with that in the Bill, if we are creative enough in drafting amendments.
Whatever improvements we get will be irrelevant, however, unless we have the resources to enforce the minimum wage. I chair the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group, which is an all-party group. The union has welcomed the minimum wage, and it is PCS members who enforce it. They welcomed the statement in 2006 by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer about increasing resources by 50 per cent. and the statement by the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs that there had been a £3 million increase in the overall budget. Ministerial statements have been superb, but the delivery at management level has not reflected the political statements and commitments that we have been given. For example, the budget in question was frozen for a period before the additional money was made available—management froze it as part of an overall review of departmental resources. One of the statements made by Government was that there would be 20 additional compliance officers. First, none were in place by April 2007 and only 17 had been recruited by 2007-08.
We have been asking questions about where the £3 million has gone. The figures show that the HMRC budget devoted to national minimum wage enforcement in 2006 was £6.3 million, and that that went up to £6.7 million in 2007-08. Only £6.5 million was spent, which does not reflect a £3 million increase in resources. We have looked at the BERR budget with reference to promotional work, but it only accounts for an increase of £200,000. Again, it seems that because of managerial decisions made within the Department, the money that was awarded at the political level has been swallowed up elsewhere and has certainly not been applied to front-line staff to implement policies. In order to extract information, the unions have submitted freedom of information requests about the budgetary disbursement of resources.
The key issue is to use the opportunity presented by the Employment Bill to bring together the agenda of improvements, to put right the issues that we are concerned about and to continue the pressure to increase the minimum wage, now that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield has said, we have established the principle and shot down all the arguments about the cost to jobs. However, we must, when we make policy here, make sure that the resources are available, and that they are well and consistently managed, to enable the policies to be carried out. In that matter, members of the PCS who are working on the front line are not confident that the management of resources will ensure that that policy is implemented, which is something that I am sure all Labour Members want.
Not just formally, but genuinely, I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), on introducing an important subject through a combination of serious policy argument and some powerful anecdotes to support his case. He has been well supported by his colleagues—particularly the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), who had direct experience of low-paid work in his younger life, and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and the right hon. Members for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) and for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), all of whom have been involved in the trade union movement.
The starting point of the speech by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith was that the minimum wage has been a success—I think that that is right; it has been a success, despite great scepticism when it was introduced. I own up to being one of those who was somewhat sceptical about how it would work, but it has worked well because it is well designed and because it is supported by the independent Low Pay Commission. For that reason, certainly in the eight years for which I have been my party’s spokesman on Trade and Industry and then Treasury matters, I have been happy to support the national minimum wage and the upgrades to it.
We can see the products of the minimum wage’s success at several levels. One, although I know that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk is sceptical about it, is the clear evidence that for people at national minimum wage level there has been a much more substantial increase in earnings in the past eight years; I think the figure is 53 per cent. as against 40 per cent. with respect to average earnings. The differential, therefore, between people at the bottom and people in the middle has narrowed. Of course, there is the problem of the people at the top, but that is an argument for another day. Large numbers of workers are now less dependent on benefits—they earn a decent income, or at least a survivable one, based on their own labour. It has also been important—this was the issue on which much of the scepticism centred—that unemployment has not been a consequence of the minimum wage, as it was with badly designed systems in, for example, France. All those elements make a successful policy.
The debate, however, is about enforcement, and it is important to set out why an effective enforcement regime is important—it is obviously important for the workers concerned. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith has mentioned that £27 million has been retrieved for workers who were being cheated out of their wages. The problem is increasing: as I understand the Government’s figures, the arrears on minimum wage cases now average £214 in the past financial year, as against £130 in the previous year. A lot of money is at stake for the people concerned.
Enforcement is also important for employers. We tend to forget that large numbers of employers, however reluctantly, comply with the law, and there is nothing worse than a competitor down the road who is cheating. It is for their sake, as well as for the workers’, that we need an effective enforcement regime.
