HC Deb 21 July 1999 vol 335 cc1274-91

Lords amendment: No. 20, after clause 19, to insert the following new clause—National minimum wage: communities— . The following shall be inserted after section 44 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 (exclusions: voluntary workers)— "Religious and other communities: resident workers. 44A.—(1) A residential member of a community to which this section applies does not qualify for the national minimum wage in respect of employment by the community. (2) Subject to subsection (3), this section applies to a community if—

  1. (a) it is a charity or is established by a charity,
  2. (b) a purpose of the community is to practise or advance a belief of a religious or similar nature, and
  3. (c) all or some of its members live together for that purpose.
(3) This section does not apply to a community which—
  1. (a) is an independent school, or
  2. (b) provides a course of further or higher education.
(4) The residential members of a community are those who live together as mentioned in subsection (2)(c). (5) In this section—
  1. (a) "charity" has the same meaning as in section 44, and
  2. (b) "independent school" has the same meaning as in section 463 of the Education Act 1996 (in England and Wales), section 135 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 (in Scotland) and Article 2 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 (in Northern Ireland).
(6) In this section "course of further or higher education" means—
  1. (a) in England and Wales, a course of a description referred to in Schedule 6 to the Education Reform Act 1988 or Schedule 2 to the Further and Higher Education Act 1992;
  2. (b) in Scotland, a course or programme of a description mentioned in or falling within section 6(1) or 38 of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992;
  3. (c) in Northern Ireland, a course of a description referred to in Schedule 1 to the Further Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 or a course providing further education within the meaning of Article 3 of that Order." "

Mr. Byers

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 25.

Mr. Byers

I hope that the House will support the amendments, which reflect marked common sense on the part of the Government in dealing with these important matters. Amendment No. 20 deals with what are known as intentional communities, which are communities in which people effectively volunteer. They are often religious-based and have shared living accommodation. The people concerned have a common religious or spiritual aim. They are in a unique position.

We received a number of representations from such groups when they saw the details of our provisions in relation to the national minimum wage. We have used the opportunity to consider those representations, and as a result have come to the conclusion, with which I hope this House will agree, that we should exclude intentional communities from the provisions of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998.

The communities, religious orders and individuals concerned have welcomed the measure. They recognise that the commitment and devotion that goes with such a life style was not intended to be affected by the National Minimum Wage Act. Only about 1,000 people are affected and, in the circumstances, we think that the provision is wholly appropriate.

Lords amendment No. 25 would allow information to be given to Inland Revenue enforcement officers to ensure effective enforcement of the National Minimum Wage Act, but in a way that does not create an undue burden on business. I hope that that will commend it to Opposition Members.

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of the successful aspects of the implementation of the minimum wage is the use of the hotline by employers to report other employers who may be paying below the minimum wage. Understandably, and rightly, they are keen not to be undercut by cowboys who misuse the law. Will he confirm whether the new clause that Lords amendment No. 25 would introduce would allow Inland Revenue officers who are alerted to such malpractice by an employer to pass on that information to enforcement officers, reinforcing the application and implementation of the minimum wage?

Mr. Byers

The areas covered by Lords amendment No. 25 would allow the Inland Revenue to pass to enforcement officers information that it received during the course of discharging its responsibilities. So, provided that they were the circumstances in which the information was received, it would be passed on. I should explain the practicalities of the operation of the present system. We would expect that the sort of information that we are receiving from employers through the hotline would go to the dedicated enforcement team and not to the normal Inland Revenue personnel. Therefore, the situation that my hon. Friend described is unlikely to arise.

It is worth noting that there have been something like 1,900 references to the telephone hotline because of people who, allegedly, were not paying the national minimum wage, and we have been able to deal with many of them. The number of employers who have been ringing up to inform the enforcement authorities about other employers who are not paying the national minimum wage has surprised many of us. As we said when we took the Bill through the House, there is much resentment among employers who are paying a reasonable wage when they know that they are being undercut by the actions of other employers.

Lords amendment No. 25 is sensible, it would cut bureaucracy for business and would be provide a very effective way of enforcing the national minimum wage legislation. I hope that it will commend itself to the House.

Mrs. Browning

I do not oppose Lords amendment No. 20 in principle. However, I have recognised an anomaly in its wording, which could lead to the proposed clause affecting a group of people which the Secretary of State had not intended to affect. I shall talk him through such a situation in order to gain his reassurance that such an organisational group of people should not, for reasons that I shall explain, come within the scope of the clause.

Paragraph 2(b) of Lords amendment No. 20 says: a purpose of the community is to practise or advance a belief of a religious or similar nature". It is the words "similar nature" that worry me. The community is either of a religious background or it is not. If it is not, but the wording "similar nature" is to apply in law—bearing in mind the fact that the other condition in the subsection requires the organisation to be an established charity or established by a charity—there is a group of people who might meet the definition in the clause who would give me cause for concern.

