HC Deb 15 May 1986 vol 97 cc948-50

5A.—(1) In the case of any provision contained in an order under section 14 of the 1979 Act and ceasing to have effect (whether wholly or in part) at any time in accordance with section 23 of this Act, the Secretary of State may by order provide, for the purpose of preserving the effect of rights accruing under that provision before that time, for that provision to continue in force as front that time subject to such modifications and transitional provisions as may be specified in the order.

(2) A provision contained in an order under this paragraph may be made with retrospective effect as from the date on which this Act is passed or any later date.

(3) Any order under this paragraph shall be made by statutory instrument which shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'.—[Mr. Kenneth Clarke.]

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mr. Kenneth Clarke.]

[Queen's consent and Prince of Wales's consent signified.]

9.49 pm
Mr. Prescott

Of all the Bills that have been brought before the House in the seven years of this Tory Government, this must be the most despicable. By the Government's own admission, it is designed to deregulate and to reduce the wages of people in the lowest paid industries in the country—shops, hotels, restaurants and hairdressing. Previous Tory Governments have felt that there should be laws to prevent exploitation and the development of the sweatshops, which are beginning to emerge.

The Bill dispels any doubt about whether Britain is departing from normal civilised standards. It means that the Government are denouncing international obligations. We will be the only one to do so out of the 94 countries which signed an International Labour Organisation convention recognising that certain trades are poorly organised, poorly paid and liable to exploitation. All the signatory countries agreed to introduce legislation to provide reasonable and fair conditions in those industries but, to our eternal shame, Britain alone has denounced those obligations. It is just another denunciation of international standards. We have done it far more than any other civilised country.

By any criteria, the Bill is mean and despicable. It concentrates all the power of the law against people in the lowest-paid occupations. The Paymaster General knows that we are talking about people who earn £40 or £50 a week. The Bill is designed to drive even those rates further down, as the rejection of our amendments has shown.

The Tories claim to be the party of law and order. They have lectured us all about obeying the law, but there have been very few prosecutions under present legislation for paying miserable wages. The Opposition have proposed amendments which would have strengthened the controls to ensure that agreed rates are enforced, but the Government have rejected those amendments. That is consistent with the 40 per cent. reduction in the number of wages inspectors. Many employers save millions of pounds which they should pay to their employees, by flouting the law.

The Bill is consistent with the Government's approach. They believe that the poor will work harder if they are paid less, but that the wealthy need to be paid more to work harder. It is no wonder that unemployment has increased, as the figures published today show. We are beginning to witness a divided nation. All that rubbish about St. Francis of Assisi when the Prime Minister came into No. 10 should be contrasted with the reality of a divided and bitter nation. The Government are wiping their hands of their responsibilities to provide work and choose to make low pay the solution to our problems.

The Paymaster General paid us a compliment today. The Labour party launched its alternative fair wage strategy yesterday, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that the British people have a sense of fairness and believe that people should have a fair return for their work. They do not want Britain to return to sweatshop industries and child labour. That is what the Bill is about, however. We are proud to have opposed it. A Labour Government will use the law on behalf of the poor to guarantee them a reasonable standard of living. The House has an obligation to do that, but has flunked it tonight by introducing this pernicious legislation.

9.54 pm
Mr. Holt

The Bill on which we are about to pass judgment will abolish the Truck Acts which have existed since 1831 and have been good law for more than 150 years. When they were introduced some hon. Member probably said, "Hurry up. Get on with it, sit down, and let everyone go home," but they have affected the lives of many people during those years.

I have grave reservations about the legislation, especially those parts which refer to industrial tribunals. As the House will know, I have taken a considerable interest in the workings of industrial tribunals, and have spoken many times on the subject. I do not believe that the addition of the nonsense contained in part II to the burden on industrial tribunals will increase the protection of workers. Indeed, in many ways it is a smoke screen which will reduce some of the present protection.

I am not sure that industrial tribunals want that additional responsibility. Since 1961 and trade levies, whenever the Department of Employment has needed to find a repository for anything, it has found one in industrial tribunals, so that today we have case after case on subjects which I am sure it was never dreamt would come before them. I doubt whether those who passed the legislation which set up industrial tribunals for unfair dismissal thought that the tribunals would try the case of a singing rabbi or of a dismissed football manager, yet those are the realms with which they deal. I am worried that, when we initiate such legislation, we do not know how far it will go.

At this stage hon. Members who have not listened to our debates in Committee or on the Floor of the House have an opportunity to realise the importance of the vote that we are about to hold. The complete abolition of the Truck Acts was not generally canvassed. Indeed, I suspect that most people thought that the Wages Bill would cover wages councils only, and that many hon. Members would not choose to vote for the other aspects of the Bill. Now they are, perhaps, understanding for the first time what it is they are being asked to vote for—the abolition of payment in cash and in the coin of the realm.

Even at this late hour it is important for me to put that on the record, so that someone in the other place may have the wisdom to consider it and prevail on the Government not to pursue this line of enabling everyone to go to an industrial tribunal on what may well be a minor matter. If an employer deducts £6 a week from an employee when he should be deducting only £5, that employee will have, enshrined in legislation, an opportunity to take the matter to an industrial tribunal. In other words, an employee may go to a tribunal for the sake of £1 a week at a cost of thousands of pounds a day for the tribunal. I do not believe that the Government have thought that matter through.

If an employer and employee are in dispute about sums that have been paid or deducted within the areas covered by the Bill, there must be another mechanism to deal with it which is simple, quick and acceptable to both parties. Industrial tribunals are not acceptable to both parties. Employers' organisations and trade union organisations have criticisms of them.

Mr. Nellist

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do I remember correctly that yesterday you gave a hint, if not a ruling, that those who sought to oppose a ten-minute rule Bill without dividing the House had your displeasure? Does that apply equally to those who seek to speak on Third Reading with no intention of voting against the Bill, as the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) has done for the last three months in Committee?

Mr. Speaker

They are totally different criteria. This is a Third Reading, not a ten-minute rule Bill.

Mr. Holt

The laws of the land are in our hands. People look to us to make good laws. They look to us not to see whether it is time to catch the train home, but to make sure that what we are doing is right. I believe that it is wrong—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.