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Mrs. Fyfe : While the hon. Gentleman was overwhelming his secretarial staff with a whole 10p an hour more than their low-paid colleagues, what was he paying himself?

Mr. Bruce : In my first year of self-employment, I paid myself nothing and my company lost £9,000. That figure comes from audited accounts. Although after 10 to 12 years I made a reasonable return, in the first year--which is what the hon. Lady was asking about--I lost money.

Mrs. Fyfe : On the assumption that the hon. Gentleman is not a philanthropist and had calculated that he would make a good profit eventually, what did he earn in the remaining years?

Mr. Bruce : In the remaining years, I made a substantial profit and sold out at an extremely good price to somebody who continued the business. I was, therefore, able to come to this place and manage on a modest salary for which I work extremely hard. I enjoy doing my job, however, and enjoy debating with the hon. Lady.

As a young person, I remember one of my first full-time jobs was working in the laundry industry. I also recall harshly having to negotiate my wages with my father, who was the manager of that business but not the owner. I was told that the rate that I was receiving was the right rate for a young person and that I should look at the rates published by the wages council. However, there were other people doing not such a good job as me. I was more productive than they were, but I was constantly being told, "Look, there is the rate on the wall. That is what you will get. Although you may be worth a great deal more, we are not going to deviate from the rates of the wages council." I do not believe that the wages council does anything other than institutionalise and give a lower norm for wages.

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I believe that it is important how businesses start and how they go on. Again, I shall speak from my experience, because that is perhaps more valuable than all the theoretical arguments that we have heard.

Ms. Short : Other hon. Members wish to speak.

Mr. Bruce : I know that the hon. Lady wants to speak. I certainly do not want to detain the House for too long.

I remember starting my business and having only a small amount of money. I was made redundant under the Labour party.

Mr. Nellist : We got something right then, did we?

Mr. Bruce : Absolutely.

I started my own business and I needed to recruit people. I had a limited amount of money with which I could recruit people and found that the best people available who were willing to work for the low wages I was able to offer tended to be graduate women who had been pushed by history into secretarial jobs and were interested in achieving a more executive role.

I do not believe that an employer, working with his employees and doing the best for his business, puts on blinkers--which the Socialists tell us they do--and tries to force down wages. As my company succeeded, so did my staff. I took people on at low wages--if there was a wages council for executive or secretarial recruitment staff, possibly they would have been illegally low wages--but within two years, when the company became profitable, the wages of those staff were doubled.

After five years the salaries which I was paying my people in Huddersfield were second to none, as were the incentives. We could recruit the best people for the job. I am glad to say that the vast majority of the people we recruited were still graduate women who had never had the opportunity of working and developing their abilities in a good business.

If we want to ensure that everybody has the chance of a job, it is essential that companies should be able to pay what they can afford and thereby develop their businesses. When one looks at the way wages have developed, one sees that, when low pay becomes institutionalised and formulated, as it is by the wages councils, that is the time when people get stuck with low wages, and there is not a high wage and high productivity economy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) has the amazing knack of getting Opposition Members to listen to his speeches. He made an excellent speech. He gave hon. Members a carefully researched list of how we can help precisely--through our taxation system and especially our national insurance system--to improve the lot of low-paid people. The threshold of national insurance contributions can be an effective method of helping the low paid without improving enormously the lot of those people who are on higher rates of taxation. I believe that his speech should be wrapped in glossy paper and sent immediately to the Chancellor for his consideration.

When the Labour Government put a national insurance surcharge on employers, that was a tax on jobs. It has been reduced slowly but surely during the Conservative Government. We have demonstrated that employers can create additional jobs. I believe firmly that to allow people to get back into employment and to help

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them by way of low taxation and national insurance is an excellent way forward. I commend the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham to the House.