Some environmental charities fund groups of people, sometimes over quite a sustained period, so that the group may become a formalised protest group in a specific location. A group of road protesters might be funded by a charitable organisation, so they would meet the definition in paragraph 2(a) of the new clause, and might be regarded as being of a "religious or similar nature" under paragraph 2(b). They would not necessarily be drawing benefits, but their day-to-day living expenses would be funded by the charity.

I can think of a situation that occurred in my constituency, where such a group of people—

Mr. Battle


Mrs. Browning

I did indeed have the great pleasure of Swampy on my roof when some people set up their community—or a group of a "similar nature"—near my home some years ago.

The general public often think—sometimes rightly—that such groupings of people are simply drawing benefit. That is not always the case. Some do, but not all. Those who do not sustain their day-to-day living expenses by benefit are obviously being funded, sometimes by bona fide charity moneys that reach them. None the less they would, in effect, be being paid for their living expenses, and could well be below the minimum wage.

I do not want to give the Secretary of State false hope tonight because I do not want him to think that I am making a case for the minimum wage. I am not. I am simply suggesting to him a scenario in which a group of people might well come within the terms of the new clause simply because of the way that it is worded. The charitable condition would be met, and who is to distinguish between different groups of people who opt to live together in a community? If the full stop is not to be placed after the words practise or advance a belief of a religious nature", the words "similar nature" could be interpreted as applying to people who share a common belief, regardless of whether that is of a religious nature.

I am trying to help the Secretary of State here. I caution him to look very carefully at how the wording of paragraph (2)(b) might be interpreted in law, and might give sustenance to a group of people of whom he may or may not approve—I do not know—who could pray in aid this part of his legislation to use it for a purpose other than that for which it was intended. I should have thought that clarification of "or similar nature" and the difference between a belief of a religious nature and a belief of a similar nature turns on the head of a pin, but I should be very interested to know how the Secretary of State and his officials interpret those words.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

I am genuinely intrigued to know the reasons that have driven the Government to allow this exemption from what is, for them, a very important piece of legislation. The Secretary of State said that only about 1,000 people would be affected by the provision; it would very much help the House to know exactly what type of people they are. I have suggested to the Government several times that other exemptions should be made from the national minimum wage legislation. It would be intriguing to know—and it is very important that the House should know before it passes this exemption—what has driven the Secretary of State to accept the logic for this group.

In the past, I have advanced a proposition entirely commensurate with the spirit that underlies what I think is a commendable amendment. It is that quasi volunteers who involve themselves in pre-school playgroups think that they should be exempted from minimum wage legislation. These are people who share a common belief about the value of education. They do not live together but they are often people who do not want the money that comes from their work. They have the reward of enjoying the fulfilment that comes from helping young people to develop their skills. Yet the Government have robustly rejected the view that these quasi volunteers should be excluded from the minimum wage legislation.

9.15 pm

I have a high regard for religious communities. In the past, I have been on retreat on many occasions to religious communities, mainly in France. I do not recall having done so in this country. That being so, I do not want to undermine the importance of the exemption. I want to know why the Government have been moved to accept the amendment, which excludes religious communities from minimum wage legislation when there are so many other groups that could argue with equal legitimacy that the cause they espouse and the views and beliefs that they hold about the value of education—for example, pre-school playgroups—are as valid as the religious beliefs held by communities.

The first question that the Secretary of State must answer is why a particular group has been singled out for what seems to be a reasonable exclusion. I would like to know also from the Secretary of State exactly what type of person is affected. He talked of about 1,000 people. These are presumably not the nuns and monks of religious communities and their opposite numbers. They are the—[Interruption.] The Minister said something from a sedentary position and I could not hear what he said. If he genuinely wants to intervene, I shall find it helpful to have clarification.

I am wondering about gardeners, cooks and groundsmen at communities, for example. If they are included, that is fine. Who is the employee? I do not know how the law operates in this respect. We are not dealing with limited liability companies, particularly when talking about religious communities. Apparently, communities will have to have charitable status. Employment by the community is clearly important.

I would be interested to know whether the Secretary of State has received any representations from communities that think that they should be caught by the exemption but that do not qualify for charitable status.

