An important UK government position created to steer a crackdown on labour market abuse falls vacant at the end of this week, raising questions over ministers’ commitment to enforcing workers’ rights.
Matthew Taylor, the interim director of labour market enforcement, steps down when his extended term ends on Friday. A successor has not yet been appointed, although the part-time role was advertised in November. People familiar with the matter say ministers did not favour any of the shortlisted candidates, who included Mr Taylor, and were reopening the appointment process.
Mr Taylor is a former policy chief for ex-Labour prime minister Tony Blair who also led a review of modern working practices commissioned by Theresa May when she was premier. He offered to remain in post unpaid until he could be replaced but was turned down.
A lengthy vacancy at the head of the unit risks hampering efforts to tackle widespread abuses of UK labour market rules, at a time when rising unemployment will make it increasingly difficult for workers to assert their rights.
Even before the onset of the pandemic, there was clear evidence that many employers were bending or breaking the rules, whether through underpayment of the minimum wage, failure to provide payslips and paid holiday, or more serious exploitation endemic in certain sectors.
The director of labour market enforcement, a position created in 2017, is responsible for setting strategy at the three labour market enforcement bodies: the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority; the arm of HM Revenue & Customs that oversees minimum wage compliance; and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate. All face funding constraints that make external oversight to set priorities even more important.
Mr Taylor told the Financial Times that the next annual strategy — to be submitted to ministers on Friday — addressed urgent issues, including the risk of economic pressures leading employers to cut corners on workers’ rights, and the potential for a new immigration regime to lead to a surge in the exploitation of foreign workers. There was now “no guarantee . . . this strategy will ever see the light of day”, he added.
The director of labour market enforcement is also supposed to help drive the creation of a new Single Enforcement Body, intended to pool expertise, share intelligence and make it easier for businesses to comply with the rules and for individuals to seek help.
Although officials had begun drafting legislation, Mr Taylor said, there had been very little progress within government to prepare for this body to start work, such as deciding whether it should have a regional presence and determining how it could access data held by other agencies.
“All this is happening at a time when there is understandable concern that the government has lost its enthusiasm for enforcing workers’ rights,” he said.
Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, has insisted that a post-Brexit review of EU-related employment law will not lead to any reduction in employment protection, telling MPs last week that ministers were “absolutely committed to having a really high standard for workers”.
However, employment lawyers and trade unions note that the government is moving to overhaul EU-derived regulations at pace, while it has been much slower to act on manifesto promises made ahead of the 2019 election, including measures to support flexible working, better protect new parents from redundancy and give low-paid workers greater security.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the recruitment of a new labour market enforcement director was continuing. “Cracking down on non-compliance in the labour market is a priority for the new business secretary and a permanent director for labour market enforcement will be appointed as soon as possible,” it said.