Government reviews employment rights enforcement

During 2011, the UK government is reviewing the arrangements which enforce compliance with basic statutory employment rights, such as the minimum wage and working time. Current, dispersed, enforcement arrangements often mean that exploited and mistreated workers are either unaware of their rights, or are forced to turn for redress to a complex, legalistic and adversarial employment tribunal system. One option being considered is to set up a single enforcement body.

Enforcement arrangements

The UK does not have a labour inspectorate responsible for enforcing compliance with employment law. Instead, a number of government bodies and agencies are responsible for enforcement. With regard to basic employment rights, the main responsibilities are as follows:

  • The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) enforces aspects of the legislation on working time (UK9810154F).HM Revenue and Customs (
  • )enforces the National Minimum Wage (NMW) (UK9904196F).
  • The Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (EAS) enforces rules governing the conduct of employment agencies (UK0807019Q).
  • The Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) enforces legislation regulating the conduct of licensed gangmasters (suppliers of labour in sectors such as agriculture and food processing) (UK0807019Q).

In 2009, the government set up a pay and work rights helpline as a single gateway for workers to contact these enforcement bodies (UK0809029I).

Review launched

In early 2011, as part of its general policy of reviewing employment law (UK1104049I), the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government (UK1005019I) started a review of ‘workplace rights compliance and enforcement arrangements’, focusing on the agencies and bodies listed above. The aim is to:

  • identify and assess the cost and operational benefits of different compliance and enforcement models, ranging from incremental improvements to current arrangements, to consolidating enforcement functions in a single body or fewer bodies;
  • examine whether government can do more to reduce compliance and inspection burdens on business through, for example, improved advice and guidance and better ‘risk-based’ approaches to inspection;
  • examine whether current enforcement powers and penalties are fit for purpose;
  • consider whether helpline services can be linked more coherently to online advice channels, and whether overlapping helpline services can be streamlined to deliver an improved and more cost-effective service;
  • examine how government can work more effectively with third parties – such as advice bodies, community groups, local authorities, business groups and trade unions – to facilitate and ensure compliance.

The review is taking place in phases throughout 2011. It has started with an internal government review, with some input from key interested parties. Following this phase, the government will publish its findings and intended next steps. There will then be a public consultation if ‘the nature and scale of any proposed changes makes this appropriate’. The social partners have not yet been formally involved in the review process.

Calls for single Fair Employment Agency

Citizens Advice is an independent charitable body, largely funded through government grants, which advises people on employment and other matters through nearly 400 local bureaux. In April 2011, Citizens Advice published a significant submission to the enforcement review. Its submission, entitled ‘Give us a break!’ (556Kb PDF), is endorsed by a range of charitable, lobbying and legal groups, such as the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Law Centres Federation (LCF).

Citizens Advice states that each year it assists tens of thousands of low-paid and relatively low-skilled workers, mostly employed in small, non-unionised workplaces, whose basic workplace rights are abused. While most employers seek to meet their legal obligations, Citizens Advice say: ‘there are still far too many rogue employers and employment agencies prepared to flout the law and so profit from exploitation’. As a result, many of the UK’s most vulnerable workers do not benefit fully from the legal framework for fairness in the workplace. Citizens Advice highlights abuse in areas such as paid holiday entitlement (which is not one of the aspects of working time enforced by the HSE), maximum weekly hours and the NMW.

The current dispersed enforcement arrangements, and the fact that these do not cover all workplace rights, often mean that exploited and mistreated workers have nowhere to turn, other than to the ‘increasingly complex, legalistic and adversarial’ employment tribunal system. (UK1102019I).

Citizens Advice is calling on the government to use the current review to consolidate existing enforcement arrangements into a single ‘Fair Employment Agency’, with the powers and resources to secure key statutory rights for individual workers and tackle illegal employer practices. It says this agency’s remit should extend beyond that of the current arrangements to include all basic statutory employment rights, such as paid holidays, unlawful deductions from wages, maternity and paternity pay and sick pay. Such an agency would:

  • simplify the enforcement framework;
  • enhance vulnerable workers’ protection;
  • provide better value to the taxpayer, through greater organisational efficiency and by reducing the number of potential employment tribunal claims;
  • by targeting the ‘rogues’ that profit from exploitation, help secure the fair competitive environment that is sought by ‘good’ employers, employment agencies and labour providers.

Mark Carley, IRRU/SPIRE Associates

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