HC Deb 28 April 2003 vol 404 cc105-16

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

8.59 pm
The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Stephen Timms)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

On behalf of my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions, I thank all those who have taken part in the debates in the House and in the other place since last November. The Bill is small but complex, and has received much all-party support, for which I am grateful. I am sure that the many former workers who stand to benefit from the measure are grateful for the support that has been expressed in the House and in another place.

My hon. Friend dealt with the detail and the technical issues on Second Reading. I do not propose to cover them again. The network of 16 enforcement teams throughout the United Kingdom, operated by the Inland Revenue, will be able to carry on as they did before the Bebb Travel case arose, and thus resume helping some of the most vulnerable workers to obtain their legal entitlement under the minimum wage. As hon. Members know, the Court of Appeal heard the Inland Revenue's appeal in the Bebb Travel case on 24 March. It agreed with the Employment Appeal Tribunal and ruled against the Inland Revenue. It is just as well that we did not depend on the appeal. We want to close the loophole in the way that every hon. Member supports through the Bill.

I emphasise the importance of the measure, in case there are lingering doubts. It is an important part of the Government's employment relations strategy, which aims to promote partnership, encourage greater adaptability and provide good minimum standards of fairness at work for all. The minimum wage is firmly established as a feature of the United Kingdom labour market.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that the logic of the existence of the minimum wage is that it will be periodically and affordably increased, and that the effect of the increase that the Government recently announced to take effect in October should be to help some of the most vulnerable people in our society, how does the Minister intend to ensure maximum dissemination of information about the increase to businesses? That would ensure that the maximum number of businesses complied with the law and did not render themselves liable to an enforcement notice under the Bill.

Mr. Timms

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I agree with him about the desirable impact of the increase in the minimum wage, which has been announced, and I am grateful for the terms in which he expressed that. Experience shows that the mechanisms that we have used to disseminate changes in the rate proved effective. The Inland Revenue's enforcement role, apart from in the circumstance that the Bill covers, has proved effective. If the hon. Gentleman believes that there are gaps or weaknesses in the arrangements that he wants to draw to my attention, I shall ensure that officials consider them. It is vital that the information be widely known by employers and employees, to achieve the maximum benefit from the change.

The hon. Gentleman's point gives me the opportunity to celebrate the way in which the minimum wage is a firmly established feature of the UK labour market. Its benefits are widely recognised and it has been successful.

The Bill fits the Government's framework and sends an important signal. It is the first time we have had to amend the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 because of a court case. We will do that again if the need arises in order to protect the interests of low-paid and often vulnerable groups of workers. Any minimum wage system has to have effective enforcement provisions. The powers in the Bill will be critical in helping the most vulnerable to secure their rights. They will also indirectly assist responsible employers—the vast majority—who must be free from the fear that a competitor will undercut them.

Again, I welcome the wide support for the Bill, and I commend it to the House.

9.4 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

First, I declare my interests, which are in the Register of Members' Interests. I thank the Minister for warning me that the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions could not be here tonight. I understand that he has had to fly to Taiwan via Bangkok, where he will be batting for Rolls-Royce in an important bid for engine replacements. We wish him well in that task and fully understand and accept why he is not here this evening. I understand that he would have been able to fly direct to Taiwan had it not been for the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis.

I am impressed that the Minister has been able to read himself into the Bill so quickly. As he pointed out, the Opposition have supported this small but important Bill. He referred to the decision in the case of Inland Revenue v. Bebb Travel plc in which Judge J.R. Reid QC—I do not know whether he is any relation to the Leader of the House; perhaps he is the Leader of the House—came up with a bizarre ruling. He held that enforcement officers can issue enforcement notices requiring the employer to pay the minimum wage only in respect of current and future pay periods or in respect of current, future and past pay periods. Enforcement officers cannot issue notices for past periods alone, therefore. As the Minister pointed out, that ruling was upheld on appeal two weeks ago.

Bebb Travel had 25 employees who were receiving less than the minimum wage and there were pay arrears of £37,649. The enforcement notice was dated October 2000, but the 25 were dismissed in May 2000, and so were past employees.