That is an important factor in relation to compliance; businesses, small or otherwise, who have to compete in an open market do not want to be undercut by another employer either on wages or other conditions. That is why compliance is an issue not only for employees, but for maintaining the support of the employers who comply.
That is my point, which the right hon. Gentleman has made trenchantly and correctly.
Compliance is also of importance to the Government because, as the right hon. Member for Oxford, East has hinted, if many companies are not willing to comply with the law, including criminal sanctions on the minimum wage, they are probably not complying on many other matters. He has mentioned health and safety regulation in particular, but that applies to paying tax and complying with immigration rules. I understand that there is now an integrated enforcement system involving the former Department of Trade and Industry, Customs and Inland Revenue, and I should like to know whether there is a systematic way of looking at companies that are flagrantly in breach in terms of their overall compliance with the law. Is information pooled between Government agencies? It would be a much more effective deterrent to companies than a £200 fine, however necessary that is, to know that Government agencies will come down on them like a ton of bricks regarding their other obligations—in particular, tax. How effectively do agencies co-ordinate regarding companies that do not comply?
On enforcement, I want to ask about a particular issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) has obtained information on the number of closed cases in which non-compliant companies had arrears. I think that the number was more than 14,000 cases for 2006-07, of which only three cases have been prosecuted. No cases have been prosecuted since the new system of inter-agency co-ordination was introduced in 2006. Why have there been only three prosecutions? It could be because the system is so brilliantly successful that the authorities have no need to enforce prosecutions, as everything has been done happily and voluntarily, but I suspect that there is a reluctance to bring prosecutions. Why have so few prosecutions ever been taken to the final stage?
The right hon. Member for Makerfield has said that the Government are coming forward with new powers under a Bill. We should discuss some of the ideas in that package, most of which seem very sensible. They include the proposed £200 statutory fine per worker for abuses of the regulation—that is a civil penalty—and a proposal, which has not been discussed yet, that workers who have lost their minimum wage entitlement should be compensated at current, and not historical, pay rates, which would make a substantial difference.
Another proposal from the right hon. Member for Makerfield, which the Government have not accepted, is that compensation should be paid. There has been some discussion about whether there should be interest payments on arrears, because otherwise employers are effectively obtaining interest-free loans from their workers. The trade union side has proposed that interest should be paid, which seems right in principle, and I am not sure why the Government are reluctant to accept that. I know that we are in a consultation process, but will the Minister say a little more on why the Government are so reluctant to go down that road?
My final point on enforcement illustrates some of the difficulties. I saw from a table that the Government produced in response to a parliamentary question that the number of enforcement officers in Wales is eight, which is the number in Northern Ireland, whereas the number for the whole of London is nine. There are seven times as many people in London, which also has a concentration of ethnic minority employees and employers, and it is unclear how the allocation of enforcement officers is decided. Is it decided by accident, or as a result of the difficulties of recruiting people in London? Perhaps the Government should focus on how effectively to allocate the scarce resources at their disposal to ensure that people who are deprived of the minimum wage can claim it.
It is a great pleasure to have you in the Chair, Dr. McCrea. I think that you also participated in the last debate that I attended in Westminster Hall, on HMRC matters. It is a pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing the debate, which has been useful and passionate at times, and which has helped to flush out one or two important issues.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the position of the Conservative party. We have supported the principle of the minimum wage for eight years, and the concerns that we had before its introduction were widely held. Indeed, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) expressed some scepticism, as he has said. We were concerned that a minimum wage set at a high level would endanger jobs. It is difficult to argue against the proposition that the minimum wage endangers jobs at some point, but the independent Low Pay Commission has been successful in balancing those dangers against the ability to increase pay for low-paid workers.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) argued for a substantial increase in the minimum wage. If he were still in his seat, I would suggest to him that there would be difficulties in doing that. None the less, recognising the principle behind the minimum wage, the fact that the legislation exists is, in itself, a reason why it should be enforced. People should abide by the law as a matter of course, but it does benefit employees whose wages have increased.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Twickenham raised an issue that I was going to raise. Enforcement and compliance with the law are important for employers who abide by the law, who would be undercut and faced with unfair competition if rogue employers were flouting the law and were therefore able to undercut those other employers. That is an important issue. The Conservatives support calls for effective enforcement of the existing national minimum wage.
