For a decade, ever since the Government introduced the minimum wage, the restaurant business in this country has made a mockery of its provisions through the shameless abuse of the tipping system. What restaurants up and down the country have been doing is using the cash that customers leave behind as extras for deserving staff in order make up those same workers' minimum wages. Tips, in other words, have become an excuse not to pay staff a decent wage – a means of a subsiding the £5.52-per-hour (up from £3.60) required under the 1998 Act.
Through its "fair tips, fair pay" campaign, The Independent has sought to expose and outlaw this shabby system of exploitation, which abuses the intentions of diners as well as those who wait on them, many of whom are foreigners and thus unlikely to protest against the trick being perpetrated against them. We unequivocally welcome the Government's decision, therefore, to mark the tenth anniversary of the 1998 Act by ending this deception, and its commitment to push through legislation that will stop tips from counting towards the minimum wage of hospitality trade workers in future.
While greeting the Government's conversion on this point, at the same time we need to be sure that this declaration of intent will be acted on. Legislation ought to be passed as soon as possible when MPs return from the summer recess, so that waiting staff can start to receive their tips as tips, and not as wages, by Christmas. It's important also that the system has teeth. There is no point closing one loophole if employers can find another through which they can either avoid paying the minimum wage altogether, or remunerate themselves for this outlay at their staff's expense.
Regrettably, although the Government has decided to back our first demand, it has shied away from the second point of our campaign, which was for legally-backed transparency on the use of tips. We would like to have seen legislation binding the restaurant trade to displaying their policy on service charges on menus.
The Government is instead talking of a code of practice to be jointly drawn up by with employers. So be it, but if this is the case, the Government must take a tough line with the industry on the terms of the code, and on making certain that it is binding. If need be, ministers should hold up the possibility of legislation on transparency as a reserve option, and act on the threat if there are signs that the new voluntary code is not being adhered to.
Years ago, when introducing the minimum wage was first mooted, voices of doom from the Conservative Party and the business world predicted bankruptcies on a vast scale if this allegedly heinous provision saw the light of day. Nothing of the sort occurred, which needs to be kept in mind as a host of new Cassandras bewail the imminent collapse of the British hospitality industry and the knock-on effects on the tourist trade if restaurants are not left alone to do as they see fit with tips.
If the waiters and waitresses of Britain have a small spring in their step today, that's all to the good. But if workers in the hospitality trade were obvious victims of the weakness in Britain's minimum wage legislation, it is clear that they are not the only ones. It's time the Government took a wider look at other loopholes in the application of this important law.
Finally, this small but significant victory on tipping must not be the end of the story. If justice for the low-paid is to be achieved, we must all remain vigilant to ensure that abuses of tipping do not reoccur. The "fair tips, fair pay" campaign is not over.