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National Minimum Wage (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2016

Volume 774: debated on Thursday 8 September 2016

Motion to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, the purpose of these regulations is to increase the hourly rate of the national minimum wage and increase the maximum amount for living accommodation that counts towards minimum wage pay to ensure the provision of higher-quality accommodation by employers, in line with the recommendations from the Low Pay Commission.

The national minimum wage is designed to protect low-income workers and provides an incentive to work by ensuring that all workers receive at least the hourly minimum rates set. It helps to deter unscrupulous employers from competing on very low pay.

Following advice from the Low Pay Commission, the Government are uprating the minimum wage from 1 October, so that the main rate for 21 to 24 year-olds will be £6.95 per hour. This represents an increase of 3.7%, despite CPI inflation currently being 0.6%.

Younger people aged between 18 and 20 years-old will be entitled to a minimum of £5.55, a 4.7% increase on the rate currently in force, and those between 16 and 17 years old will have a minimum wage rate of £4 an hour. For apprentices aged under 19, or those aged 19 and over in the first year of their apprenticeship, we are increasing the minimum wage by 3% to £3.40. This follows the 57% increase to the apprenticeship minimum wage last year, the largest increase to date.

For 21 to 24 year-olds, this is the largest increase in the main rate of the national minimum wage since 2008. It will mean that someone working full time on the national minimum wage will see their earnings increase by around £450 per year. The new main rate of the national minimum wage is expected to be at its highest level ever when accounting for the general increases in prices, surpassing its pre-recession peak. In all, we estimate that around 500,000 workers are expected to benefit from the national minimum wage increases being debated today.

The accommodation offset was introduced in 1999. It limits the amount that employers can recoup through accommodation charges. This year we followed advice from the Low Pay Commission and increased it significantly by 12% to £6 a day from October 2016. This is intended to ensure the provision of higher-quality accommodation by employers.

Since its introduction in 1999, the national minimum wage has been a success in supporting the lowest-paid UK workers. Over that period it has increased faster than average wages and inflation without an adverse effect on employment. It has continued to rise each year during the worst recession in living memory and the new main rate is expected to be at its highest-ever real value.

These increases to minimum wage rates are of course in addition to the national living wage for those aged 25 and over, which we implemented in April. It is the Government’s ambition for the national living wage to reach 60% of median earnings by 2020. In addition, the national minimum wage cycle will be aligned with the national living wage cycle from April 2017. This will reduce the burden on businesses that have to update their workforce’s pay more than once a year and will mean that the statutory pay floor for all ages is uprated simultaneously.

I note the findings of the recent research conducted by the Federation of Small Businesses and understand that some concerns have been raised about the impact on businesses’ profitability. Let me address this point specifically. The Government are committed to ensuring that the new rates work for businesses of all sizes and we continue to work closely with the LPC to consider the wider economic and business impact when recommending and setting national minimum wage rates. We have already introduced measures to mitigate the cost to business of our ambition to move to a higher-wage economy, including increasing the employment allowance from £2,000 to £3,000 this year. This measure will benefit up to 500,000 employers and take 90,000 employers out of NIC payments altogether.

For smaller businesses we have extended the doubling of the small business rate relief for a further year until April 2017. Around 600,000 small businesses benefit from the small business rate relief and about 405,000 businesses will pay no rates at all as a result of the extension.

The most recent employment statistics show that the employment rate is at a record high, with almost 32 million people in work and the unemployment rate at its lowest level in more than 10 years, with fewer than 1.7 million people unemployed and wages up 2.4% on a year earlier, while inflation has, of course, remained low. While the referendum result may have introduced uncertainty over forecasts and assessments made before June, we should remember that the UK labour market was remarkably resilient during the worst recession in living memory.

The new rates are recommended by the independent Low Pay Commission, which consulted extensively with stakeholders representing both business and workers, as well as conducting comprehensive research and analysis. Crucially, the Low Pay Commission has proven that a rising minimum wage can go hand in hand with rising employment. The carefully considered independent advice from the Low Pay Commission is central to maintaining this balance. In particular, its remit is clear that, when considering the pace of increased minimum wage rates, the state of the economy should be taken into account. The LPC has stated that the labour market has continued to perform well, with robust employment growth in low-paying sectors.