We have heard that there have been few prosecutions regarding the national minimum wage. I expect that the Minister will say, by way of explanation, that when employers are found not to have complied with the national minimum wage, they rectify the position and pay money in arrears, so there is no need for prosecution. Today is not the day to debate the detail of the Employment Bill, which the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has mentioned. The Minister and I have just spent the best part of two days debating HMRC’s powers more generally and we have not finished yet, so I do not want to go through a detailed analysis of the proposals that might be in the Employment Bill. However, I ask the Minister to consider whether the low number of prosecutions is in any way due to HMRC’s lack of power to enforce the national minimum wage.
There are other indications that there might be problems. We have heard about the level of arrears, and we have statistics from the Office for National Statistics on the number of people who are not receiving the national minimum wage. To what extent does the Minister think that the absence of adequate powers at HMRC has caused the problem? Has it been more to do with HMRC’s resources?
I shall not speak at length about the problems that HMRC faces—we debate them fairly regularly—but clearly there are issues of low morale in HMRC. It faces very challenging budgets and, as a whole, it is suffering from a tightening of the belt. We heard reference to the increased expenditure announced in the 2006 pre-Budget report for tackling failure to comply with the national minimum wage, but to what extent has that aspect of HMRC’s expenditure been immune from any Gershon savings, or is it not possible to analyse it in that way? To what extent has the expenditure been ring-fenced, and have the pressures that undoubtedly have been felt in HMRC in general also been felt with regard to enforcing the national minimum wage?
We should not consider the HMRC issue in isolation. Whether in this Room or elsewhere, we have debated VAT repayments, tax credits and other important issues, in respect of which there is serious concern about HMRC’s performance. One reason why I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith is that he has highlighted this issue as needing to be addressed.
I seek from the Minister more information on the difficulties in enforcing the minimum wage. For example, have any particular groups been affected? Other hon. Members mentioned migrant workers. Anecdotally, we often hear about eastern Europeans doing agricultural work who are being exploited. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) would not want me to highlight eastern European migrant workers in particular. I am referring to migrant workers from throughout the world. Are particular sectors, locations or migrant groups especially affected?
I would be grateful if the Minister touched on an issue that “Panorama” highlighted—accommodation or transport costs being deducted from the wages of migrant workers in particular. The employers are apparently complying with the national minimum wage, but in reality what ends up in the pockets of the workers is substantially below it. Can the Minister provide guidance on that?
I return to the rate of the national minimum wage. As I have said, the Low Pay Commission has worked well, partly because of its independence. It takes representations and then makes an assessment of the level of the minimum wage. However, we saw in the debate about the 10p rate of income tax that one proposal that was clearly considered by the Government was using the minimum wage as a way of trying to compensate those who had lost out as a consequence of the Government’s policy. That would appear to be an interference with the way in which the Low Pay Commission works. It would appear to be the Government setting the agenda or giving instructions to the commission, which would be a departure from previous practice.
I cannot help but observe that the trade unions, entirely understandably—this is part of their role—are very strong in calling for substantial increases in the national minimum wage, and the influence of the trade unions on the Labour Government appears to be increasing. I think that 92 per cent. of the funding for the Labour party now comes from trade unions. Therefore, to respond to demands from the trade unions, will the Government put pressure on the Low Pay Commission to increase the national minimum wage above the level that would otherwise be determined?
I was getting a bit lost at the end of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Can he provide clarification? Is his party committed to continuing the above-inflation increases—minimum wage though it is—that the Government are putting forward? Is his party in favour of that, or is it moving towards a position from which that will be taken away?
