HC Deb 22 July 1986 vol 102 cc170-1
7. Mr. McKelvey

asked the Paymaster General what is his latest estimate of firms paying workers less than wages councils' minimum rates in (a) Scotland and (b) England and Wales; and how many subsequent prosecutions have taken place.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. David Trippier)

No estimates of the number of firms paying workers less than the wages councils' minimum rates have been made. However, Wages Inspectorate statistics for 1985 show that 20.8 per cent. of all establishments checked in Scotland were underpaying one or more of their workers. The corresponding figure for England and Wales was 22.4 per cent. But these figures are not representative of all firms because the inspectorate tends to concentrate on the firms more likely to be underpaying. In the same year, no firms in Scotland and two firms in England and Wales were prosecuted for offences under wages council legislation.

Mr. McKelvey

Am I correct in my view that the Minister is saying that 3,000 firms in Scotland alone do not pay the minimum rate—in other words, they pay less than the scab rate—and that not one prosecution has taken place? I should like the House to know, because it has the right to know, whether any political instructions have been given to procurators fiscal not to prosecute in these cases. What is happening is a national scandal, coming as it does from a party that is supposed to stand for law and order.

Mr. Trippier

The hon. Gentleman has extrapolated ingeniously but wholly incorrectly the figures to which I referred in my substantive answer. It will be interesting for the hon. Gentleman to hear the contrast between what is happening now and what happened when the Labour Government were last in office. In the three years to 1978, the last full year in which the Labour party was in office, 35.4 per cent. of establishments inspected were found to be underpaying. Under the last Labour Government, the average number of prosecutions was five a year. Since 1980, under this Government, the average number of prosecutions has been the same.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my hon. Friend agree that procurators fiscal in Scotland have always enjoyed discretion in relation to prosecutions? I say that as the parliamentary spokesman for the procurators fiscal. Does my hon. Friend also agree that we, as the party of law and order, believe that when the law is seen not to be effective and not to be working, the answer is to change the law? That is exactly what we are doing.

Mr. Trippier

Whether such cases go to the procurator fiscal depends on the recommendation of the various inspectorates that operate either in England and Wales or in Scotland. Under successive Governments—Labour as well as Conservative — the policy has been to seek compliance with the legislation by advice and persuasion. A prosecution is considered where the offence is deliberate or repeated and the evidence is adequate.

Ms. Clare Short

Will the Minister confirm that we have a rising trend of employers breaking the criminal law and paying the poorest in society less than they are entitled to? Will he confirm that the Government have dealt with that problem by cutting by one third the number of wages inspectors and now, in the Wages Bill, by introducing a law which will weaken protection and promises further cuts in the inspectorate? The Government are inviting employers to break the law more frequently at the cost of the poorest workers.

Mr. Trippier

Nothing would invite employers more to break the law than the statements that we have heard from the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends, which give employers the impression that they will get away with it. The truth is stated in a letter which I sent to the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry), which has been widely circulated and of which the hon. Lady is aware. The legislation is changing because we are removing a great deal of the bureaucracy that has been operating in this area with incredibly complicated wages councils orders. Employers who in future try to claim that they cannot comply with wages councils orders simply because they do not understand them will be in a much weaker position than would otherwise be the case. I made that point in my letter. Wages councils will now be free from their former complexity and it will be simpler and quicker to check compliance. I do not accept that there is a rising trend of law-breaking among employers, as the hon. lady suggested.