I have heard nothing from Opposition Members that could possibly help low- paid people. I believe that Opposition Members should stop talking rhetoric and consider the practicalities behind their suggestions. The Government have already improved low-paid people's take-home pay by more than 30 per cent. during their period of office and we have demonstrated the way forward. I am confident that the Government will introduce further measures and will tackle the problems of wages councils, which will ensure that in future low-paid people will have an improvement in their standard of living. 8.58 pm

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) : It was extremely generous and tolerant of you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to allow the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) to tell us the story of his working life. I am sure that we all found it of interest, but whether it was relevant to the debate is another question.

I am sure that everyone would agree that the speech we witnessed tonight from the Secretary of State was remarkable. It was full of bluster, and it avoided the issue of low pay and the statistics that demonstrate, unequivocally and unquestionably, that there has been a massive growth in the number of people working for poverty wages since the Government came to power. The right hon. Gentleman made some extremely misleading claims about the levels of income and unemployment in our country. Before I talk in detail about low pay I want to put some facts on record.

We should have political differences in this Chamber and we should debate them honestly, but it distresses me greatly that Conservative Members deliberately fabricate facts and they know that they do it. They distort statistics and go from the handouts they get from Central Office. They know that the Government have followed a strategy of encouraging low pay. Those Conservative Members who have spoken may pretend that that is not so--some of them might be stupid, but others are dissembling. They know the Government's strategy and not to admit it openly is to be dishonest with the House and with people.

Reference has been made to the effects of tax and benefit changes since the present Government came to power. John Hills of the London School of Economics recently provided us with an analysis of the combined effects of changes in tax and social security during the past 10 years. His analysis, as quoted in The Observer, found : " the cuts in direct taxes have been entirely paid for by cuts in the generosity of benefits.' There has thus been a major redistribution from those on low incomes to the better off', with the bottom 50 per cent. of families losing an average of £8.50 a week, while the top 10 per cent. have gained nearly £40 a week per family. By comparison with what would have happened if the 1978-79 tax and benefit levels had been uprated in line with the growth of national income, Mr. Hills states. "the bottom half of the population has lost £6.6 billion, of which £5.6 billion has gone to the top 10 per cent. Indeed, £4.8 billion has gone to the top 5 per cent.' "

Such are the statistics when we talk about tax and benefit changes.

The other misleading statistics given at great length by the Secretary of State concerned levels of unemployment. We all know that during the famous general election of

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1979 when we had those Saatchi and Saatchi posters saying "Labour Isn't Working", unemployment was 1.2 million--as calculated on the old method. At that time the Tory party said that unemployment was too high, and we agreed. The Government then took power and induced a recession in our country and the destruction of our manufacturing capacity from which we are only now beginning to recover in terms of investment levels. Because of the Government's ideological commitment to monetarism they destroyed, virtually overnight, 2 million jobs. Those jobs were largely held by males and represented relatively well -paid work in manufacturing.

Mr. Ian Bruce rose --

Ms. Short : We have had the story of the hon. Gentleman's life, thank you very much.

We have still not returned to the 1979 level of employment. The Government have suddenly ceased to talk about 1979, and 1983 has become the bench- mark. We have been told over and over again about the 1 million new jobs that have been created.

There is no doubt that since 1983 there has been some job creation, but there is also no doubt that there has also been an enormous distortion of the unemployment figures. The new jobs that have been created or generated since 1983 have been overwhelmingly low paid, part time and for women. Women want jobs and want more employment, but they do not want low paid, insecure employment. We are faced with a continuing decline in full-time, reasonably paid jobs for men and some growth since 1983--it does not take us back to 1979 employment levels--of low paid and largely part-time work for women. That is what the statistics tell us about the national economy.

Mrs. Mahon : My town is a typical example of what has happened since 1979. We have lost thousands and thousands of well-paid, skilled jobs in manufacturing. What we got in return was demonstrated by a survey last year of the jobcentres--jobs offering £1.20 an hour for cleaners and £1.75 an hour for looking after the elderly. A lot of the jobs on offer are temporary and are extremely low paid. That is what we have had in exchange for the jobs lost. I also saw the Secretary of State's nose grow by at least six inches when he was talking about the unemployment statistics.

