HL Deb 06 December 1984 vol 457 cc1449-52

3.20 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many wages councils remain in operation; and when it is intended to dispense with them.

The Minister Without Portfolio (Lord Young of Graffham)

My Lords, there are currently 26 wages councils. The Government have as yet made no decision on the future of wages councils. They are carefully considering all available evidence and opinion on their operation and efforts.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that, under ILO regulations, next year is the year of decision for the Government as to the continuation or otherwise of these bodies? Is he aware of the fact that many people in this country feel that in the present employment situation it is absurd to prevent a man accepting a job at a wage that he is prepared to accept?

Lord Young of Granham

My Lords, International Labour Convention No. 26 presents an opportunity for the Government to denounce the convention between June 1985 and June 1986. I am certain that my right honourable friend will take into account opinions expressed from all sides throughout the country.

Lord Jacques

My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind that in the opinion of many people in all parties this would be an attack upon the poor and would have very little effect on employment? Will he also bear in mind that the committee which very recently considered shop hours found that the shop assistant was very lowly paid and strongly recommended to the Government that they should maintain the wages councils?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, my right honourable friend will, as I said, take into account all shades of opinion on this matter. However, I must confess that concern has been expressed in the past, and shared by me, that on occasion wages councils fix rates which preclude the possibility of young people—17-year-olds—from taking advantage of the young workers' scheme. I am sure that the report of the inquiry which looked into the Shops Act and the recommendations contained in part of that report will be considered by my right honourable friend.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in over 90,000 inquiries it was shown that in more than 9,000 cases the incomes paid were below those fixed by the National Wages Council? Is the Minister further aware that on Monday a BBC radio programme stated that women were putting Christmas crackers into boxes at starvation wage levels? Does this not stress the need to strengthen the wages councils?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, the wages inspectorate check about 40,000 establishments each year, and during 1982 and 1983 just over 6 per cent. of employees were found to be underpaid. Lost as I am in admiration for the BBC, I do not think it is its job to substitute for the 120 wages inspectors, although any evidence it has will, of course, be considered.

Lord Thorneycroft

My Lords, if jobs policies are to have a top priority, will my noble friend the Minister make a close study of the number of jobs that are lost, particularly by young people and particularly in small businesses and small service operations, every time a wages council decision is made?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, the responsibility for employment, of course, is with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment, but no one on this side of the House can fail to be concerned with the problems of unemployment and the difficulties and obstacles that are facing employment, particularly for young people.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the noble Lord not aware that the prime reason why these wages councils were originally set up years ago was the appalling and disgracefully low wages that were paid in the catering sector to such people as waiters, bar staff and cleaners? The rates paid in those days were, compared with today, totally unacceptable. I urge the Minister to press the Government to think long and hard, and to refuse to pursue the policy suggested by the noble Lord who tabled this Question because it can only be a reverting back to wages that none of us would deem suitable to pay to anyone.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am fully aware of the historical reasons which brought about the creation of the wages councils and the ills which at that time they sought to remedy. Nevertheless, I should remind the House that it is extremely difficult for 16 or 17-year olds in this country to obtain employment at the present time in the hotel and catering industry because of the levels of wages that have been fixed for them.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that some of us are worried about the possible connection between the Government's policy of privatising hospital catering and their possible intention to abolish the Catering Wages Council? Is this not a device to depress further the pay of a very low paid group of workers in hospital catering?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I do not think this Government will knowingly undertake any policy other than one designed to enhance employment and employment opportunities.

Lord Collison

My Lords, I have a very simple but important question. If the Agriculture Wages Board is to be considered for abolition, or otherwise, and if it is to be looked at in any depth, will the Minister give me the assurance that the agricultural section of the Transport and General Workers' Union will be taken fully into consultation? The Agricultural Wages Board is of some considerable importance and concern to that union.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that the Secretary of State for Employment will consult with all parties concerned should such an eventuality arise. Of course, at present no decision has been made; he is merely contemplating the consequences.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, in view of what the noble Lord said about the BBC, will he bear in mind that the public of this country rely on a free press and a free BBC to bring to light injustices wherever they occur?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I fully understand that. I was merely making the point that if allegations are made in any particular area they should be supported by full evidence. If there is evidence, I have no doubt that the wages inspectorate, which is the true and proper body for investigating such complaints, will take it up. It is very difficult to do so unless there is specific evidence against particular individuals.

Lord Monson

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the present reluctance of employers to take on additional full-time permanent staff stems less from high minimum wage levels set by wages councils than from the anti-employer bias of much of the employment legislation in the 1970s, which makes it extremely costly and time-consuming for employers to get rid of abusive, dishonest or grossly incompetent employees?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, one of my concerns is to look at any matters which act as barriers to employment, and I have no doubt that all these matters will be investigated by the Government.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, is the Minister aware that wages councils were established (I think in the first decade of this century) to protect the wages of large numbers of people engaged in sweated labour, particularly home workers, and that my noble friend Lord Shinwell and I both gave evidence about those conditions? Does he not now agree that there are thousands of workers in this country on low pay—pay which is below that necessary to provide a reasonable living standard? What are the Government going to do to protect them if they abolish the wages councils?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord and all noble Lords who were concerned with the establishment of wages councils, and rejoice with them that the difficulties of that particular era have been overcome. However, the matters which must concern the Government are those which restrict employment in this country; in particular, whatever restricts the employment of young people. I have spent much time over the past two or three years with young people, and I am concerned for their employment. However, I repeat my original Answer: the Government have made no decision on the future of the wages councils. They are carefully considering all the evidence. I know that my right honourable friend will carefully consider all that has been said in this House this afternoon.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, when my noble friend gives that consideration will he also bear in mind that a measure which will help to provide more employment, particularly for young people, is absurdly described, and passes the credibility barrier, if described as an attack on the poor?

Lord Young of Graffham

Yes, my Lords; I did hear. I will pass on to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State all comments expressed this afternoon.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Minister —

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, I must speak for the House because we have taken 22 minutes on two Questions. I accept that they are very important Questions, but, equally, I am entitled to say, particularly as to the last Question, that there will be opportunities to come back to this issue before a decision is taken. I think that is perfectly clear from the exchanges. In those circumstances, the House may think it right to proceed to the next two Questions.