HL Deb 15 October 1981 vol 424 cc436-8

3.17 p.m.

Lord Spens

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any plans to abolish, or suspend, the powers of wages councils to determine the minimum wages of young persons under the age of 21, or any earlier age, in view of the very serious difficulties such young persons are experiencing in finding jobs.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Ferrers)

No, my Lords:

Lord Spens

My Lords, I do not think that is a very satisfactory Answer. May I ask: do not Her Majesty's Government consider that a situation where nearly 3 million people are unemployed, of whom more than 600,000 are under 20, with a high proportion of those being persons who have not yet been able to find their first job, is a situation of economic emergency? Will they therefore consider bringing in temporary legislation to suspend all minimum wage rates set by wages councils, which have very largely priced young persons out of their first jobs?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am sorry if the noble Lord did not think it was a satisfactory Answer. I gave him the most succinct Answer I could in reply to his Question. Of course the Government are extremely concerned at the level of unemployment—highly concerned—and that is why we have introduced such schemes as the Youth Opportunities Programme and the Young Workers Scheme. I absolutely take the noble Lord's point when he gives his view that wages councils set too high a rate. I do not think that can be considered as a blanket operation because obviously different councils operate in different ways, but I shall certainly bear the noble Lord's point in mind.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend satisfied that wages councils now take full account of the Government's policy of restraint in the level of wage increases?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, wages councils are independent councils, over which the Government have no say.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, would not the noble Earl agree that it would be helpful if, in the normal process of collective bargaining, employers and trade unions were to agree that there should be a gradual reduction in the percentage of the adult rate now paid to apprentices and to young semi-skilled and unskilled workers?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the Government hope that all negotiators, including those on wages councils, will avoid setting rates which tend to price people—and particularly young people—out of the market.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, is the Minister aware that 70 years ago, with my noble friend Lord Shinwell in Glasgow and myself in London, I was associated with Mary McArthur in establishing these wages councils? Is he further aware that these were mostly for sweated workers at home? I remember three women working all the hours of the day for 13s. a week, making cardboard boxes. Can he say how far the wages councils today are dealing with home workers?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I was not aware of the association of the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, with the initiation of the wages councils. But he was quite right when he said that they started up as a result of sweated labour. All I can tell the noble Lord is that wages councils have reduced in number and they do fulfil a certain role. Whereas there were about 60 in the 1950s, there were 56 in 1959 and now there are only 27.

Lord Monson

My Lords, would the noble Earl agree that teenagers who live at home with their parents do not need what is known as a living wage, and that, in order to maximise their employment prospects, teenagers should be prepared to accept whatever they are individually worth to an employer in terms of productive output, whether this be £10 a week or £200 a week?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is a perfectly logical point of view which may not be shared by everyone.