HC Deb 25 February 1999 vol 326 cc536-8
9. Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East)

If he will make a statement on the action he has taken to raise awareness of the national minimum wage among businesses and employees. [71605]

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Mr. Ian McCartney)

We are committed to informing businesses and employees about the national minimum wage and how the rules work. It is essential for as many workers and employers as possible to know their rights and obligations. My Department is already issuing preliminary guidance and preparing detailed guidance for release once the National Minimum Wage Regulations 1999 have been debated. There is a live national minimum wage helpline for guidance on individual cases and a website. We will be backing that up with other publicity measures over the coming weeks, which will be announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Heppell

I thank the Minister for that response and welcome his earlier comments about how well business is receiving the national minimum wage. However, what measures does he plan to have in place to ensure that people who are employed by the small number of unscrupulous employers who try to disregard the regulations on the national minimum wage have the confidence to speak out about the fact that those regulations have been broken, without fear of discrimination in the workplace?

Mr. McCartney

First, I can give an absolute guarantee that there will be a new, day one right for employees to claim the national minimum wage and not to be sacked or disciplined. For those who want to act on behalf of another worker to claim that right, there will be another new, day one right—the right not to be sacked or disciplined for claiming the minimum wage on behalf of that individual.

Secondly, we are changing the law on the burden of proof to ensure that the employer has to prove that he has paid the minimum wage once a complaint has been made. Employers are working with the Inland Revenue and Contributions Agency for the fair and effective implementation of the minimum wage. A significant number of employers are on side because they are sick and tired of being undercut not just on the quality of goods and services, but by the downward spiral of wages. That is why the minimum wage is as popular among employers as it is among low-paid workers.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a survey of 350 small and medium enterprises in my constituency, from Buckingham to Aston Clinton and from Long Crendon to Wing, shows that those companies are only too well aware of the imposition of the national minimum wage and are profoundly hostile to it?

Moreover, given the importance of learning from the successful experience in other countries, will the hon. Gentleman today pledge that he will conduct a full study of the legislation that was introduced in the United States—the Regulatory Flexibility Act 1980 and the Small Businesses Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act 1996—and send me the result of his homework before the Easter recess?

Mr. McCartney

The hon. Gentleman is in danger of being done under the stalker legislation because he been at me about the same question for the past three months. He seeks me here, he seeks me there, he seeks me everywhere. I have already given him a commitment about that in Committee. If I can find time, I will gladly read the documents that he wishes me to read, but the most important documents that I will read and have read are the National Minimum Wage Regulations and the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. Overwhelmingly, small business supports the minimum wage. I am looking forward to its introduction on 1 April. Perhaps if I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment to read that document, he can give me a commitment that, at the next election, he will campaign for the retention of the national minimum wage.