I am particularly worried about clause 2(b), which states: a purpose of the community is to practise or advance a belief of a religious or similar nature". I take up what my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said from the Opposition Front Bench about environmental groups. If the amendment were genuinely providing an exemption for religious communities, "the principal purpose" and not "a purpose" should be in the Bill. I share all the reservations that have already been expressed about "or similar nature", which flows after religious beliefs. This opens a Pandora's box for not only legitimate religious groups from the Roman Catholic and the Anglican monastic traditions, which I assume will be the principal beneficiaries of the exemption, but for all sorts of dubious religious cults, whose practices I do not think we would want to condone. Often such cults have a community for the practising or the advancing of a belief of a religious or similar nature". The phrase "or similar nature" takes a particular salience because the rather dubious religious cults, on which I am sure the Government have a wary eye, as did the previous Conservative Government, often have much more money than the Anglican and Roman Catholic communities and other religious communities that are entirely properly being exempted under the Bill.

It would seem that cults may be capable of abusing the spirit of the national minimum wage legislation. They have much more resources at their disposal than the Anglican and Roman Catholic communities and many more employees. I am concerned that the amendment may be opening the door not to 1,000 exemptions but many more from the national minimum wage legislation.

Mr. Collins

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying about the potential danger of including cults. Is not that danger reinforced by the fact that many cults try to tell those who fall within their embrace that they are entering a completely different world from the outside world and that they must cut off all contact with it? Exemption from important statutory provisions will only reinforce that sense of being apart from the rest of the world.

Mr. Luff

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I appreciate that, by definition, volunteers cannot be caught by national minimum wage legislation—at least, I hope they cannot—but those who are at the penumbra of such cults, who are employed in some sense by that bigger community, may indeed fall victim to the situation that my hon. Friend describes.

We need to know much more from the Secretary of State about those 1,000 people who he says will be exempted by the measure, welcome though it is in principle.

Subsection (2)(c) states that all or some of its members live together for that purpose. That is exceptionally loose drafting. What, in law, does "some" constitute? Is it a half, a quarter, a third, a fifth, two or three? How many does "some" constitute for this purpose? There is huge scope for creative abuse of the exemption.

I say again that I am not a huge fan of the national minimum wage legislation. Good employers should pay a decent wage, and I condemn those who do not. The Government have no business meddling. I oppose such legislation, and I resent being told when I oppose it that I am not part of the new one-nation strain of new Labourism. However, if we are to have legislation, it must be good legislation. It must not be open to abuse.

There is nothing hypocritical in the Opposition saying that we oppose legislation, but, if it is to be introduced, it must work. I worry that the loose definitions that feature in amendment No. 20 could open the Government's legislation to considerable abuse.

I imagine that the exemption in subsection (3)(a)— This section does not apply to a community which— (a) is an independent school"— is intended to exempt communities such as Ampleforth. Clearly, where there is large-scale employment of teachers, it is reasonable for the Government to make such an exemption, but I would welcome clarification of that.

I go back to my opening remarks. If we are exempting independent schools, I want to know why we are not exempting other categories, particularly the pre-school play groups, which have a common belief and value education. The people who work for them do so not primarily for the money, but for the joy of bringing up children. If the Government are prepared to make an exemption for religious communities—which may be right, subject to the caveats that I have entered—why are they not prepared to consider exemptions for other communities which may not be residential, but have a shared belief and are essentially voluntary in nature?

Mr. Chidgey

I return to the Secretary of State's opening remarks, which seem to have been made quite a long while ago. He mentioned that he had listened carefully to the arguments advanced by a number of groups. He is right. In Committee, there was a great deal of discussion and debate about the exemptions for particular groups which, because of their religious principles, could not continue to organise themselves and the way in which they worked if the law was passed and affected them.

Much of that discussion took place during the debate on employment relations and trade union recognition. Can the Minister tell me—I may have missed it in my reading of the Lords amendments—what has happened to the plea from those groups that they should be exempted from trade union recognition? As I recall, that was one of their principal problems. With their fundamental belief in the Old Testament, which they quoted to many of us, they could not operate their workshops if they had to allow trade union recognition ballots to take place. They could not do that and hold true to their beliefs.

If I recall correctly, the Minister of State said at the time that there would be further discussion and clarification, and that regulations would be produced in due course to address the issue.

I am a little surprised to see a Lords amendment dealing with the national minimum wage, but no mention of the problem of trade union recognition. I should be grateful if the Secretary of State could advise me of the progress that has been made in the negotiations and when we can expect regulations or legislation to satisfy the genuine concerns of those groups.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

I shall echo a few of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), who made a persuasive case. Conservative Members do not support the minimum wage, but we support good employment practices and, because other groups are not being exempted, we believe that exempting particular groups in such a way is fiddling. I believe that most of us have concerns about that matter. In the summer, I visited a pre-school playgroup in Newtown in my constituency that had made two helpers redundant. The employers felt very sad about doing that because, although those helpers were not paid a great deal, they did not qualify for the minimum wage. Why should people who work in pre-school playgroups be considered to be less worthy than members of some of those other groups? I am not sure.

