HL Deb 30 November 1972 vol 336 cc1415-24

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal, I beg to move that this Bill be now considered on Report.

Moved, That the Bill be now considered on Report.—(Lord Drumalbyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 2 [Prices, pay, dividends and rents]:

LORD BESWICK moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 2, line 5. at end insert— ("This subsection shall not apply to increases in remuneration of £2.60 per week or less to the extent that such increases do not bring the remuneration up to a figure in excess of £22.60 per week.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is an opportunity to consider again a matter on which we had a wide amount of agreement on Committee stage. When I moved a similar Amendment on Committee stage there were doubts about the way in which we should set about this matter of making some arrangements for the lower-paid workers during the temporary freeze, but many, if not most of us, felt that we ought to try to do something in this interim, temporary period. There is one point which has strengthened the case which some of us tried to make. Although at the beginning there were hesitations by some people about making exceptions, before we got through the Committee stage the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, made it quite clear that exceptions are to be made to this freeze and he listed some of the categories. May I remind your Lordships of some of the people concerned? He said that exempted from the freeze would be those in white-collar employment, for example, employees in insurance companies, banks and those industrial concerns with large office staffs, as well as civil servants, teachers and others in the public service. All these were to be exempted from the freeze.

I am quite sure that when some noble Lords voted against our Amendment at the beginning of our discussions on the Bill. on the grounds that they thought the freeze should apply equally to all—that was the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn—they were unaware that the Bill made exceptions to the list. The noble Lord himself made it quite clear that a considerable number of people were in fact exempted. I pointed out to him at the time that although he spelt out this list then, which included lower-paid people, he might also have spelt out the higher salary ranges which were included in the list and the fact that we were specifically exempting many people with very considerable salaries.


My Lords, before the noble Lord proceeds, would he tell me exactly where I stated that these categories of people were exempted from the freeze?


Yes, my Lords, in col. 1206 of the OFFICIAL REPORT. These exemptions, I must say, make it all the more important that we should try to do something for the least fortunate. May I make quite clear what I am suggesting? It is not that there should be a blanket increase for all earning under £20 a week. The position, if this Amendment is accepted, will be that any wage settlements arrived at after proper negotiation between employer and employee, or awarded by a wages council as was the case with the agricultural workers, will not be caught by the freeze if the employees concerned have less than £20 per week. This seems to be morally and socially right, and it cannot be economically wrong. It cannot be economically wrong, because I hold it to be a principle that what is morally and socially right cannot be economically wrong. In any case, this is well within the limit laid down by the Government itself. The Government itself, in the official package, proposed that, without upsetting our economy, we could afford to make a wage award of £2.60 to all the salary ranges. I am limiting this proposal to those who have less than £20 a week.

The wording of the Amendment has been revised in detail so as to meet the difficulty put by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn. It will be recalled that when we discussed this matter before he said that there were difficulties in the transition period, as it were. He pointed out that—and perhaps I might remind him of what he said at col. 1112— … a worker whose earnings averaged £19.50 might go up to £21 or £22, while a worker who averaged £20.50 would remain at that level, and might even fall below £20 if his £20.50 had included overtime. It was a fair point which the noble Lord made, and I have tried to meet it in the revised wording which I now place before your Lordships. It may still not be perfect, but if the noble Lord has any other point which he feels we ought to include before accepting the principle of this Amendment, we can of course put forward a manuscript Amendment, as we did before on Third Reading. I am sure the noble Lord wishes to meet us on this point. I beg to move.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say one word in support of the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, because this Amendment is very much in line with the policy which my Party has been expressing over a considerable period of time. Some of your Lordships may be aware that we have had an extensive campaign on behalf of the lower-paid worker to show how badly he has done in relation to the rest of the community over the past few years. These conditions have been borne out by independent studies, such as that of the Child Poverty Action Group, which showed that during the period of the Labour Government between 1964 and 1970 the relative position of the lowest decile of those people in employment had deteriorated relative to average earnings in industry and employment as a whole—a serious indictment of the performance of the Labour Party while they were in power. But at least they expressed the opinion that over a period of time something should be done to redress the average situation as between the lowest paid and those in employment as a whole. Because we failed to do this when we had a Government in power that was dedicated to such an objective, we now face a situation where it is grossly unfair that the people about whom the noble Lord, Lord Beswick. is speaking should be deprived of the opportunity of redressing their position just a little during the processes of the freeze.