Obviously, it was the intention of the House that the legislation should address the interests of such employees. Therefore this evening we are restoring the position to what everyone believed it was before the Bebb Travel case. As the Minister pointed out, the Bill has widespread support. It is supported by the CBI and the TUC.

The Government are appealing against the decision by Judge J.R. Reid QC. In Committee, the Minister said that he would continue with the appeal, if necessary to the House of Lords, because he felt that it was wrong to prejudge Parliament. We all respect the Government's sensitivity in this. It would be an arrogant Government who said that they would drop the appeal because they knew that the Bill would go through. They have adopted a sensitive position towards Parliament and they are not making any assumptions. However, with the Opposition's support, there is no reason why the Bill cannot go through quickly.

The argument put on Second Reading and in Committee was that the Government would go ahead with the full appeal process because to withdraw at this stage would mean the Government paying the costs of Bebb Travel. Here we have a rogue employer and it would be wrong if the taxpayer had to pick up its costs.

What is the Government's position at the moment? If the Court of Appeal gives them leave, will they go to the House of Lords, or will they withdraw the appeal? If they do withdraw the appeal, will they have to pay the costs of Bebb Travel? I assume that they will have to. How much has the case cost the Government, and was it, with hindsight, the right decision to launch the appeal against the Employment Appeal Tribunal in the first case? I appreciate that the Minister is not fully up to speed on the Bill, and I sympathise, but if he does not have the answers tonight perhaps he could drop me a note on this.

We are dealing here with a serious drafting error. One could have concluded that the Employment Appeal Tribunal judge was over-zealous and would be easily overturned in the Court of Appeal, but the Minister kindly let me have the Court of Appeal's judgment before tonight's debate, and it is obvious from that that the judges took the view that there was a serious drafting error.

Is this perhaps a consequence of the growing problem of the lack of scrutiny in this place? More and more Bills are going on to another place without proper scrutiny, and intolerable pressure is being put on another place for that reason.

We must learn the lessons of this débâcle, because the Bill is going to cost the taxpayer a substantial amount of money. I do not know what it costs to take a mini-Bill through Parliament, but it must cost a substantial number of thousands of pounds. I would be grateful if we could be told how much this has cost. We must learn from this, because a mistake has been made. It has been corrected, and we are all happy to correct it, but why was it made in the first place? We do not want the Bill to become an Act and then to pass away without this lesson being learned. Another cost arises in the form of the cost to the employees who are affected by this issue. The Inland Revenue told us back in February that 250 former employees had had their cases put on hold because of the Bebb Travel case. Will the Minister tell us how many more have been added to that figure since then?

Most Bills come into effect two months after receiving Royal Assent. For that reason, the 250-plus former employees whom I have just mentioned are going to have to wait another two months anyway. There might then be further delays in the court system, as this could run on into the summer vacation. It is therefore possible that quite a few of those former employees will not get their cases on until well into the autumn.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham)

Is my hon. Friend aware that some of the outstanding enforcement notices relate to pieceworkers and outworkers whose liability is difficult to calculate? One estimate that I have heard is that it will take five man-years for the Inland Revenue to calculate the amount that might be due to the employees of a firm in my constituency.

Mr. Bellingham

That is extremely interesting. My hon. Friend makes the point that this is a complicated matter, and enforcement officers from the Inland Revenue and from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are working extremely hard on preparing these cases. The cases have been put on hold, however, and the employees in question might not get their cases on until well into the autumn. There could also be deferred judgments. We therefore need to look carefully at the two-month rule.

The two-month rule delays the implementation of a Bill by two months after it has received Royal Assent to enable all the interested parties to make the necessary arrangements and adjustments. We are, however, talking here about an Act—the original Act—with which every interested party is already completely up to speed. This small Bill is going to become an Act, but everyone knows where they stand. I therefore suggest to the Minister that there can be no pressing reasons for the Bill not to be brought in immediately. It is unique, and there is every argument for it to be implemented at once.

The Opposition have had a look at a number of Bills that have been enforced immediately in recent years. The Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998 was enforced immediately, as was the Education Act 2002, the Antiterrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, the Armed Forces Act 2000 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I understand that an investigation was carried out in 1979—I realise that that was some time ago and that Governments of all hues have changed their practices since then—when a working party from the Statute Law Society looked at 105 Acts passed in the 14 months between 1 January 1978 and April 1979 to ascertain when they had come into force. It was found that 41 Acts came into effect on the exact date on which they were passed, that only 12 came into force on a date specified in the Act, and that 14 came into force after the expiry of the two-month period.

