HL Deb 16 March 1972 vol 329 cc519-22

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper, in the hope that I may have some greater measure of success.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what consideration has been given to the introduction of legislation for a minimum wage, enforceable by law, in selected industries and the public service to ensure that no person should be in receipt of wages which fail to provide a reasonable standard of living.]


My Lords, Wages Councils in industries where col- lective bargaining is not sufficiently developed already lay down statutory minima enforceable by law. The Government do not favour the wider application of minimum wage legislation at the present time. We do not consider that this is the most effective way of achieving a reasonable standard of living for low-paid workers.


My Lords, do I understand from the noble Lord's reply that the Government prefer the present chaotic, anarchic method of dealing with the wage rates of those on the lower scale? Do they prefer that method, with all the consequential turbulence? Would it not be far better to adopt the proposal that I have suggested? May I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that 61 years ago the late Winston Churchill, when he was President of the Board of Trade, was responsible for the Trade Boards Act, and appointed me as a member of the Trade Board: and we succeeded in providing a minimum hourly rate for workers in selected industries which produced beneficial effects? Why not adopt that system now?


My Lords, an official Report on a national minimum wage, published under the previous Government, said: The value of a national minimum as a means of relieving poverty is limited … by the fact that it takes no account of family circumstances. What is more, my Lords, it does not offer an easy, direct way to effect a permanent improvement in the relevant position of the low paid: experience shows that it has only a temporary effect.


My Lords, would the noble Lord be kind enough to delve into the archives and ask for a Cabinet Paper on a national wage policy which I produced when I was Minister of Fuel and Power, in which the full argument is set forth and is unchallengeable? Am I to understand that this Assembly is so unprogressive that it refuses to accept what is in effect a breakthrough against low rates of pay for a large section of workers in the country?


My Lords, this question has often been looked at in the light of circumstances prevailing at the time. In fact it was, I believe, the subject of the last Report of the National Board for Prices and Incomes, which tendered the advice that I have already indicated.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that a selection has already been made on a sex basis, because it is the women in the country who receive the lowest wages?


My Lords, even if the Government cannot accept this proposal for private industry, may I ask the Minister whether there is not a case in the nationalised industries, for which the Government and Parliament have direct responsibility, for establishing a minimum wage, based on the cost of living standard, for those who are directly serving us?


My Lords, I think it would be difficult to treat the public sector differently from the private sector in this matter. The overriding aim surely is to achieve moderation in all wage settlements. This is in the interests of all concerned, and not least in the interests of the lowest paid. I would just say this in addition. The Government are certainly not against negotiations which result in differential improvements for lower paid workers.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the late Ernest Bevin, when he was a member of the 1945–51 Government, introduced the Catering Wages Bill, which became an Act of Parliament and which is in effect a minimum wage Act? It is in operation already. Why cannot it be applied, as I have suggested, not to all industries but to selected industries?


My Lords, do I take it from the noble Lord's reply that it is proper to use the public sector to hold down wages, but it is not proper to use it in order to set better standards for the rest of industry?


My Lords, before my noble friend answers, may I ask whether an economic debate is in order at Question Time?


My Lords, perhaps I may just answer the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, on this point. He is well aware that there are a large number of wages councils which have minimum wages, but he is also well aware that it is the general policy to replace these wherever possible by voluntary negotiation.