My Lords, the Minister is right to suggest that we have high or record high employment levels. We are also at record levels of zero-hour contracts. The minimum wage is not actually a wage; it is a minimum hourly rate and people fight to get sufficient hours to get that minimum wage. Can the Minister comment on the way in which the Government will approach the zero-hour part, which is diminishing the minimum wage for many people across the country?

We have debated zero-hours contracts in this House a number of times. I continue to believe that they have a part to play in the modern flexible market. There were some abuses to those contracts, which we discussed last year, and we have banned the use of exclusivity clauses so that people have the freedom to look for and take other work opportunities and have more control over their work hours and income. However, I believe that a strong minimum wage framework with good enforcement, which I am going to talk about, is the right way forward. The effectiveness of this system—I think that this is true in every regulatory area that I deal with—relies on proper enforcement.

We are clear that anyone entitled to be paid the national minimum wage or the national living wage should receive it, whether they are on a zero-hours contract or not. The enforcement of a minimum wage is therefore essential to its success and we are committed to cracking down on employers who break the minimum wage law. That is across all sectors of the economy. That is why we have increased the enforcement budget for HMRC, which enforces the minimum wage on behalf of our department. That is £20 million in 2016-17, up from £13 million last year. That bolsters its resources and ensures that it can respond to every worker complaint. We will continue to take a tough approach to employers who break minimum wage law. As of April this year, the Government have also doubled the national minimum wage penalty paid by employers, so it is up from 100% to 200% of the arrears owed to the worker, up to a maximum of £20,000 per worker—penalties that really hit those who do not comply with the law. Finally, HMRC will continue to refer the most serious cases of wilful non-compliance for criminal investigation.

The Government believe that the rates set out in the regulations before the House today will increase the wages of the lowest paid while being affordable for business. I commend the regulations to the House.

My Lords, first, I express my apologies to the House for not being present at the start of the discussions. I looked at the Annunciator and thought that I had about 10 minutes to spare, because the last speaker in the debate had only just started, but apparently he cut his speech very short. I was entranced by a debate going on in the Moses Room on access arrangements for going into secondary education, which was so good that I have completely lost my place. I am sorry that I was late.

However, I have heard the Minister speak on many of these issues before. Indeed, we debated them as recently as the end of last term. I am fairly aware of the issues and I will certainly read what she said carefully, in case I have missed anything. I have no objections at all in principle to the proposal that is being brought forward. For all the arguments made by the Minister, this process is now well-entrenched. The increases are very modest, but they are done in accordance with the procedure set out. I have absolutely no doubt that it is appropriate and good that wages will be lifted, which will benefit a large number of people on lower pay. Women in particular will see these benefits in their pay packets.

I have four small points that I want to raise and to which I would be happy to hear the Minister respond, but if there are complications I am happy to receive a letter in due course. The first is a technical one, which was that the paper supplied by the Printed Paper Office includes an impact assessment. It is extremely well-written and I compliment officials on that. I enjoyed reading it and I felt that it dealt with all the issues well. However, it said that the RPC opinion was awaiting scrutiny and I have not been sent that. I would be grateful if it could be provided. I am sure that there is no difficulty around it, but it would be nice to have a complete set of papers when we are considering these issues. On technical issues, I again congratulate the Minister on living the life that she promised, which was to bring these things in on the common commencement date of 1 October. She will have expected me to say that.

Secondly, the evidence base for many issues, but particularly for non-compliance and to some extent apprenticeships, depends on a rather oddly named survey called ASHE—a survey of employees completed by employers, which can be used to identify jobs paid below the national minimum wage. Clearly non-compliance is important here. Two points arise from it: is that the best we can do, and does the department have any plans to improve it? A survey of employees completed by employers aimed at establishing whether the national minimum wage is being paid at the correct rate may not be the most appropriate and independent way of checking whether it is happening in practice. Having said that, we note that some 209,000 employees’ jobs were paid less than the national minimum wage in April 2015. That is a significant number and ought to be of some concern, even though the individual amounts are small. It is the methodology that I pick up on. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has plans to improve it, because, as she said, it is important to ensure that the national minimum wage and, as we get to it, the national living wage are paid. If we do not have an adequate means of checking, I do not see how we will do so.

