HC Deb 11 March 1998 vol 308 cc541-2
5. Mr. Boswell

What assessment she has made of the local economic implications of the introduction of a national minimum wage. [32132]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, a sensibly set national minimum wage will increase the incentive to work, will encourage firms to compete on the basis of quality, not just price, will help promote employee commitment and reduce staff turnover, and will encourage investment in training. I am pleased to note that the Bill to introduce a minimum wage has received the formal approval of the House.

Mr. Boswell

The Minister will be aware that the average wage in Northern Ireland is only 60 per cent. of that in Greater London. He will also be aware that a greater proportion of the work force in Northern Ireland is paid less than £3.50 an hour. Will he confirm that he is alert to the implications of that and has drawn those issues to the attention of the Low Pay Commission?

Mr. Ingram

We are aware of those facts and they have been drawn to the attention of the Low Pay Commission.

Mr. Hope

Does my hon. Friend agree that workers in Northern Ireland forced to live on poverty wages deserve the same legal protection and floor under their wage levels that are about to be enjoyed by other workers in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Ingram

I am sure that all the low-paid workers, and others, in Northern Ireland will say three cheers to that and will fully endorse the National Minimum Wage Bill, which the House has recently passed.

Mr. Beggs

My hon. Friends and I are totally committed to the principle of a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. I urge the Minister to bear in mind the fact that, because of our relatively high levels of unemployment, if the level of the national minimum wage in Northern Ireland is set too high, it could damage existing jobs and the potential for new jobs. Will he assure us that the Government will be cautious, sensible and practical in setting the level of the national minimum wage in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Ingram

That is a fair point, which we have to address. As the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, we have to take account of the fact that there is a significant amount of low pay in Northern Ireland. We must be careful not to unbalance the economy as a result of the decisions on the national minimum wage. The Government are fully aware of the problem. We shall work with trade unions and industry to ensure that the Northern Ireland economy continues to prosper in the years ahead.

Mrs. Fyfe

Has the Northern Ireland Office assessed the cost to the British taxpayer of subsidising bad employers that pay terrible wages? The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) alluded to such low wages. Does my hon. Friend agree that the money could be spent in better ways to benefit the people of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Ingram

I have no knowledge of such an assessment, but my hon. Friend has given me an idea that I may work on as we look forward to the findings of the Low Pay Commission.

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