Yesterday I took myself off to the Resolution Foundation, in Saville Row, to hear a speech by the BIS skills minister, Matthew Hancock MP, on ‘a Conservative agenda for tackling low pay’. As ever, I took a notebook with me, but you don’t really need to take notes at a Resolution Foundation event, because all the interesting bits are live tweeted – at #lowpaidBritain, in this case – and a good proportion of the audience have usually written and posted a blog about what’s been said before I’ve even got back to the office.
So, you don’t have to rely on my unreliable interpretation of my illegible scrawl. Tim Montgomerie, founder and editor of conservativehome.com, immediately tweeted this handy summation of Mr Hancock’s agenda: stronger minimum wage; less income tax; skills and apprenticeships.
Now it’s pretty rare – and therefore exciting for us policy wonks – to hear a Conservative politician talk about strengthening the National Minimum Wage (NMW). But I clearly wasn’t the only wonk, in a room full of wonks, wondering what Mr Hancock might have in mind on this point, because as soon as the Minister had sat down the event’s chair (and chief wonk of the Resolution Foundation), Gavin Kelly, exploited his position to ask Mr Hancock what he meant by ‘strengthening the NMW’.
To which the Minister’s response was: ‘implementation and making sure the NMW is followed and adhered to.’
Hmmm. That didn’t really quench my wonky curiosity. So, a few minutes later, I stuck my hand up and Gavin Kelly kindly allowed me to ask the Minister what that meant. But all I got in response was a brief reference to HM Revenue & Customs, an assertion that apprentices should be paid the appropriate rate (radical, that), and a hint that he might somehow beef up the Low Pay Commission.
Well, call me harsh, but I do think if politicians are going to go around saying radical things – or even non-radical things – they ought to have at least a few ideas about how to translate their (radical) thinking into actual policy. Thinking up grand but woolly notions like ‘strengthening the NMW’ is the easy part. In the event, it was left to a wonk from Newham borough council in the audience to suggest – as did the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper MP, in her recent keynote speech on immigration – that local authorities be given powers to enforce the NMW. Mr Hancock could only say that he will consider this.
So it was with a fairly heavy heart that I returned to my desk and my email inbox. And awaiting me in the latter was a new policy paper from the Labour Party’s Work and Business Policy Commission, on ‘protecting workers: including the role of agency workers, the living wage, and Gangmasters Licensing Authority’. Surely here I would find some concrete policy ideas?
Oh dear. So empty is it of firm policy ideas, the policy paper could almost have been written by, well, Matthew Hancock. There are some fine words about how Labour should ‘champion the rights of working people to fair, effective employment protection’ and ’work to promote a living wage.’ A ‘stronger role’ for local authorities in enforcing the NMW is briefly mentioned, as are closing loopholes in the agency worker regulations and extending the ‘scope and principles of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority’ to sectors such as construction, hospitality and social care.
But in eight pages there is not one mention of the employment tribunal system – the principal route to enforcement of most workplace rights for the vast majority of non-unionised workers – let alone any proposals for remedying the Coalition Government’s slow demolition of that system and the legal protection against unfair dismissal. Nor is there any mention of legal aid and employment law advice.
However, an empty page is an opportunity, as we policy wonks say (usually through gritted teeth). The policy paper is a consultation document, after all, and the consultation runs until the end of May. Submissions will then be considered ahead of a summer meeting of Labour’s National Policy Forum, at which ‘decisions will be taken on any outstanding issues’.
So, if you’re reading this (and you’re not my Mum), and you’ve got some ideas about how a future Labour government could ensure that ‘workers have adequate protections and rights, decent living standards and are paid a fair wage’, get writing and make your submission at yourbritain.org.uk
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.