My right honourable friend the Leader of the Liberal Party wrote to the Prime Minister during our campaign on behalf of the lower paid and those with low incomes generally suggesting that we should try to increase wages relatively quickly for those earning below £20 a week. I will attempt to paraphrase the Prime Minister's answer. It was to the effect that if you allowed people who were earning less than £20 a week to receive increases of, let us say, £2 a week, then all the way up the scale you would get the effect of people trying to copy this and asking for a percentage increase equivalent to that which had been obtained by the lower-paid workers. So in the end we would worsen the inflationary situation that we are faced with. That argument does not apply if we are going to have a freeze lasting for 90 days, or some additional period as may emerge in due course. While this freeze lasts, the Government have a splendid opportunity to allow the wages of these people earning below £20 a week to increase without at the same time encouraging other groups of workers to follow their example. I hope that the noble Lord will accept this opportunity on behalf of the Government, and will do something at long last for the lowest paid people in this country who deserve this help.

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, unless the Government are willing to accept this modified version of a previous Amendment which they rejected, there are serious doubts about the sincerity of the Government concerning the situation in which the lower-paid workers find themselves. The Government have expressed their desire that the lower-paid workers should have their rates of pay raised to a higher level. There is no doubt about that. No Member of your Lordships' House would challenge that. That was a declaration made by the Prime Minister, and supported by other members of the Government. Then the Government decided to enter into negotiations with the C.B.I. and the T.U.C. They actually offered a norm of £2.50 across the board. This was not acceptable for various reasons (and there is no reason for one to discuss that at this stage) and the Government decided upon a freeze. Nevertheless, their desire to assist the lower-paid worker stands.

Here is an opportunity. Let us be quite clear as to what is being asked. We are not asking in this Amendment that the lower-paid workers, whatever their rates may be, £15, £16, £17 or £18—or even to refer to what was said in the course of the previous debate, £19.50—should have a rise of £2 across the board; all that we are asking is that the lower-paid workers, whatever the rates may be at the present time, should, as a result of negotiations entered into between the employers and the workers, be allowed to have their wages increased proportionately to bring them up to £20 a week. I understand that that is the submission made by my noble friend Lord Beswick. Surely, no Members of your Lordships' House who have expressed any anxiety (if I may use the term "anxiety") to assist the lower-paid workers could object to that. In any event, it does not encourage inflation; if there is any inflationary effect it is surely a modified form. I do not see why the Government cannot accept this Amendment.

I should like to direct attention, looking ahead and envisaging the future after the ninety days' period has expired, to what will happen. Are the Government going to come to a decision which will provoke more resentment? These people earning under £20 a week are affected by the cost of living. There is no doubt about the rise in the cost of living and how it impinges upon the standard of living of those who are described as the lower paid. At the end of the ninety days' period, there is no declaration by the Government that the freeze will be terminated. Indeed, it has been suggested that it may be necessary—and I rather suspect it will he necessary—to continue the freeze. In that situation the lower-paid workers, whom we are anxious to help, are not to receive a single penny by way of increase in the rate of pay, not only for ninety days, but may he for several months ahead. Surely that is not the desire of the Government, or Members of your Lordships' House.

I do not want to indulge in a repetition of the content of the Second Reading debate, but I must confess that I am horrified at the inability of this Government—and I will say a word about the previous Government in a moment—to create a situation where we can bring together both sides of the industry and come to a decision, either of conciliation or arbitration, which will put an end to the situation in which the lower-paid workers find themselves, and, at the same time, help in a modified way—and I will not say more than "help"—to prevent further inflation. I was very much interested in the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, in the course of the Second Reading debate. The noble Baroness referred to Professor Clegg who had suggested the creation of an economic council, or something of the sort, which would investigate rates of pay for all classes and categories of workers, and make a recommendation.

I think the noble Baroness had conceived the notion that this was the first time that this had ever been mentioned. In point of fact, I do not know whether Members of your Lordships' House are aware that a submission was made to the Attlee Government—and that is a long time ago—on two occasions for the creation of a national wage policy which provided for the setting up of an economic council who would investigate, inquire and probe and then come to a decision. But they would not be vested with the right to decide what the actual rates of pay would be; that would be a matter for the Government to decide. The matter of prices and a variety of other matters associated with a national wage policy was to be considered. In fact I, as a member of the Cabinet, submitted a Cabinet Paper which put forward the proposal for a national wage policy. It contained practically all the proposals Professor Clegg made quite recently. It was rejected, I regret to say, because of the opposition of the trade union members of the Government who thought that this would impinge upon their proprietary rights to indulge in collective bargaining which had been customary for many years. Later on it was rejected by no less a person than Sir Stafford Cripps as Chancellor of the Exchequer because it would promote more inflation. In point of fact, if it had been considered at the time it would have been realised that it would solve many of our problems in relation to rates of pay; it would have counteracted against inflationary effects which perhaps have been exaggerated to some extent in relation to rates of pay. I do not want to refer to that because it is really part of a Second Reading debate; but the matter has been discussed over and over again.