We have no particular desire to change the system. We believe that, over 10 years, the Low Pay Commission has acted in a responsible manner that has not endangered jobs and has benefited low-paid workers. We have no particular desire to change that. I am merely pressing the Government on whether there will be any change in their policy—today of all days, the Government are listening to their Back Benchers—whether it be with regard to the Employment Bill or a range of other matters. I would be grateful if the Minister responded on that point. To conclude, enforcement is important. Particularly at a time of rising fuel bills, food bills and taxes, the national minimum wage should be enforced properly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea. I do recall the occasion on which we were discussing issues close to your heart. I am sure that we will return to those—perhaps not in an Adjournment debate but certainly in other exchanges.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing the debate; I genuinely mean that. I agree that it is a very important debate. I have been studying with a lot of interest the answers that I have been invited to give to questions, and asking of HMRC many of the questions that have been asked in this Chamber today. Before I give detailed responses to the questions that I have been asked, I just want to say that although my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) sits silently through hours of debate in proceedings on the Finance Bill, he did say that he had had a discussion with our hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) about low pay and the national minimum wage and they recalled an advert from the Express & Star, which I understand is a newspaper that is widely read in the midlands. The advert, from the early 1990s, was for a security guard and it said:
“It’s £2 an hour and bring your own dog.”
I make that point to show how far we have come since employment conditions were of that nature.
I endorse everything that was said about the role that my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) played in taking the National Minimum Wage Bill through the House of Commons. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) also played a role, as indeed we all did in bringing in that legislation. I have been in politics a long time and I recall when I was a member of the National Union of Public Employees and we and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers were in splendid isolation in the TUC in support of a national minimum wage, so from the early 1980s onwards this cause has been dear to my heart. I am delighted that we are here today, asking questions. I am rightly being scrutinised about the implementation and enforcement of this very important measure.
The national minimum wage benefits millions of workers, as has been said. The increase in the rates every year benefits more than 1 million people, who see their pay increase as a direct result of the increase in the national minimum wage. I am pleased, but not surprised, that despite the dire predictions of 10 years ago, the minimum wage has become an accepted feature of our labour market and is supported by the majority of employers. That is a welcome sea change in attitude.
Of course, the success of the minimum wage is not just about the fact of it or its level; it depends largely on effective enforcement, as non-compliance undermines its objective—a point that the hon. Members for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) reinforced. The objective of the minimum wage is to enable workers to see real benefits from their labour in their wage packets. That is why we introduced it, and it is important, therefore, that compliance be policed effectively and non-compliance dealt with rigorously.
Since the national minimum wage was introduced in 1999, HMRC has identified more than 4,000 employers, and compliance teams found compliance in only 1,649 of those cases. I beg your pardon, Dr. McCrea, that was wrong; I shall put it right for the record. HMRC has identified more than £30 million in wage arrears since 1999. Last year alone, more than 4,000 employers were looked at. I am glad that I spotted my mistake; it was a major understatement of HMRC’s work. HMRC found non-compliance in 1,649 of those cases, which represents nearly £3.9 million in arrears for more than 19,000 workers. HMRC is identifying non-compliance and punishing it, but I realise that there is more to do. That is why the funding available for enforcement has been increased. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who is not in his place—I see that he is speaking in the main Chamber—spoke of the 50 per cent. increase in resources over four years.
It is important that I outline HMRC’s approach to enforcement and respond to a number of issues raised during the debate. We have heard that enforcement is based on 16 regional compliance teams. There is also a helpline, based in the north-east, that workers or third parties can call. Employers who might not be paying the minimum wage are generally identified through complaints to the helpline or through risk assessments. Last year, the helpline received more than 46,000 calls, of which more than 2,800 were complaints about possible underpayment.
