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National Minimum Wage

Volume 732: debated on Tuesday 2 May 2023

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the national minimum wage; and for connected purposes.

Before I begin, I want to place on record that for several years before entering Parliament I served as regional convenor for Unison North West. I also worked in local government for over three decades, and I remain a member of Unison, my trade union, to this day. I want to pay tribute to the fantastic work of my own Unison region in the north-west for organising frontline care workers as part of the Care Workers for Change campaign. Under the stewardship of Kevin Lucas, it has delivered pay rises for thousands of care workers, particularly across Greater Manchester and now the Liverpool city region, winning for working people in an unforgiving sector with often poor employment practices.

After being elected in December 2019, I put my name into the private Members’ Bills ballot for the first time, and I was really surprised to be drawn very near the top, especially given that it was the first time of entering. Little did I realise that the pandemic had other ideas, and after failed attempts and cancelled Friday sittings, my private Member’s Bill was timed out. Nevertheless, here we are today, such is my belief in the significance of the low-paid, their contribution to our economy and wider society, and in their skill and dedication to their professions. No examples of this shine any brighter than in the adult care sector.

This year has been the most difficult for our people, especially those who face the uncertainty and insecurity that low pay can bring. The economic crisis and the pandemic before it have brought front and centre the workers who keep our economy going. They are our shop assistants in supermarkets, our care workers, those working in transport and logistics, and all manner of people operating across different sectors of the labour market. This Bill would ensure that they have confidence, because that is so often what precarious workers lack—in this case, confidence that they are properly renumerated for their labour under the law.

My Bill does not seek to overhaul the law as it stands, but rather to place a greater emphasis on enforcement, which would be to the benefit of all workers. The national minimum wage stands as one of my party’s and the trade union movement’s finest achievements. It was pioneered by one of my heroes, Rodney Bickerstaffe, whom I was lucky enough to call a friend. Long before it was popular to do so, Rodney pioneered this incredible national minimum wage.

Before entering this place, I had acquired years of experience working in close contact with the care sector. I refer to social care as a Cinderella service—the forgotten service. Indeed, it will be four years in July since the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), boldly promised to fix the long-standing crisis in social care in his first 100 days in office, yet here we are two Prime Ministers later, and we are still waiting.

Among this fantastically underpaid, undervalued workforce exist home care and domiciliary care workers—unsung heroes every single one of them. In every hon. and right hon. Member’s constituency, in every region and nation of these islands, this very second, home care workers are tending to the needs of our people, providing elderly residents with the independence and dignity they deserve. They are the very people who during their shift, starting early and finishing late, help an elderly resident get out of their bed in the morning, bathe and dress them, provide breakfast and administer medication, as well as tidying the person’s home, before returning to their vehicle or public transport and travelling to their next appointment. Just as importantly, they are a point of contact for those who often face social isolation and loneliness. A brief chat or a catch-up can provide much-needed companionship.

In England alone, there are over 715,000 workers working in the home care sector. The vast majority of them are women, and a huge number are on zero-hours contracts. My Bill will ensure accountability for those workers, and provide a framework of safeguards and minimum standards to be overseen by our local councils as the commissioners of services. The scale of the issue cannot be downplayed. A pre-pandemic article published in January 2019 on homecare.co.uk found that over half of home care workers are paid less than the national minimum wage because employers are not properly paying for travel time between visits. That time spent travelling between visits is the crux of the issue here.

Over 50% of England’s local authorities do not state in their contracts that firms must pay employees for time travelling between visits according to a freedom of information request. Furthermore, a survey of home care workers revealed that 63% are only paid for the time spent in people’s homes. Ultimately, this means that for too many care workers hourly pay rates fall well short of the Government’s national living wage and take many under the threshold of the national minimum wage. The UK Homecare Association, which represents providers, estimates that staff spend a huge 19% of their working day travelling between homes; that is almost a fifth of their working day. And no mileage expenses come anywhere near covering the cost of any shortfall.

In a sector that is deeply troubled with issues around recruitment and retention, my Bill would represent a genuine opportunity for the Government to clamp down on malpractice. It is a profession with a calling, and while no disrespect is intended to workers in other sectors, the home care market should not be losing workers to Tesco, Amazon, Nando’s and the like—but it is doing so, as we speak. For 2021-22, the vacancy rate across the entire sector stood at 165,000, with a slightly higher vacancy rate in domiciliary over residential care. It was only last month that the Government announced a new fund over the next 12 months to aid international recruitment in the adult social care sector.

Things must change as part of a longer-term strategy and investment in adult social care. Those on the Government Benches will undoubtedly say that provisions for enforcement under His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs guidance already exist. In fact, if I remember rightly, they were broadly supportive of my original private Member’s Bill and assured me that the issues I raised would be addressed in their forthcoming employment Bill. I am unsure if Hansard can feasibly be expected to pick up on the use of light sarcasm in this place, but I for one am still very much looking forward to the Government bringing forward such an important Bill.

In all seriousness, the figures mentioned earlier demonstrate that the existing system is not adequate for our army of home care workers across this country. For commissioned domiciliary services, local councils can, if given the powers, be the body that delivers pay transparency and minimum and effective pay assurances with real enforcement in defence of workers. Some councils are already doing this to some degree, but others are not. The Government are very well versed in defining and redefining the roles and responsibilities of local government so why not provide a statutory footing for home care workers that avoids a patchy postcode lottery? My Bill will work for employee and employer.

In the spirit of co-operation, I commend this Bill to all Members no matter their party allegiance. Let us make a real, tangible difference here today to all workers, not least those on the frontline caring for those who need it most. It is after all, a small but significant change.

Rodney Bickerstaffe said of our roles in the labour movement:

“We do our bit and pass it on”.

The same goes, I am sure, for Members across this Chamber. In the same vein as Bick, I hope that I too can play my small part in speaking up on behalf of our low paid while I have a voice in this place.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Paula Barker, Kim Johnson, Rachel Hopkins, Navendu Mishra, Mike Amesbury, Samantha Dixon, Mr William Wragg, Bob Blackman, Wendy Chamberlain, Munira Wilson, Chris Stephens and Jim Shannon present the Bill.

Paula Barker accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 November, and to be printed (Bill 267).