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Are the Conservatives Really the Party of Working People? Don't Believe It for a Second

04/09/2015 17:16 BST | Updated 04/09/2016 10:59 BST

The Prime Minister wrote in the Times this week that his government will "punish low-pay employers" in a move that he hopes will seal the Conservatives' position as the new party of working people.

He points to how fines for employers found not to be paying the national minimum wage (NMW) have now been increased to a maximum of £20,000, and how HM Revenue and Customs' (HMRC) enforcement budget is to be increased.

David Cameron's rallying cry is "underpay your staff and you will pay the price". Now at first glance this sounds very admirable. Sadly, this latest headline grabbing-announcement simply does not hold up in reality.

Let's start with this line from the Prime Minister: "So, to unscrupulous employers who think that they can get labour on the cheap, the message is clear: underpay your staff and you will pay the price."

Yet only last week the government announced that the boss of a care company, which the BBC revealed had actually admitted to failing to pay its care workers the NMW, would be given a seat in the House of Lords. Is a lifetime of daily expense claims of up to £300, and a seat in our country's legislature really what the PM meant when he talked about punishment?

What about David Cameron's trumpeting of increased fines for employers who don't pay their workers the minimum wage? It is certainly true that firms found guilty of not paying the NMW can now be given a penalty of up to £20,000 for each individual worker denied a legal wage. However, HMRC has just recently announced its new national minimum wage campaign, which allows employers who have not being paying their workers the NMW to escape punishment.

Employers who are guilty of non compliance with the minimum wage can now just notify HMRC of their transgression, declare that they have paid their workers any money owed and agree to obey the law in the future. If they do this then "HMRC will not undertake an enquiry or investigation on your national minimum wage records" - a very trusting attitude to afford to employers who have admitted that they have broken the law. Crucially this new approach allows employers to escape any fines, and means they will not be publicly named and shamed.

So despite all this tough talk from the Prime Minister, employers are effectively being offered a get out of jail free card.

And even when enforcement action is being taken against employers it is meagre at best. Take the care sector - between 160,000 and 220,000 care workers, most of them women, are currently paid below the minimum wage and they are collectively being cheated out of £130m a year.

In the government's latest round of naming and shaming of employers who've not paid the NMW, only three social care providers were identified, and the amount of arrears owed came to only £1,272.85 for 10 workers.

The endemic levels of non-payment of the NMW in the care sector not only condemns the workers to poverty, but also has a highly detrimental impact on the quality of care provided to elderly and disabled people. This also adds to the pressures being placed on the NHS. The government could make a real difference to the demand for NHS care if they would just enforce NMW laws properly. Instead, for all its rhetoric, the government is failing to tackle this crisis in any meaningful way.

If ministers are really concerned about low pay, they should start by announcing that all government departments are to become living wage employers, and encourage other employers to follow suit. They must also fund local councils properly so that the introduction of the living wage does not bankrupt the social care sector. The government should also back UNISON's Ethical Care Charter and help address the endemic levels of non-compliance in the care sector by ensuring that all care workers are paid for their travel time.

This latest round of platitudes on a greater enforcement of the NMW simply has no basis in reality. What it does do show that the Conservatives can never be the party of working people.

Dave Prentis is the general secretary of UNISON