HC Deb 16 March 1993 vol 221 cc160-1
12. Mr. Burden

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what is her estimate of the numbers working in the public sector earning less than the Council of Europe's low pay threshold analysed between (a) full-time male employees, (b) full-time female employees, (c) part-time male employees and (d) part-time female employees.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

There is no recognised Council of Europe low pay threshold.

Mr. Burden

The Government may not recognise it, but poverty pay does exist. Does the Minister recognise that a hospital domestic, for instance, earns £121.14 for a 39-hour week, less than is paid at Tescos and £78 per week less than the average for women's pay? Does he recognise that Government pay policy, which they intend to impose, will give that woman 90p extra? Is not it disgraceful that the Government are prepared to condemn their own employees to poverty pay?

Mr. Forsyth

If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about poverty, he should recognise that the biggest single cause of poverty is unemployment and that his party's commitment to a minimum wage would add 2 million to the unemployed. The hon. Gentleman asked about European standards on minimum wages. Those countries that have embraced a minimum wage are the countries which are struggling with the highest unemployment, like socialist Spain.

Mr. John Marshall

Does my hon. Friend agree that the low paid would prefer a job with low pay to no job? Is not it immoral for hon. Members to seek to legislate for the unemployment of their constituents rather than their continued employment?

Mr. Forsyth

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Both in the House and in Europe, people have to recognise that passing legislation for better working conditions does not deliver better working conditions unless they have been earned. One thing that we have to do if we are to get unemployment down is to be more competitive. The continual attempt by Opposition Members to add to the cost of employment will add to the numbers on the dole.

Ms Quin

Is not the gap between the highest and the lowest paid wider now than at any time since 1886? Whereas in other European countries the pay gap has remained constant in recent years, it has widened dramatically in Britain. Does not that show clearly that besides the large numbers of people who are unemployed there is also a great problem of people on low pay? Are not all those people getting a poor deal from Tory Britain today?

Mr. Forsyth

Even Mr. Delors has recognised the problem of Europe pricing itself out of world markets. He suggested the other day that we needed a global social chapter to address that problem. I venture to suggest that the hon. Lady should look at the figures. Germany now has 50 per cent. of its labour costs—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Labour Members may jeer, but half of German labour costs arise from non-wage costs. That compares with 10 per cent. in Pacific rim countries and 25 per cent. in Japan. If we cannot compete, jobs will leave Europe and go elsewhere. The hon. Lady should recognise that.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Does my hon. Friend agree that many British businesses carefully monitor their total wage costs and that if a minimum wage were imposed on them they might have to get rid of some of their employees? Does he further agree that higher wage costs would lead to higher inflation, at which Labour Members are experts?

Mr. Forsyth

I agree with my hon. Friend. The key to competitiveness and employment lies in keeping wage costs down and ensuring that they reflect performance and productivity. That is the way forward. The best way to determine wages and conditions in the workplace is negotiation between the employer and employees. That is not a matter for government either at national or European level.