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Minimum Wage

Volume 704: debated on Tuesday 7 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many people have benefited from the latest rise in the national minimum wage; and what action they are taking to ensure that the national minimum wage is enforced.

My Lords, around 1 million workers are covered by the latest national minimum wage rise. We are determined that they receive it. Building on our record of effective enforcement, with £29 million recovered to date, proposals in the Employment Bill will strengthen the enforcement regime by making it clear that underpayment is unacceptable and what the consequences will be. This will support workers and businesses by deterring non-compliant employers from underpaying their workers and competing unfairly.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree with his ministerial colleague, Pat McFadden, who, when speaking at the launch of the report of the Vulnerable Worker Enforcement Forum, said:

“There are still dark corners of the labour market where rogue employers”

operate? Given that the vast majority of vulnerable workers who are at risk in this way are women and members of ethnic minority communities, what further measures do the Government intend to put in place to ensure that such workers receive their rightful dues?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that question, because she has a very distinguished record in the Low Pay Commission on advocating protection for minority and, in particular, women workers. The Government have already taken a series of actions following publication of the Vulnerable Worker Enforcement Forum report in August. We intend to develop a sustained three-year government-led campaign to raise vulnerable workers’ awareness of basic employment rights and to encourage the reporting of workplace abuses. We also intend to establish a single enforcement helpline to which vulnerable workers will be able to report abuses and have access to advice on rights enforced by government. This will significantly simplify and streamline the current five helplines. We are also setting up a Fair Employment Enforcement Board, bringing together the authorities devoted to key workers’ rights as well as the CBI, the TUC, Citizens Advice and small businesses.

My Lords, as the Minister will be aware, a number of childcare workers have been paid below the minimum wage. I welcome what he has said so far but is he monitoring the situation in day care, and what progress has been made?

My Lords, I can perhaps be less loquacious than I was in my previous answer. There is a series of vulnerable workers and the noble Earl has described one group. The question is how to identify those at risk and those who are subject to non-compliant employers, and how to put in place a regime which says that it is not fair that any employer should defeat the law of the land on the minimum wage. The Government have a number of proposals in the new employment legislation that will meet that objective.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Brett, to the Front Bench for the first time. It is a harrowing and worrying experience. When I get to that side of the House and have to start answering questions, I shall find it difficult too. I shall therefore ask an easy question as a starter for 10. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the voluntary sector plays a critical role in the enforcement of the national minimum wage through its information and advice services. What plans do the Government have to support this vital work?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kindness, which I hope is contagious and lasts for another five minutes. As noble Lords will understand, I am not used to being heckled—as a trade unionist in my previous life, it is not something that I can easily handle.

This is about the guidance that we will give when the new legislation is in force following Royal Assent. The first aim is to ensure that vulnerable workers understand their rights and that those in the voluntary sector who seek to aid them are able to ensure that they understand their rights. This will be achieved through a series of advertisements; through a number of employer websites, which will make clear the employer’s responsibility; through the employers’ bulletin, which goes out to 1.5 million small businesses across the UK; and through the national minimum wage helpline. We are very grateful to the voluntary sector, to trade unions and to responsible employers—who are put at a disadvantage when they pay the minimum wage, and understand why it has to be paid, when other employers seem not to.

My Lords, what proportion of the workforce that has benefited from the minimum wage is made up of women? Is there to be an inspectorate that deals with immigrant workers, who frequently do not know their rights and are often grossly exploited under the present system?

My Lords, I am pleased to say that 590,000 of the 950,000 recipients who benefit from the new minimum wage are women, a part of our community which we have undervalued, underpaid and not brought forward as we should have done for more than a century. Indeed, it is 125 years since the TUC carried its first resolution on equal pay.

My Lords, I share in the congratulations to my friend, but not my noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Brett, on his elevation to a position on the government Benches from which, over the past 11 years, a number of noble Lords have gone on, if not to better things, then certainly higher things. Does he agree that the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, about the number of rogue employers still in this country are justified? Is he also prepared to confirm that the Government will not only look at exploitation regarding the minimum wage but also take account of a campaign that Citizens Advice has been running for some time regarding the significant issue of helping women who are not very well off to enforce unfair dismissal or redundancy judgments when they have a clear claim against the employer but lack the funds to do so?

My Lords, we cannot identify precisely the number of people who are the subject of non-compliance when it comes to the national minimum wage. As far as the Government are concerned, any non-compliance is unacceptable. We are investing £2.9 million to ensure that enforcement is more efficient. As to the detail of the question, I cannot answer it—it is neither in my brief nor my brain, but I will write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, what do the Government intend to do to help into employment those people who, through either intellectual or physical impairment, cannot actually justify even the minimum wage in normal commercial employment? What can be done to help them into normal paid employment?

My Lords, on a personal basis, I am not sure that I agree with the idea that someone does not qualify for the national minimum wage. In terms of policy, we are looking to protect the vulnerable groups which the noble Lord describes. They are some of the groups that the change in employment law will help to protect.