We are talking about a very vulnerable group of employees, and it is in everyone's interest that they should get their cases on as soon as possible.

Is there any reason why the Bill cannot be implemented as soon as possible once it has received Royal Assent, preferably in a matter of days? I am sure that is supported by Labour Back Benchers. Everyone knows where they stand. We have discussed this matter with various employer organisations, and they are in full agreement that there are no complications.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who is not in his seat at the moment, raised a point about interest on outstanding amounts of wage that are due. These vulnerable employees have been waiting a long time. Through no fault of their own, their cases could not be dealt with because of the Bebb Travel case. In these exceptional circumstances, is there an argument that interest should be paid? After all, the Bebb Travel case involved a total sum of £37,000, and I imagine that quite a lot of interest would have accrued on that amount. Those employees were dismissed by Bebb Travel in May 2000, and they deserve to receive interest on that money. Perhaps the Minister will consider that.

On Second Reading and in Committee we referred to the debate in the other place about how many years one should be able to go back to take a claim through the county court. The statute of limitations applies to the county court, so there is a six-year limit. However, although most cases go through the county court, some go through the employment tribunal system, including that of Bebb Travel. Unless one brings a case to an employment tribunal within three months of the discovery of the underpayment, the case cannot be brought. That is why most cases are brought in the county court.

Until an amendment was made in the other place, there was no limitation on how far back one could go in a case before the employment tribunal. In theory, one could go back eight, nine, 10 or 12 years. In the other place, the Government graciously accepted an amendment whereby if a case is brought to the employment tribunal by enforcement officers, the six-year limit applies as in the county court. However, if an individual employee brings a case to the employment tribunal, he can go back as far as he wants. That is academic, because the original Act came in only a few years ago, so the statute of limitations is not relevant. If we fast forward 10 years or so, individual employees who bring cases in the county court and in the employment tribunal will be able to go back more than six years.

Companies are obliged by company law to keep records going back only three years, however. There is nothing in this legislation to ensure that companies keep wage records for more than three years. That counts as a normal company record. The Minister's Department could send out guidance to companies. After all, it is always bombarding them with useless information. It would be helpful if a guidance note went out to employers, perhaps from the Inland Revenue, advising them that, given the six-year limit in the county court and the current legislation that applies the six-year limit to employment tribunals, they should keep wage records going back at least six years.

I do not know whether the Minister can comment on that. Conservative Members are keen to reduce the burdens on business. If companies were guided in the right direction, it could save an awful lot of extra management time later on.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for records to be kept for six years in relation to the minimum wage. Would he also argue that companies should be obliged to keep records to protect their employees in similar circumstances?

Mr. Bellingham

That is certainly a strong point. Individual employees have always been able to take cases involving contractual disputes of beyond six years—in fact, they can cover an unlimited period—to an employment tribunal. Of course. the reason why very few of those cases go back much further is the lack of records. It is very difficult for an employee to prove that a contract has been broken when the records have long since been lost.

My other point—perhaps the Government will look at this as well—is that a case cannot be brought before a tribunal unless it is brought within three months of the complaint being discovered or the underpayment taking place. That is another issue that the Minister could have a look at.

We support this small Bill and have made it clear that we support the national minimum wage. We voted against the national minimum wage in the last Parliament because we were genuinely fearful of its effect on jobs, which was the prevailing view of the CBI and the Institute of Directors. For many years until some five or six years ago, a lot of people in the TUC also took a fairly critical view of a minimum wage policy. Over the past five years, however, we have enjoyed a very strong labour market in this country. The national minimum wage has yet to be tested in a sustained economic downturn, so the jury is obviously out on that point so fir as the future is concerned. None the less, we support the national minimum wage and we will support it as part of our policy at the next election. If we form the next Government, we certainly do not intend to abolish it, and that is also why we support the Bill this evening.

9.21 pm
Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

I shall speak briefly because as the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), has just said, the Bill is uncontroversial, has received multiparty support at each stage, is supported by both sides of industry and has not been subject to any contentious amendments. We are therefore fully behind it.