The compliance teams have a range of strategies for dealing with enforcement. They also use an approach of targeted enforcement, focusing on sectors in which non-compliance is likely. I was asked to illustrate what sectors they might be. It is not only migrant workers who are exploited; other sectors, too, are at a high risk. In recent years, they have included hairdressing—we keep returning to that—child care and the hotel sector. HMRC will raise awareness in those sectors by providing information to workers and ensuring that employers know what they should do to comply. HMRC also investigates a number of employers from the chosen sector in order to check that the risk assessment remains appropriate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith asked why it takes so long to pursue cases and whether that is caused by a lack of resources. I asked HMRC whether the resources that it applies to enforcement are sufficient, and I was advised that they are. The way in which HMRC allocates resources for national minimum wage enforcement is constantly kept under review.
I am sure that that is what my right hon. Friend has been told. All that I can say is that my constituent was told by the person to whom she spoke that there was big backlog. Perhaps that member of staff had a particular problem, but from what I have picked up anecdotally I suspect that it was not a one-off case. There is evidence of a heavy work load, and I ask my right hon. Friend to look again at ways of assessing whether the resources are equal to the work load and to the demand for the service.
One of the benefits of debates such as this is that I can assure the House that I shall test the advice that I have been given. I undertake to do so.
We heard that in the 2006 pre-Budget report the then Chancellor, now my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, announced an increase of £2.9 million a year for enforcement. The focus of HMRC’s campaigns is raising awareness of the national minimum wage and the current rates in order to ensure that workers and employers know where to go for advice or to make a complaint about possible non-payment. An outreach bus has visited more than 60 locations over nine weeks. It reached more than 700,000 workers directly, and the outreach team handed out more than 130,000 leaflets and spoke to almost 90,000 people. The outreach bus route was planned to enable HMRC to reach as many of those who needed to know about the minimum wage as it could, based on what it knows about the areas of risk. Calls to the helpline that required translation increased during that campaign by more than 400 per cent.
The Minister has partly answered my question. From reports, the outreach service was met more favourably in some localities than others. Was that generation of additional work so significant that the Department believes that it would be a good idea to repeat the process?
HMRC regards its awareness-raising role as a significant part of enforcing the national minimum wage.
I want to share with the House an important part of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux report entitled “Rooting out the Rogues”, which was published on 30 November. Hon. Members may be aware of it. NACAB said:
“we have repeatedly suggested that there needs to be an alternative way of tackling the exploitation of vulnerable workers by unscrupulous or ‘rogue’ employers—one that does not rely on individual workers entering into a stressful, costly and potentially damaging legal confrontation with their employer”.
It went on to state:
“we have argued that the more proactive enforcement regime associated with the National Minimum Wage—one based on carefully targeted inspections of suspect employers by HMRC, as well as on the investigation of individual, anonymous and third party complaints—should be extended to cover all basic statutory workplace rights.”
We established our largely inspection-based approach precisely because we did not want workers to have to rely on the approach referred to—doing exactly what the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith did, and putting themselves at risk by taking action against the employer. I was pleased to see NACAB’s endorsement of our approach.
There is never enough time, Dr. McCrea, in debates of this nature to deal with all the points that hon. Members raise. There are well over 1 million employers in the UK. One can see from the figures that the vast majority comply, seeking to treat their employees fairly and properly. Changing HMRC’s risk-based approach to one in which it regularly visits each employer—as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins)—would divert resources away from those most likely to be non-compliant. HMRC is right to believe that that would not be an effective method of improving minimum wage enforcement.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield and the hon. Member for Twickenham asked about HMRC’s dedicated enforcement teams. Those teams work closely with their tax, national insurance, VAT and Customs colleagues. Information is appropriately shared, given the debate about protection of information; but when necessary, it is shared. Indeed, a number of risk-assessed cases are initially identified by other staff in HMRC—for instance, by those involved in pay-as-you-earn taxation or tax credit information.
I am running out of time, Dr. McCrae, and there are many other points that I wish to address. With permission, I shall do so in writing. On occasion, we are in danger of talking down the success of the national minimum wage and the good work done by HMRC. I commend the officers of HMRC, who take their enforcement role seriously and take their work forward very thoroughly.