The Secretary of State said that the amendment will affect 1,000 people, but I think that we need to hear a little more about how the Government arrived at that figure and who those people are. The drafting is a little wide and proposed subsection (2)(a) refers to a community that is a charity or is established by a charity". I am not worried about the charity aspect, because the Charity Commissioners apply pretty stringent standards, but the term "established by a charity" is rather unclear and I have concerns about it. Proposed subsection (2)(b) states: a purpose of the community is to practise or advance a belief of a religious or similar nature". There is a problem with the term "a purpose". If the term "the purpose" had been used, the drafting would have been better and the provision would have been rather more specific. I am also concerned about the term "similar nature", which is ill defined. Religion covers a pretty broad area, but most of us would agree about what is and is not a religion. The term "similar nature" is rather more nebulous, however, and I am not sure that we would all agree about what it means.

We in Poole have had experience of cults. Some of them profess to be religions and to have particular spiritual values, but I am not sure that most of my constituents would want them to be treated in the same way as reputable religious orders, particularly because some cults have bad reputations in communities such as Poole. Proposed subsection (2)(c) refers to all or some of its members living "together for that purpose." Again, the drafting has been widely drawn and the measure should be rather more specific. Does that term mean a household or a very small proportion of the membership of a particular organisation? We need a little more specific information from those on the Treasury Bench about whom the measure will help.

We are discussing religious communities and we know that people have deeply held beliefs. One would welcome the measure in principle, but it has been widely drafted and one is concerned that, although its objective is worthy, organisations that are not worthy of that objective will make use of it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire said, why should some groups be able to use the "similar aspects" provision in order to be considered more worthy than pre-school playgroups or other bodies that contribute to communities in my constituency and in many others? Those bodies do a very good job, but, although they do a great deal for young children, they are not exempt from the legislation. They will suffer under it and I want clarification from Ministers.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I have been wondering whether I should declare any interests before contributing to the debate and I think that I should declare two, neither of which is pecuniary: the first is that I am the Member of Parliament for Stonehenge; the second is that I am an adviser to the Almshouse Association.

Thousands of people in this country live in almshouses of ancient foundations. Many of those foundations are religious—notably Christian—and such people live in communities to which a number of special exemptions apply—in respect of television licences for particular categories of people, for example. That is a bona fide reason why the association should benefit from certain legislative proposals that come before the House from time to time.

Nevertheless, I have great trouble when discussing things "of a … similar nature" to almshouses. It is astonishing that the House should be asked even to consider that wording without a proper explanation of what is meant. I am seriously wondering whether to support the amendment.

9.30 pm

The Almshouse Association represents more than 1,000 almshouses, which have been established down the years. It cares for thousands of people, thus saving the taxpayer and the state enormous cost. We should be grateful for that. In recent years, there have been a number of cases in which the almshouses have not been sure whether they should be regarded as religious or non-religious, communities or not communities. This wording would allow another confusion to creep in. The almshouses employ carers, cleaners and cooks. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) is particularly knowledgeable about this subject and would have wished to take part in this debate if only I had managed to contact him in time. Were he here, he would agree with every word that I have said.

When it comes to these exemptions, the question whether a community advances a belief of a religious or similar nature is extremely important. Therefore, the Almshouse Association has a legitimate interest in knowing exactly what is meant by that wording. I doubt whether it could tell from the provision before us.

Mrs. Browning

Is not this problem caused by the fact that a flaw in the drafting of the Government's minimum wage legislation calls into question a range of payments that we would normally have regarded as honorariums? People for whom some reward is given, but for whom no exceptional circumstances are provided, suddenly fall foul of the legislation.

Mr. Key

My hon. Friend is right, and countless examples could back up her case. That is just part of my concern about the amendment.

I shall now deal with Stonehenge. Some may feel that this is not a serious issue; I assure them, that for my constituents, it is extremely serious. We have seen what happened there recently. A large number of people, who regard themselves as a community and who practise a belief of a religious nature, were denied access to the summer solstice at the stones by others who thought that they had what might be called "a similar nature" approach to the problem. There was a battle in which, unfortunately, the police had to hold both groups apart and maintain public order in the process.

Although we may not think that the druids have a serious religion, they think so, and we live in a tolerant society that should acknowledge that they have the right to that belief. Only yesterday, I was with the arch druid of Stonehenge, with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the chairman of English Heritage, discussing the future of Stonehenge and the appropriateness of the Stonehenge landscape for events to celebrate the millennium.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Would the hon. Gentleman care to address his remarks to the national minimum wage?

