[John Robertson in the Chair] — Care Workers

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:07 am on 5th November 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central 10:07 am, 5th November 2014

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right: it is a disgrace. However, last week on Radio 4’s “Today” programme, I heard a care commissioner and a care provider debating the issue and accepting almost as the norm—indeed, for too many people it is the norm—that travel time is not paid for. That was so accepted in the discussion that I had to check with the House of Commons Library that it is in fact an illegal practice. However, it is accepted across the sector by commissioners and providers. People doing some of the most important work in our society, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East pointed out, are denied the dignity of being paid even the minimum wage, and it is tough enough to make ends meet from month to month on the minimum wage.

The arguments about the impact on care standards, the increase in hospital admissions because carers are spending less time with people, and the impact on staff turnover are well rehearsed, but we need to get to the bottom line. It is simply wrong that people are being paid an amount that contravenes the law, and too many people are accepting that. Allowing these practices to continue makes a mockery of having a national minimum wage.

Yesterday was the day in 2014 on which women in full-time work in effect stopped being paid—I am referring to women’s wages as a proportion of men’s wages—because of the gender pay gap, which is widening under this Government. Is it any wonder that that gap is widening when abuses such as these in the care sector, in which most workers are female, are just allowed to continue? I use the word “allowed” carefully, because it is not that the Government do not know about the abuses. The Minister’s right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills said:

“The problem with domiciliary care is that there is almost certainly an avoidance by companies to pay the minimum wage, and that overlaps with the problem of zero-hours contracts. We recognise that there are some very specific problems for workers in that sector.”—[Hansard, 26 June 2014; Vol. 583, c. 447.]

HMRC, too, knows that that is happening, because an investigation of care providers between 2011 and 2013 found that 50% or half of care providers investigated were guilty of non-compliance with the national minimum wage, yet what are the Government doing to tackle the exploitation of predominantly female carers looking after our frail, vulnerable and disabled relatives? According to the Public Accounts Committee in July 2014, “seemingly little” has been done. I am inclined to agree and, given the nodding heads on both sides of the Chamber, colleagues agree, too.

Having found a 50% non-compliance rate, HMRC has stopped carrying out proactive investigations into minimum wage compliance in the care sector. I hope that the Minister will explain that decision for us today and, more importantly, will commit to talking to colleagues across Government about reversing it, because it is simply not acceptable for the Government to say that they are concerned about this issue but remove the resources for addressing it.

In the same vein, given the overlap between non-payment of the minimum wage and the problem of zero-hours contracts, will the Minister look to give bodies such as trade unions and law centres a formal, third-party role, so that reports of national minimum wage breaches can be treated as formal complaints? I ask that because we know that part of the reason for the incredibly low level of reporting of abuses—there were just 11 complaints to the pay and work rights telephone helpline in 2011-12 from home care workers—is the precarious position in which care workers on zero-hours contracts find themselves. If they put their head above the parapet, they will find themselves with no work next month, so I would also like to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing to promote the pay and work rights helpline for those who do feel confident enough to use it.

Will the Minister assure us that when workers do complain, they will be paid what they are owed? I ask that because written answers to my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham suggest that the Government are not in a position to say either way. I therefore urge the Minister to talk to colleagues about collecting the data, because how else will we know the success of HMRC’s intervention?

Care workers do one of the most important jobs in society. They look after those whom we are concerned about most—the most vulnerable—and whom we love the most, and they deserve better.