HC Deb 29 January 1991 vol 184 cc784-5
11. Mrs. Mahon

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what measures he intends to introduce to eradicate low pay.

Mr. Forth

Pay is a matter for negotiators themselves to determine in the light of their particular circumstances.

Mrs. Mahon

Will the Government take positive steps to eradicate low pay by prosecuting employers who illegally pay wages below the minimum rate? Is the Minister aware that in 1989 nearly 5,500 employers were found guilty of this offence, yet only 10 were prosecuted? Is not this a case of double standards? How can the Government get away with a criminal act when nobody else can?

Mr. Forth

Opposition Members seem to have an almost unseemly lust for prosecution. This is all the more odd since the number of prosecutions brought under the present Government is almost exactly the same as that brought under the Labour party when it was last in power —although it must be difficult for Opposition Members to remember that. In this regard, we work by persuasion and on the basis of information—not by dragging people automatically and vindictively through the courts. I am afraid that until Opposition Members understand that, I shall continue to give this answer every time the question is asked.

Mr. Gale

Does my hon. Friend agree that European proposals to eradicate low-paying part-time jobs are much more likely to eradicate the jobs, which are of such value, particularly to working women?

Mr. Forth

Yes, indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The truth is that many of the proposals emanating from the European Commission and from the Opposition would have the effect of destroying jobs. As my hon. Friend knows, part of the very proud record of the present Government is the number of jobs provided in the wealth-creating sector over the last two or three years. That is something that we wish to protect and we shall resist any efforts by the Labour party, or anybody else, to destroy jobs.

Dr. Reid

How can the Minister say that he is committed to the eradication of low pay when the mass unemployment created by the present Government is the very means by which low pay is extended throughout the country? Can he imagine workers in a constituency like mine, which, over the next few years, faces an unemployment rate of 40 per cent., having any bargaining power to secure a decent level of pay? Is not the truth that mass unemployment and low pay are two sides of the same Government policy?

Mr. Forth

I can agree with half of what the hon. Gentleman has said. He is absolutely right in his assertion that unemployment is the main cause of poverty. He is quite wrong, however, to suggest that low pay is equally a cause. If we were to intervene arbitrarily to increase the level of pay in this country and beyond, employment would be the main casualty. Perversely, any effort to provide arbitrary levels of income would be likely to increase unemployment even further. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said a moment ago, we have one of the lowest levels of unemployment in the European Community, and we intend to keep it that way.