HC Deb 21 February 1984 vol 54 cc679-80
1. Mr. Dixon

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he is satisfied that sufficient information is issued to wages council employees to guard against illegal underpayment.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

A copy of the appropriate wages order is sent to all employers known to be affected. Employers are required by law to display it where it can be seen by their workers. These arrangements have applied since the inception of wages council legislation and are considered adequate.

Mr. Dixon

How can the Minister be so complacent, bearing in mind that of the establishments inspected in 1981, over 41 per cent. were thought to be underpaying their employees? When will the hon. Gentleman answer the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Miss Boothroyd) in the debate on low pay last week when she referred to people who were working 45 hours a week for the princely sum of £30? Against that background, how can the Minister be so complacent when talking about low pay?

Mr. Gummer

If I am being complacent, then every one of my Labour predecessors was complacent as well and the hon. Gentleman should have listened to the answer that I gave. Of the workers whose pay in 1982 was covered by checks, by visits and by other means, only 6.2 per cent. were found to be underpaid.

Sir William Clark

As wages councils do not appear to be of much advantage or benefit to industry, when will they be abolished?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend will be aware that in the debate on low pay last week I said that when the time came to consider the opportunities—which would arise only when the ILO window occurred—we would look at the evidence extremely carefully and that if it seemed that the wages councils reduced opportunities for employment we would be wrong not to take appropriate action.

Miss Boothroyd

Why does the Minister refuse to restore the cuts that he made in the wages inspectorate in the west midlands when, on his own admission, only 3,500 factories out of a possible 32,000 have been surveyed? Is he not neglecting his duties in this respect?

Mr. Gummer

We are carrying out the same level of checking as has been the case generally under both Labour and Conservative Governments. The hon. Lady must realise, therefore, that we are not taking any different approach from that of the last Labour Government, and she did not make the same complaints against them.

Mr. Ashdown

Does the Minister accept that the Government have a responsibility to protect the wages of the very low-paid? Does he further accept that in the absence of wages councils, or some similar mechanism, to protect wages, the Government will be party to workers getting as little as £30 or £40 before the tax man gets to them?

Mr. Gummer

I do not think that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) was present for the debate on low pay. Indeed, it was noticeable how few alliance Members were present.

Mr. Ashdown

Answer the question.

Mr. Gummer

This is, clearly, not a matter which concerns them until they can get some press for their remarks.

We are concerned to see whether the wages councils protect the pay of the low-paid. That is why I said that we would proceed according to the evidence. The hon. Gentleman is asking me to give an undertaking before we have looked at the evidence.

Mr. John Townend

Does my hon. Friend agree that wages councils are destroying jobs, in particular for the under-18s? Would it be possible to remove the under-l8s from the jurisdiction of the councils now, rather than wait 18 months or two years and many more lost jobs for young people?

Mr. Gummer

It is most important that we do nothing that would make the position of the low-paid worse. It is because there is considerable concern that the present system reduces opportunity for employment, particularly of the young, that we have undertaken to look at the situation very carefully. It is a serious matter when Her Majesty's Opposition demand that we give undertakings without considering ways of improving employment opportunities for young people.

Mr. John Evans

In view of the growing incidence of poverty wages in this country, why does the Minister not insist that all jobcentres display wages council minimum awards, so that affected workers may visit their nearest jobcentre to find out whether they are being underpaid?

Mr. Gummer

The jobcentres have the same rules as I put forward before in reply to the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Miss Boothroyd). All the staff of jobcentres are fully aware of the details which they need to have. Each case is examined to see that the wages orders are not violated. These are complicated matters, because there are a large number of wages councils. In the last debate on this subject the hon. Gentleman complained that we had abolished some of them, so on this occasion he cannot object to their existence.