Mr. Key

The national minimum wage is of fundamental importance to the issue because, at the height of the troubles at Stonehenge 15 years ago, there was a great deal of employment, which was based on the occupation of land owned by the National Trust or managed by English Heritage on behalf of the Government and the nation. There is concern that, at the millennium solstice, as you will see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, next time you push the right buttons on your personal computer, the biggest rave ever is to take place at Stonehenge. Tens of thousands of people across the country may want to come to Stonehenge. The last time that happened, hundreds of people were involved in trading at Stonehenge, in association with a number of cults that thought they were religions. They were concerned that there should be a proper market price for their products. I saw what was on sale. The hell's angels were in control of the sale of alcohol.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am having great difficulty understanding how the hon. Member's remarks relate to the amendment. He should make his remarks specifically about the amendment.

Mr. Key

I shall do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In those days, there was no national minimum wage, but now there is. Will the people gathering at Stonehenge for the millennium or on the ninth day of the ninth month of the 99th year, for the winter solstice or the spring equinox, let alone for next year's summer solstice, be subject to the minimum wage when they trade in alcohol or food on the site at Stonehenge? This is of great importance.

The amendment is unclear. What does it mean by of a religious or similar nature"? Not only do the druids think that they are a religion, but so do other people who regularly descend on my constituents, such as the hell's angels, Swampy and friends or whoever. If they are law-abiding members of the community, that is fine by us. However, we have enough trouble with the Wiltshire constabulary having to enforce the laws on public order. What is the chief constable of Wiltshire to do when it comes to enforcing the national minimum wage at the stones?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman is not able to address the amendment more directly, he should consider drawing his remarks to a close.

Mr. Key

I should be delighted to draw my remarks to a close, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I question the purpose of the amendment. I ask Ministers seriously to address this issue. My predecessor, Sir Michael Hamilton, regularly stood up in the House and was gently chided, perhaps mocked, for drawing attention to the problems each year at Stonehenge, which always made the national headlines during the summer solstice. Eventually, someone saw what was going on down there—people were being killed and murdered—and the House came to its senses and passed the required legislation.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your forbearance in hearing me out. The amendment will do no good for real people in real communities. We may think that we are legislating for completely rational, legally minded people, but lawyers and courts will have to interpret the legislation, and the police will have to decide how to enforce it on the ground in the height of summer, among serried ranks of people with conflicting religious beliefs. That is not fair. We must get answers to the questions that I have raised.

Mr. Collins

I shall be brief, but I should like to make some important points. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) in welcoming the fact that the Government have introduced the proposals for exemptions. However, it is not that long since the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 was passed. At the time of its passage, Conservative Members warned the then Secretary of State that the Government would need a general power to exempt some categories of persons and activities from the national minimum wage. That idea was pooh-poohed by Labour Members. This is the second time in barely a year that the Government have had the chance to introduce special legislation to exempt categories of people from the national minimum wage. First it was au pairs, and now it is workers in residence in religious communities.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) asked about religious communities, and the position of those who have sought exemption from the requirement for trade union recognition. The hon. Gentleman and I served on the Standing Committee that considered the relevant parts of the Bill, which related in particular to those who describe themselves as members of the Plymouth Brethren. I suspect that the Secretary of State will say that they would not fall into the categories specified by the amendment, because most of those who work for the Plymouth Brethren are not residential members of the community. Nevertheless, I feel that the hon. Member for Eastleigh has identified an important issue of principle.

Mr. Chidgey

The amendment says that "some" can be residents. Does that not cover such people?

Mr. Collins

The hon. Gentleman is right, but I really want to deal with what I consider to be the heart of the point that he was making. We are dealing with an issue of principle. In Committee, the Minister of State was quite generous, expressing a strong commitment to people's right to follow their religious beliefs. However, he said that it was wrong for those religious beliefs to remove the rights of employees. It was on that basis that the Government rejected the amendments relating to the Plymouth Brethren, tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson).

If that principle applies across the board—not least in other parts of the Bill—surely it ought to apply in this case. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If the Government recognise that there are religious grounds on which exemptions should be made—and I welcome any such recognition—why, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh has said, should that not apply to trade union recognition? If the Government now believe that religious considerations provide legitimate grounds for the changing of employment rights, why does that not apply throughout the Bill?

The Government may say that the issue involves not just religious issues, but the residential members of the community who are mentioned in new section 44A(1). The residential principle is at heart here. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire said about certain groups—including, perhaps, the Pre-School Learning Alliance—but I think particularly of people in my constituency. I think of the secretary of the national training centre of the YMCA at Lakeside in my constituency, on the shores of Lake Windermere, who wants residential training courses there to be exempted from the national minimum wage provisions. I also think of Mr. Michael Berry, proprietor and managing director of the excellent English Lakes hotel chain in my constituency, who says that the provisions do not take enough account of the fact that most employees in the tourist industry are provided with residential accommodation. That ought to be considered in the assessment of their eligibility for the national minimum wage, and the amount that they receive.