It is unfortunate that the Government had to introduce new legislation, but since nobody picked up the legal anomaly identified in the case, I doubt whether there is any opportunity for recrimination; the point was simply missed and has now been rectified. Although the Bill is small it is important, because after a few years probably thousands of people will have accumulated retrospective arrears in respect of the minimum wage. They are precisely the people who, because they are frightened of their employers and of retaliation if they push for arrears, will have accumulated substantial sums. It is therefore very important that the anomaly be put right and that the legal powers and the enforcement procedures should exist. So we fully support what is taking place.

The question of for how long a retrospective claim should be allowed, which was the final point raised by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, is the only hint of controversy in the Bill. At various points, he argued for a period of three years to align the legislation with the period for which companies keep records. In some cases, very diligent employees will have kept their records for longer than three years, and he argued that an unfair disadvantage for the employer would be created in such cases. The Government were right to insist that the period should be longer. When we debated that issue, I expressed the view that I could not see why there should be an upper limit even of six years, but I accept that we have reached a compromise and I am perfectly happy with what has been agreed.

In conclusion, I follow the Minister and the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk in reiterating my support and that of my hon. Friends for the minimum wage, for the way in which it has been operated on the advice of the Low Pay Commission, and particularly for the way in which the recent increase has been advanced on the basis of advice from the LPC. I emphasise that point because I have achieved a certain notoriety in some of the Labour equivalents of our "Focus" newsletters. Perhaps because the Labour newsletters do not have the same commitment to scholarship and scrupulous accuracy as our "Focus" newsletters, they somehow tried to pretend that my hon. Friends and I were opposed to the minimum wage and to the recent increase. That is simply not the case.

It was perfectly legitimate to warn that it would have been wrong of the Government to press for a binding two-year increase in the light of economic uncertainty. As I understand it, however, they have agreed to the follow the LPC's advice to proceed with a two-year increase, with a break after one year for the LPC to reexamine the economic data. They have agreed to proceed on that basis, and we are perfectly content with the way in which the matter has been dealt with. We support the minimum wage and the way in which it has been implemented, and we support the Bill.

9.24 pm
Annabelle Ewing (Perth)

I rise to support the Bill on behalf of the Scottish National party. I had the pleasure of sitting in Committee, albeit briefly, and I was pleased to note the consensus to ensure that the Bill passed speedily through the procedures of the House. As the Minister said, the Bill is brief but important. Following the unsuccessful appeal by the Inland Revenue against the Employment Appeal Tribunal decision, the legislation was necessary to close the loophole in respect of past periods of employment, particularly when the worker is no longer employed by the relevant employer. It was obviously not the intention of supporters of the original legislation to exclude such workers from the important protection of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. I welcome Third Reading and I hope that the Bill will shortly be on the statute book and speedily implemented thereafter.

On the agricultural minimum wage, I am pleased that the Scottish Parliament will be left to legislate in that area on the basis that agriculture is a devolved matter. It is right and proper that Scotland should deal with its own devolved legislation, and it is a pity that it does not happen more often.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

It is interesting to hear how important the Bill is to Scotland, particularly in respect of agriculture. Would it not have been better if the hon. Lady's former colleagues had turned up to vote for the minimum wage in the first place?

Annabelle Ewing

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should read Hansard, the official record of the House. If he did, he would find that the SNP supported and voted in favour of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. Indeed, the SNP also played an active role in the Committee that considered the Bill and was the only party that sought to speak in the debate on Lords amendments to it. If the hon. Gentleman read Hansard rather than Labour press releases, he might be better informed.

In conclusion, I am happy to reiterate the Scottish National party's support for the original legislation and the present Bill. As I said, I look forward to its speedy implementation.

9.27 pm
Mr. Hoban

I should like briefly to discuss the position of a company in my constituency that will be directly affected by the Bill. The company is called Industrial Rubber and since February 1990 it has sought to comply with minimum wage provisions relating to outworkers. The Government recognise that it is a difficult area to comply with and have produced a consultation document to seek ways to improve the process so that companies and employees can benefit more clearly from national minimum wage regulation.

