Ensuring proper enforcement of employment rights means more than restoring access to the employment tribunal system. More needs to be done by government in order to tackle the exploitation of workers, but what steps have the Conservatives, Labour Party and Liberal Democrats actually taken in order to ensure this? Is the Liberal Democrats plan for a Workers Rights Agency the answer? Richard Dunstan comments.

“We should have effective enforcement of employment rights … as the problem [of non-compliance] puts good businesses at a disadvantage compared with those who do not abide by the law.”

— Katja Hall, Deputy Director General of the CBI

Given that these words were uttered recently not by some lefty employment lawyer or trade unionist, but by Katja Hall, Deputy Director General of the CBI, you’d think the big three political parties might feel free to think up some bold policy on the issue.

But, mostly, you’d be wrong. 

Conservative ministers are so chuffed with their hefty tribunal fees – which have slashed the number of cases by 65% and left the average private sector employer facing just one claim every 83 years – that they seem more likely to increase the fee levels than anything else. Add to that a likely revival of Adrian Beecroft’s controversial ‘fire at will’ proposal, and any future Tory government might just as well appoint a Minister for Rogue Employers.    

Somewhat belatedly, the Labour Party has started making the right sort of noises on fees. However, its pledge to replace the fees regime with one in which “affordability will not be a barrier to workplace justice” remains more a clumsy slogan than a credible policy solution to the not insignificant problem that outright abolition now comes with a price tag: some £40m in lost fee income (£4m) and increased operational costs (£35m). 

Similarly, the Liberal Democrats have recognised the problem created by their Coalition partners without saying how they might solve it, should they get the chance to do so. At their conference in Glasgow, they adopted as party policy an equalities working group paper stating only that they would “review the level of tribunal fees to ensure that those [with] bona fide claims are not deterred by cost.” So both Labour and the Liberal Democrats seem to be settling on lower level fees, rather than outright abolition. 

However, ensuring proper enforcement of workplace rights means more than restoring access to the employment tribunal system. Thanks to the ever greater casualisation of the UK labour market in recent decades, understandable fear of victimisation or summary dismissal means that many mistreated workers will not even contemplate taking their employer on with a tribunal claim. And that leaves rogue employers to profit from exploitation with near impunity.

It was for this reason that, in 1999, the then Labour government established the mechanism by which the national minimum wage is pro-actively enforced by a team of HMRC inspectors. And similar reasoning lay behind the creation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) in 2005. 

Until last month, only the Labour Party appeared to be giving any thought to the question of whether, and if so how, these and other State enforcement mechanisms might best be developed. The report of its National Policy Reform, finalised in July and published in October, reiterates a long-standing pledge to extend the GLA’s narrow remit to sectors such as “construction, hospitality and social care.” And it states that “alongside increased fines and a new role for local authorities in enforcement [of the minimum wage], HMRC’s remit on enforcement should be expanded to include related non-payment of holiday pay” – these being recommendations from the May 2014 report for Labour on low pay by businessman Alan Buckle. 

However, at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow, business secretary Vince Cable quietly announced – it wasn’t even mentioned in his conference speech – that the party’s manifesto for May 2015 will promise “a ‘one stop shop’ for workers’ rights enforcement.” By combining the remits of the minimum wage enforcement section at HMRC, the working time directive section of the Health & Safety Executive, the BIS Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, and the GLA, a new Workers’ Rights Agency would “revamp efforts to enforce employment law and tackle the exploitation of workers.” According to Cable, this “joined-up enforcement approach” would “ensure the minority of unscrupulous employers who break the law do not get away with undercutting other employers who play by the rules.”

Which is music to my ears. From 2001 until 2013, while at Citizens Advice, I repeatedly advocated just such an approach – including a consolidation of the four State enforcement bodies into a Fair Employment Agency – so as to shine a light into the murkiest corners of the labour market, provide better value to taxpayers, and secure a fairer competitive environment for business. 

The Coalition government’s first employment relations minister, Edward Davey, was quite taken with the idea – so much so that in early 2011 he launched a ministerial review to examine “consolidating enforcement functions in a single body.” However, that review did not survive Davey’s sudden promotion to the Cabinet in February 2012, and his replacement by Jo Swinson. By the start of 2013, Davey’s review had been quietly shelved.

So it’s good to see that the idea still has some political legs. For, in the words of employment lawyer and blogger Darren Newman, it’s “the sort of thing a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition could work on.”

Richard Dunstan is a policy expert who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society and Amnesty International UK. He runs the excellent Hard Labour blog on employment law.


Should employment rights only be enforced by the individuals affected? Or do you agree with Ricard Dunstan that a Fair Employment Agency might help to combat rogue employers and ensure all businesses are playing by the same rules? Share your thoughts using the comments section below!

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