There is one further point. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has referred to what the last Government, the Wilson Government, did. The Wilson Government in fact left it to the trade unions, along with the employers, to decide whether the rates of pay of the lower-paid workers should be increased. The Prices and Incomes Board postulated a norm; and that norm, if it had been accepted across the board, would have improved the position of the lower-paid workers. Although there were perhaps justifiable criticisms of the proposal of the Prices and Incomes Board, and the principles associated with it (I do not want to enter into that argument), nevertheless it was left to both sides of industry to help. Very little was done in that regard. Now there is an opportunity for the Government to help. They are not asked to do much. It is not a violation of the principle that the Government have laid down in connection with the freeze. A much modified improvement is asked for, and I hope that the Government will give it their consideration.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, may I briefly, but very strongly, support this Amendment? It should apply, as it does now, to all the lower-paid workers, but I want to remind your Lordships once more of the plight of the largest group of those lower-paid workers; that is, the farm workers. I know that it is perfectly true, as the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, pointed out in the Second Reading debate, to say there are some farm workers (I do not know what proportion it is) who in fact have been receiving more than the present minimum of £16.20. Those, of course, if they were receiving much in excess and were over the minimum laid down in this Amendment, would not in any way he affected by it. The Amendment would apply only to the lowest paid and those who are receiving under the £22.60 mark—in my opinion the great majority of farm workers.

Your Lordships know full well the record of farm workers. Not only are they the lowest paid of all our important workers in this country; not only are they among the most important producers of this country, but they also have the most enviable record when it comes to strikes and industrial disputes. They have, further, the most enviable record, one of which any other industry could be proud, of increases in productivity over the years. It cannot be just that these people should be condemned always to remain at the very bottom of the scale. They have recently received a very modest rise, which was due to come into force on January 22. If this Amendment is accepted that rise will be allowed, and for six weeks before the end of the freeze—a very small amount of time—they will be receiving what they have been awarded and what every person in this country must agree is the minimum, in fairness, that they should have.

This is a time of year when the lowest-paid workers, especially the farm workers, are particularly hard hit. On the farm to-day, because of shortage of daylight, there is a minimum of overtime. Very few farm workers receive overtime at all: they have to subsist on their basic minimum. It is not as in the summer and spring when they can, by working long hours, earn an extra £5, even £6, a week. Not only are their earnings, therefore, restricted to this basic minimum, £16.20, but their costs rise—as indeed do the costs of everybody, but of course the lowest-paid workers are affected most. Food is costing more because of many factors, of which we are all aware, including the seasonal factor which always strikes food prices harder during the winter months. The weather is colder. More has to be spent on fuel for warmth. More has to be spent on clothes for warmth. More has to be spent on electricity because the hours of daylight are shorter. All these factors are of insignificant importance to, I daresay, every one of your Lordships in this Chamber to-day, but they are of overriding importance to the farm worker and his wife living on £16.20 a week.

I beg your Lordships to support this Amendment on grounds of common justice; on grounds of gratitude to a body of people to whom we owe far more than we are ever willing to acknowledge or to pay; and on grounds of expediency for the Government themselves. Allowing this rise for the lower-paid workers, and so creating a measure of good will, will in no way, as has been pointed out, run counter to the Government's professed and even offered policy in the past. It will have no significant effect upon either the cost of food or the cost of living, but it will make the atmosphere for the vital negotiations and agreements which we hope will come after this freeze far more favourable. So I ask your Lordships, no matter on which side of the House you sit, to ponder these questions and to support this Amendment, if necessary in the Lobby.


My Lords, I wish to put the point to the Government that this is a very necessary Amendment. The price of food is going ahead by leaps and bounds. The price of beef and fat cattle in the market has gone up by 10 shillings a cwt. per week during the past two weeks, and by Christmas it is anticipated that the price for fat cattle will be £20 a cwt. I am not disagreeing with the rise in the price of fat cattle—I myself have fat cattle—but it means that my labourer, who is receiving under £20 a week, cannot buy beef; he cannot buy mutton or lamb. I urge the Government to accept this Amendment because it would to some extent ameliorate the vast rise in the cost of food and the cost of living.


My Lords, I should very much like to support this Amendment. May I remind noble Lords on the other side of the House that we in this House, by coming here three days a week, for perhaps half an hour, and "clocking on", earn more in those three days than the lower-paid worker who has to work five or six days a week?


My Lords, while I do not wish to detract from the noble Lord's arguments, I think he should realise that there are also a large number of farm workers in Scotland, and therefore his figures are quite wrong. In Scotland we work on a five-day week, but cows require feeding seven days a week; therefore the argument that, because of short daylight, workers get no overtime, or little overtime, in winter is completely fallacious. The basic wage of a cattleman in Scotland is little enough—I am not denying this at all. It is too low; but it is £18.50, not £16.50. The other point which I think should be made is that my cattleman has managed to acquire from his pitifully low wages a colour television set. He is not starving. If there is a good programme, he invites me in to watch his television. I do not want to detract from the argument, but I do want us to have our facts right.


My Lords, I do not want to detract from the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Walston, but he did not mention that every farm servant has a tied house. This is worth at least £3 a week to him.