Outworkers are paid under a fair estimate agreement. Industrial Rubber has tried to implement that agreement as best it can in the circumstances in which it operates. The company went to an employment tribunal, but, as a consequence of losing its case on two points, it now awaits—and has been waiting for six months since the tribunal first met—an enforcement notice. The expectation is that when the Bill is passed, it will receive the enforcement notice, because it will relate to several employees who no longer work for the company.

The company first introduced a fair estimate agreement in February 2000. It believed that, because it worked alongside Inland Revenue, the agreement was compliant with the regulations under regulation 25 of the National Minimum Wage Regulations 1999. However, it transpired that it was not. When advised by Inland Revenue to that effect, the company tried to work with the Revenue to refine the agreement to make it compliant with the regulations in order to avoid having to go to a tribunal and to avoid receiving an enforcement notice.

However, the process is ongoing and that is not satisfactory either for the company or its employees.

In January 2003, following the employment tribunal, the company thought that the Inland Revenue had agreed that its current fair estimate agreement was workable and compliant with the Act. Only a month later, however, the Inland Revenue changed its mind and said that the agreement was no longer compliant. Industrial Rubber had to go back to drawing board to try to amend the estimate agreement to bring it into compliance with the regulations.

I am sure that hon. Members would agree that, if the regulations were straightforward, it would be remiss of the company to fail to comply with them. However, as the Government's consultation document suggests, that is not the case. The document states: The Government has received representations from both homeworker employers and homeworker representatives arguing that fair estimate agreements are not working well. It appears that few employers are actually making use of these agreements. Having heard about Industrial Rubber's experience of trying to comply with the agreement, I can understand why. The document continues:

A variety of reasons have been given for this but the principal point seems to be that they are seen as complex and difficult to administer, and that in practice it may be difficult to predict the estimated hours for each block or tranche of work taken on by an individual homeworker from week to week. That has been a problem for the company in my constituency. It works on short lead times for products. Orders are unpredictable, so the company does not know from one week to the next what products the outworkers will have to process.

Given that the Government, home workers, home workers' representatives and home workers' employers all realise that the schemes are difficult to implement, it is disappointing that the Inland Revenue cannot give proper clearance of fair estimate agreements so that both home workers and their employers can have some certainty that their agreements comply with the law, thus ensuring that they are not brought before an employment tribunal and that no enforcement notices are levied on them. Sadly, however, the Inland Revenue will not give that clearance for fair estimate agreements. although it does so before major transactions for large companies. There is thus uncertainty both for employees and employers as to whether a fair rate is being paid for the work.

A particular problem for the company to which I have referred is estimating the amount of compensation that might be payable to home workers under the Bill. Neither the company nor the workers have adequate records that would enable them to fill the gaps. In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), I pointed out that the company estimated that it would take the Inland Revenue about five man years to calculate the amounts due to former employees. However, as there is no evidence to show how many hours were actually worked the process seems flawed.

Mrs. Irene Adams (Paisley, North)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the difficulty relates to the employees' contracts? Often, home workers are not sure whether they are contracted to a sub-contractor or to the actual manufacturing company. Part of the difficulty with fair estimate agreements is that employees do not actually know who is employing them.

Mr. Hoban

I understand the hon. Lady's comment. In the case that I am describing, however, the worker is employed by the person making the rubber parts. There is a clear contractual relationship between the employee and the employer so, thankfully, that confusion does not arise.

When the Bill comes into effect and an enforcement notice is issued against Industrial Rubber, to what extent will the measure apply retrospectively? The company is a manufacturing business so, given the lapse of time, there is a question as to what resources will be available to pay the compensation to which the home workers may be entitled. When the Inland Revenue considers how enforcement notices are to be applied to businesses, I hope that it will bear in mind the problems encountered by employers in implementing fair estimate agreements and the complexity of working out back pay.

Mrs. Irene Adams

I refer the hon. Gentleman to a report on home workers and the minimum wage that the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs has just completed in which the Inland Revenue states that it is working on precisely the part of the agreement that he is talking about.

Mr. Hoban

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that information. Not only will I read that report, but I will send a copy to the company in my constituency. However, I fear that it is too late for many people. It is now more than three years since the fair estimate agreements were put in place, and a lot of employees may have lost out in the process, as a consequence of legislation being introduced in haste, with perhaps insufficient consultation and consideration of the implementation problems.