I want the Secretary of State to explain the principles that apply. If there are to be religious exemptions, why do they not apply elsewhere? If there are to be residential exemptions, why do they not apply elsewhere? If the Government are simply acting in response to popular pressure, will the Secretary of State please listen to some of the points made by the Pre-School Learning Alliance, and by others who feel that the Government's actions, although doubtless embarked on with the best of motives, will have damaging consequences?

Mr. Byers

Although a number of the points that have been made touched on the amendment, a much larger number did not. I shall confine my remarks to those that are relevant to it.

I know that the question of the Plymouth Brethren concerns hon. Members. We have engaged in continuing discussions with the Brethren about their circumstances. My noble Friend Lord Simon met members of the organisation last week, and they are now writing to him about their concerns. We will continue that dialogue, but it will not dilute the general principle that we have pursued. We believe that individuals should have a right to trade union membership if they feel that it is appropriate, and that there should be a right to trade union recognition and representation when that is appropriate. Nevertheless, there may be opportunities for us to meet the legitimate concerns of the Brethren, and we are discussing with them how that might be achieved.

9.45 pm

For the benefit of hon. Members, I make the position clear. The minimum wage does not apply to volunteers, to nuns or to monks; they are exempt from the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. When the issue was debated in both Houses in the context of the national minimum wage, most people felt that intentional communities would not be considered as workers within the definition of the Act. What people were unaware of at the time was that individuals in intentional communities are often given employment contracts as best practice. Although, in the classic definition, they are not employees, they are given contracts of employment because that is regarded as best practice, so they fall within the definition of the Act.

Lords amendment No. 20 focuses particularly on those with a religious ethos who are resident. To qualify for exemption, the community must be a charity, or founded by a charity and—as hon. Members have said—all or some of the members must reside together for the purpose of practising or advancing a belief of "a religious or similar nature". I will talk about "religious or similar nature" because it has been dwelt on by several Members.

Examples of the type of communities that will be covered by amendment No. 20 are the Iona Community, the Society of Mary and Martha, the Community for Reconciliation and the Quiet Waters Christian retreat house. The amendment has been drawn up in consultation with those bodies. There is, effectively, a network of intentional communities in the United Kingdom. We were conscious that it was an identifiable group. We took the view that it could be exempt from the National Minimum Wage Act.

I reassure hon. Members: the protesters whom we have heard about would not come within the definition. The reason is that, when a court considers the interpretation of "religious or similar nature", it will apply a rule of statutory interpretation which is known as the ejusdem generis rule, which means that the general comment about "similar" will be restricted to the specific, which is religious. I am sure that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) was aware of that rule of statutory interpretation. Therefore, the reference to "similar nature" will be constrained by the use of the word "religious". In the context of those assurances, I hope that we can make progress.

A number of issues have been raised by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) had concerns about the wording: all or some of its members live together". In that context, "some" means more than one. Although we talk about all living together, there will be circumstances in which 50 people may be engaged, but only 35 are living together, so that definition of "some" has been used. In that context, those 35 will be the ones who come within the provisions of the exemption to which I have referred and which is being dealt with by amendment No. 20.

I enjoyed what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said. I have visited many of the places that he mentioned on many weekends. I thought of the shores of Lake Windermere with great affection. It is a wonderful place to go on holiday. I commend it to many Members; it is something that I am sure we could all enjoy.

Mr. Battle

We could form an intentional community.

Mr. Byers

I am not sure that we would be able to form an intentional community within the context of the amendment, but the opportunity and the chance of doing so may be interesting.

The specific point raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale was in relation to living-in costs. They often arise in the hospitality and hotel industry, where people work as chamber maids or porters, but have their accommodation provided. The National Minimum Wage Act considered that aspect and agreed an effective disregard; I think that it was for living-in costs of £19.50. However, it is capped at that level. Concerns have been expressed that that is artificially low for people in the hotel and catering industry, and for people in London, where £19.50 is considered to be a relatively small amount.

One of the reasons for the Government's retention of the Low Pay Commission was so that it could examine the detail of issues such as that. As part of its on-going work, the commission is looking at the costs of living-in accommodation, to see whether the amount is pitched at the correct level.

The commission intends to report to me just before December on a range of matters, and I am sure that the question of living-in accommodation will be one of the issues to which it will return. Indeed, it has already made it clear that it is taking evidence on the matter. A number of groups have made strong representations about the matter, and I am sure that it will feature in the Low Pay Commission's report.