My third small point raises a similar issue. Quite an important part of some people’s pay packets is the accommodation offset rate. Accommodation is the only benefit in kind that can be offset against minimum wage pay. It is only up to the limit. I suspect that it is therefore quite an important element for quite a large number of the people involved, but the trouble is that we do not know how many that is, since apparently no statistics are available that give any details around it. The increase this year is 12%. It is a substantial amount of additional money, which goes up to £6 per week, but because of the uncertainty in knowing how many employees in scope of the national minimum wage offset rate receive it, it is not counted in analysing what the benefits, costs and disbenefits would be of any increase. I do not wish to delay consideration but, in the need to improve the quality of the public administration, surely we could do a bit more to survey and get accurate information. If it does not lie in BEIS, perhaps it lies in DWP—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, is taking note of the points that I make, because I am sure it is relevant to what he will say.

Finally, in a week where we have been given a lot of information about the activities of a particular sportswear manufacturing and delivering firm, it seemed a little ironic to read about the enforcement regime and the relatively small number of firms that have been reported on and investigated. Sports Direct—it may as well be named—clearly has a large problem on its plate in what it has been paying, or not paying, its employees. The situation with Sports Direct arose from a private investigation by a newspaper, not from the additional money available to HMRC. Has that taught the department any lessons about how this is to be taken forward? Might it wish to investigate other firms as a result? Its approach seems to be one of responding to complaints. That might miss some of the most obvious cases where not enough action is taking place.

What sort of approach would be better? Is there not a suggestion to be made of a tougher approach to large employers employing large numbers of people on zero-hours contracts, where it is clear that the combination of that arrangement, particularly in companies controlled perhaps by an original owner, might suggest that there will be some difficulty in ensuring that these things happen? Will the Minister confirm that in the case of Sports Direct, since it is fairly clear that there has been failure to comply with the arrangements, the doubled penalties to which we agreed in the then Enterprise Bill and the additional more difficult approach—not in numbers of employees, but in the amount per employee—will be applied in full in this case?

I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his courteous comments about his lateness—I am sorry to have dragged him away from such an important debate—and for his support for the regulations. The minimum wage came in under the Labour Government and we have had a lot of cross-party support for the system that they set up, including the Low Pay Commission. We agree on that. I am also grateful for his comment about common commencement dates, because we have a joint campaign to ensure that they are respected. It is not always possible, but when they are we should celebrate it. The points that he raised are technical and testing. I will start with the impact assessment. I think that the noble Lord was saying that he had not seen a copy.

I am sorry to interrupt. On the front page of the impact assessment, which is attached to the explanatory memorandum—it is what I was given when I asked in the Printed Paper Office—there is usually a note in the top right-hand corner on what the RPC opinion is. That is obviously useful, because it is a traffic-light system as to whether it thinks that the assessment has been properly done. I fully expect it to have been properly done, but its opinion is not recorded there.

Perhaps the noble Lord remembers that the RPC had an issue with our impact assessment on the October 2015 uprating of the apprentice national minimum wage. It has, however, indicated that it is content with our new approach with respect to the assessment of the impacts of the 2016 upratings. Indeed, the assessment now looks at costs over two years, rather than one year, in response to RPC feedback. I hope that that clarifies the RPC position.

On the non-compliance estimates, we are working to improve them. I note what the noble Lord says about enforcement—he was saying, in a way, that we should look at higher-risk employers, and was talking about size and zero-hours contracts. I will take a look at the noble Lord’s comments and write to him about that whole area. I think that my spirit is the same as his.

With regard to Sports Direct, that is clearly a concerning matter. I have to be careful about commenting on specific employers, as noble Lords know. The double penalties have come in and, in relation to offences since the adoption of the regulation, they would of course apply. We are very much committed to ensuring that workers receive the money that they are owed and that unscrupulous employers face tough penalties. I like the combination of civil penalties, which have led to quite large amounts of income being recovered for people, and the occasional criminal penalty, where there is an egregious case and we can take totemic action. That is the way that we try to do things.

Motion agreed.