The national minimum wage and national living wage rates are recommended to the Government by the independent Low Pay Commission. To ensure that workers are paid fairly and that non-compliant employers are caught, the Government provide £25.3 million to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for minimum wage enforcement —that is an increase from £13 million in 2015-16. Last year, HMRC secured arrears of wages for 98,000 workers, totalling £10.9 million.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and welcome him to his deserved new position. I very much welcome the national living wage as a way of boosting the wages of our lowest-paid workers. Does he share my surprise that there are those who criticise its generosity, given that the only international comparator is The Economist’s Big Mac index, under which we have the most generous minimum wage in Europe aside from that of its richest country, Luxembourg?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend on that. The next increase to the national living wage is to be a whopping 4.7%. The introduction of the national living wage was the biggest pay rise for low-paid workers in nearly 20 years. The latest increase will benefit more than 2 million people and is set to cover 3 million by 2020. The average earnings of a 25-plus, full-time worker have increased by £2,000 since 2016.
When will the Government accept the need to actually prosecute more firms that fail to pay the national minimum wage? Only when people are prosecuted for breaking the law, rather than being issued with warning notices, are they going to take it seriously.
I gently point out to the hon. Lady that the Government take robust enforcement action against employers who do not pay their staff correctly. We have increased enforcement funding to £25.3 million this year. The total value of penalties has more than quadrupled since 2014-15, and in 2016-17 a record £3.9 million was recovered in penalties, with one penalty of more than £1 million being issued.
Along with the steps the Minister has outlined, does he agree that increasing the tax-free threshold and taking the lowest paid out of tax altogether has made an enormous difference to many workers in this country?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: 4 million people have been taken out of paying tax as a result of decisions taken by this Government. The employment rate is 75.3%, which is the joint highest rate since comparable records began in 1971. We have record numbers of people in work, and unemployment is at its lowest for 40 years. This Government are on the side of the worker and the lowest paid.
Low pay stifles investment and holds back productivity. We in the Scottish National party believe that the economy is stronger when a real living wage is paid. The Minister’s own Department has rightly named and shamed 350 companies for failing to pay even the minimum wage. Does he therefore agree that the practice of companies paying no wages at all through unpaid work trials is morally repugnant? Will his Department support the ending of that shameful practice?
I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that more than 160,000 people in Scotland benefit directly from the national living wage. The Government are looking closely at employment practices. We engaged Matthew Taylor to look into employment practices and to come up with new ways to support people, particularly those in the gig economy. We very much value that work and will be coming forward with recommendations in the very near future.