I said that a number of groups, such as volunteers, nuns and monks, are exempt. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) was worried about protesters benefiting from the provision. I hope that I have been able to explain that they would not be covered by the details of the amendment. All that would happen is that they would not receive the benefits of the national minimum wage. I am not sure that Swampy could have been regarded as an employee when he was on the hon. Lady's roof. I doubt that he would have qualified for the national minimum wage, and I do not think that the hon. Lady was keen for him to be entitled to it.

Mrs. Browning

Certainly not.

Mr. Byers

I followed with interest the hon. Lady's argument, but I could not identify the problem that she was trying to tackle in her example. I do not believe that protesters are covered by the provisions of the amendment. If they were, however, the amendment would mean simply that Swampy and his friends would not be entitled to the national minimum wage.

Mrs. Browning

My concern was that not all protesters who are unemployed claim benefit, but instead receive some remuneration, sometimes from charitable donations. Under the amendment, they could be regarded as a community with a common cause and, because the amendment is so loosely worded, such a community need not be religious.

Mr. Byers

I understand that concern, but I do not think that it need trouble the hon. Lady. The important thing to remember is that such people have to be residents of intentional communities, sharing living accommodation and tasks with the purpose of advancing a common religious or spiritual aim.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

The Secretary of State is talking about us.

Mr. Byers

I am very tempted to go down that road, but I shall resist doing so, because the hon. Gentleman was referring to a very selective sect.

The basic requirement for classification as an intentional community is that the community provides meals and accommodation. Residential members of such communities often also receive small sums. Some communities treat their residential members as workers, issuing them with contracts of employment.

That is the key difference from the example given by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton. As part of best practice, intentional communities consider it appropriate to issue members with contracts of employment, even though there is no legal obligation to do so.

The hon. Member for Salisbury spoke about Stonehenge so eloquently that I am sure that many hon. Members will want to visit. I was trying to recall whether the monument could be regarded as residential accommodation.

Mr. Key

indicated assent.

Mr. Byers

The hon. Gentleman clearly knows the area far better than I do.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

In the light of the Secretary of State's residential observation, is he aware of the Frank Muir spoof, which one used to be able to listen to on British Airways flights to the United States? Frank Muir was conducting an interview between the editor of The Architectural Review and a cave man about the architectural development of the henge, in which the cave man said that he did not think that henges would catch on because they were much too draughty.

Mr. Byers

That may explain a lot about our history. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was about to give an example from "The Goon Show"—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps the Secretary of State could return to the amendment.

Mr. Byers

I was thinking of the episode involving the Spitfire test pilot where there was banging on the cockpit. I had better not go any further.

I wanted to address the serious points about Stonehenge and residential accommodation, and I know that the House is waiting for my response on behalf of the Government on the important point concerning the druids. Before I come to that, I note that the hon. Member for Salisbury asked about almshouses and their staff. Staff, such as cooks and cleaners, who work in almshouses are working for the Almshouse Association and, as such, are not required to share a common religious belief or to live together in shared accommodation. Therefore, they would not be covered by amendment No. 20 which has been agreed by the other place, so they would not be exempt from the National Minimum Wage Act.

Druids, as I understand it, are not a registered charity. Therefore, for the reasons that have been referred to, they do not come within the definition to which amendment No. 20 relates. If they did become a charity and moved into shared accommodation for the purpose of advancing the druid movement, they might be exempt from the national minimum wage, but—this is the important point—anyone who worked for them would be entitled to receive the national minimum wage and would not be covered by amendment No. 20.

Both amendments are significant. We have discussed amendment No. 20 at some length and I hope that I have answered the concerns of all hon. Members. Amendment No. 25 is particularly important because it is an effective way of enforcing the national minimum wage legislation. For those reasons, I invite the House to agree to amendment No. 20.

Question put, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 319, Noes 0.