I wish to conclude by saying that I hope that the Inland Revenue will look carefully at such cases and at the complexity of the calculations involved and the difficulty that the Government have acknowledged in consulting on a replacement for fair estimate agreements. I also hope that they will consider the interests of not just past employees, but future employees—those people whose livelihoods depend on the financial viability of the firm—and ensure that their jobs are secure, as well as looking after the interests of those who have been employed previously by that company.

9.36 pm
Mr. Stephen Timms

With the leave of the House, I wish to thank all those hon. Members who have contributed for supporting the Bill. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) for his sympathetic understanding of the reasons why my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions has been unable to lead this debate, as he would have wished to do this evening.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to say something about the Bebb Travel appeal. As he indicated, on 16 April, the Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal in August 2002. The three judges ruled that, under section 19 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, enforcement officers may not issue enforcement notices on behalf of former workers. He also asked me about the costs. The Inland Revenue was ordered to pay costs of £9,420.

The ruling on the interpretation of the 1998 Act may be perhaps correct in the strict legal sense, but the key point is what policy Parliament wanted to enact. In a sense, the ruling demonstrates the wisdom of the decision to introduce the Bill, as it will make the position clear beyond doubt.

The Bill will restore the position to what we understood it to be last August—once more, officers will be able to issue enforcement notices., in respect of former workers—but those cases covering former workers that had been partly processed before August 2002, under the 1998 Act, and put on hold while the appeal was brought, which may well be what happened in the case referred to by the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), will have to be restarted because of the court ruling.

We have, of course, logged the details of all the cases involving former workers that have been brought to our attention since August. I do not have any update on the number of those cases beyond the figure of 250. to which the hon. Gentleman referred, that was provided in February. During the next few weeks, we shall review the position on all those cases, so that we can make a running start when the Bill comes into force.

I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions said in Committee that the Government would continue to pursue the appeal to the Court of Appeal, but not necessarily to the House of Lords. We believe that that decision was right. We did not know last autumn that we would obtain the Bill, and we believed that we had a good case that should be argued before the Court of Appeal. We have now lost, and on the basis of the debate, I am confident that the Bill will be passed. My hon. Friend has obviously considered the issue and taken the view that it would not make sense to take the appeal to the House of Lords.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk asked me about implementing the Bill with immediate effect. Of course, we cannot do so because clause 2(2) states: This Act comes into force at the end of the period of two months beginning on the day on which it is passed. So that is the position in the absence of an amendment to that subsection.

Nevertheless, the point of principle that he raised is perfectly fair. We have taken advice from the Cabinet Office that the two-month lead period should only be waived in exceptional circumstances: for example, emergency legislation on terrorism, He gave a number of examples, which I acknowledge. I think that he will accept, however, that the Bill is not really in the category to which the Cabinet Office advice refers. As the Bill will be retroactive in effect, I hope that he will take the view that it will ensure that there is a fair settlement of all the outstanding cases without undue delay.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about interest. The legislation does not envisage the addition of interest to wage arrears identified in an enforcement notice. If the debt is claimed through the county court, however, interest on debts can usually be claimed at the rate of 8 per cent. per annum. He talked about the question of three years versus six years, on which the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) also commented. He attributed to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk the view that the period should be three years—I do not think that he argued that position tonight, although he has put the case previously; his concern tonight was more in relation to whether guidance should be given to companies to keep the information for six years. Some might argue that that was an additional burden on business, but I thought that he made a fair case for that change. It is an interesting suggestion and we shall consider the point carefully.

I am grateful to other Members who have spoken for their support: the hon. Member for Twickenham, to some of whose comments I have referred, and the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing). The hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) raised a number of concerns, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions was also interested in some of his points about home workers. I understand that the case is still under appeal, and the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I am not familiar with the details of it. It might be best if I were to write to the hon. Gentleman to pick up some of the fair points that he has made on behalf of his constituents.

I am delighted that the Bill has commanded such wide support, and I am sure that all of us would wish it to be implemented as soon as possible, given the two-month period to which we have referred.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

  1. ADJOURNMENT (MAY) 36 words