Division No. 269] [9.58 pm
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Cox, Tom
Ainger, Nick Cranston, Ross
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Alexander, Douglas Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Allan, Richard Cummings, John
Allen, Graham Cunliffe, Lawrence
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire
Ashton, Joe Dalyell, Tam
Atkins, Charlotte Darvill, Keith
Banks, Tony Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Barron, Kevin Davidson, Ian
Battle, John Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Bayley, Hugh Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Beard, Nigel Dawson, Hilton
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Dean, Mrs Janet
Begg, Miss Anne Denham, John
Beggs, Roy Dewar, Rt Hon Donald
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Donohoe, Brian H
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Doran, Frank
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Dowd, Jim
Bennett, Andrew F Drew, David
Berry, Roger Drown, Ms Julia
Best, Harold Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Blackman, Liz Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Borrow, David Edwards, Huw
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Ennis, Jeff
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Etherington, Bill
Bradshaw, Ben Fearn, Ronnie
Brand, Dr Peter Field, Rt Hon Frank
Brinton, Mrs Helen Fisher, Mark
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Fitzpatrick, Jim
Browne, Desmond Fitzsimons, Lorna
Buck, Ms Karen Flint, Caroline
Burden, Richard Flynn, Paul
Burgon, Colin Follett, Barbara
Burnett, John Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Burstow, Paul Foster, Don (Bath)
Butler, Mrs Christine Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen Foulkes, George
Caborn, Rt Hon Richard Fyfe, Maria
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Galloway, George
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Gapes, Mike
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Gardiner, Barry
Campbell-Savours, Dale George, Andrew (St Ives)
Cann, Jamie George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Caplin, Ivor Gerrard, Neil
Casale, Roger Gibson, Dr Ian
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Chaytor, David Godsiff, Roger
Chidgey, David Golding, Mrs Llin
Chisholm, Malcolm Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Clapham, Michael Gorrie, Donald
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Grocott, Bruce
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Grogan, John
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Gunnell, John
Clelland, David Hain, Peter
Clwyd, Ann Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Coffey, Ms Ann Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Cohen, Harry Hancock, Mike
Colman, Tony Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Connarty, Michael Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Healey, John
Cotter, Brian Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Cousins, Jim Heppell, John
Hewitt, Ms Patricia Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hinchliffe, David Moran, Ms Margaret
Hodge, Ms Margaret Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Hoey, Kate Morley, Elliot
Hood, Jimmy Mudie, George
Hopkins, Kelvin Mullin, Chris
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Howells, Dr Kim Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Naysmith, Dr Doug
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Humble, Mrs Joan O'Hara, Eddie
Hurst, Alan Olner, Bill
Hutton, John Öpik, Lembit
Iddon, Dr Brian Organ, Mrs Diana
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Osborne, Ms Sandra
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Palmer, Dr Nick
Jenkins, Brian Pearson, Ian
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) Pendry, Tom
Pickthall, Colin
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn) Pike, Peter L
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark) Plaskitt, James
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Pope, Greg
Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW) Pound, Stephen
Powell, Sir Raymond
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Primarolo, Dawn
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Prosser, Gwyn
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa Purchase, Ken
Keeble, Ms Sally Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Radice, Rt Hon Giles
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Rapson, Syd
Keetch, Paul Raynsford, Nick
Kelly, Ms Ruth Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
Kemp, Fraser Robertson, Rt Hon George (Hamilton S)
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Khabra, Piara S Roche, Mrs Barbara
Kidney, David Rooker, Jeff
Kilfoyle, Peter Rooney, Terry
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Roy, Frank
Lawrence, Ms Jackie Ruddock, Joan
Laxton, Bob Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Lepper, David Ryan, Ms Joan
Leslie, Christopher Salter, Martin
Levitt, Tom Sanders, Adrian
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen Sarwar, Mohammad
Linton, Martin Savidge, Malcolm
Lock, David Sawford, Phil
Love, Andrew Sedgemore, Brian
McAllion, John Sheerman, Barry
McAvoy, Thomas Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McCabe, Steve Shipley, Ms Debra
McCafferty, Ms Chris Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
McDonagh, Siobhain Singh, Marsha
Macdonald, Calum Skinner, Dennis
McDonnell, John Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
McIsaac, Shona Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
McNamara, Kevin Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
McNulty, Tony Smith, John (Glamorgan)
MacShane, Denis Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Mactaggart, Fiona Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
McWalter, Tony Snape, Peter
McWilliam, John Soley, Clive
Mahon, Mrs Alice Spellar, John
Mallaber, Judy Squire, Ms Rachel
Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter Steinberg, Gerry
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Stevenson, George
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Stinchcombe, Paul
Meale, Alan Stoate, Dr Howard
Merron, Gillian Stott Roger
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Milburn, Rt Hon Alan Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Mitchell, Austin Stringer, Graham
Moffatt, Laura Stuart, Ms Gisela
Sutcliffe, Gerry Wareing, Robert N
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury) Watts, David
White, Brian
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S) Whitehead, Dr Alan
Taylor, David (NW Leics) Wicks, Malcolm
Temple-Morris, Peter Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Timms, Stephen Willis, Phil
Tipping, Paddy Wilson, Brian
Touhig, Don Winnick, David
Trickett, Jon Wise, Audrey
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE) Worthington, Tony
Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown) Wray, James
Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk) Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Twigg, Stephen (Enfield) Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Tyler, Paul Wyatt, Derek
Vaz, Keith
Vis, Dr Rudi Tellers for the Ayes:
Walley, Ms Joan Mr. Clive Betts and
Ward, Ms Claire Mr. Keith Hill.
Tellers for the Noes:
Mr. Bill Rammell and
Mr. Martin Caton.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment agreed to.