Ms. Short : My hon. Friend paints a picture of what is happening across the country, including the so-called prosperous south-east. The south-west has some of the worst low pay in the country in agriculture, tourism, and so on. I am putting those facts on record because we hear so many falsities and distortions from Conservative Members.

I do not know how the Secretary of State has the brazen cheek to make claims about comparative unemployment statistics. The labour force survey shows that more than 5 million people in our country would like a job if they could get one. Of course they are not all included in the unemployment figures. That has never been the case. The International Labour Organisation recommends a statistic to give us a comparison across the OECD. That shows that the last published unemployment figure was more than 3 million. The other statistics are the fiddled figures that the Government put forward.

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Although a great many jobs have been restored, we are still not back to 1979 levels of employment. There has been an enormous shift from the poorest to the richest through tax and benefit changes. Since 1979, 2 million more people have become low paid in Britain. To our shame, 9.8 million workers in Britain or 47 per cent. of those who are in work are low paid according to the Council of Europe decency threshold, which is the enormously generous figure of £3.80 an hour or £144 a week.

Tory Members do not understand that poverty is relative. Obviously the minimum levels of pay for the poorest people would not be the same in a poorer part of the world. Britain is the 15th richest country in the world, but we should have some decency between the top and the bottom so that all our citizens can participate in the dignity of belonging to society in the way in which they live and care for their families.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms. Short : No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. The Government have been enormously successful. They set out to encourage low pay and they have succeeded by 2 million extra workers. Many people live on benefits, and the benefits are much less generous than they used to be. Many unemployed people wish that they were employed and millions of people work for their poverty in Britain today.

Is it just nastiness? Are the Government just vile? Do they simply believe in inequality for its own sake? Do they want to help their rich friends and trample on the others? Is that why they do it? Some of that is true. The Government have all those instincts, but that is not all. The Government have an economic strategy. It was called monetarism and it was about creating more economic efficiency, the supply-side miracle that we have not experienced but were told would create more incentives through those who are well off retaining more, earning more and becoming better entrepreneurs, with those who are less well off having less and having to work harder.

The Government deliberately took a whole series of measures to cut the wages of the poorest. They abolished schedule 11 to the Employment Act 1982 and got rid of the fair wages resolution and deliberately used the youth training scheme to lower the expectations of young people. There is no question about it. Had the YTS allowance been uprated by the old YOP levels, it would now be £57 a week. The Government provided subsidies to employers who took on workers on condition that they paid low wages. It was a subsidy not to increase wages but to force them down.

The Government attacked the wages councils and diminished their protection. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) and I served on the Committee which considered the Wages Bill and heard the Government time and again promising to reform the wages councils and retain them. But now we have a consultative paper about getting rid of the wages councils. It is all a strategy to encourage low pay. It has been an enormously successful strategy and the Government have succeeded in increasing the number of low-paid workers by no fewer than 2 million.

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I think that that is a nasty strategy, and that people are entitled to say whether they think it desirable. It is an outrage, a disgrace and a hypocrisy for Ministers who are part of that strategy and understand it well to pretend that they are not doing what they are doing. They have taken a series of deliberate and enormously successful steps to encourage low pay.

It is my view and that of most decent people, backed up by all the polling evidence, that an increasing proportion--an overwhelming proportion, indeed --of British people think that our country is too divided and unequal, and like the idea of a minimum wage. The present position is unjust and unpopular. The Government say, "Never mind that so many people are low paid. They can receive family credit and thus will not suffer poverty." But the take-up of family credit at present is about one third--it may be creeping a little higher--so two thirds of those entitled to it are not receiving it.

What is this subsidy? It is a subsidy from the state to inefficient employers. Employers who pay low wages tend not to train or invest, and experience a high turnover of labour. Of course Opposition Members support some such system until there is a decent minimum wage and there is no longer any need to subsidise low wages, but we do not consider it desirable in itself. Does the Secretary of State consider it desirable to subsidise the most inefficient employers in our land?

Beneath all the hoo-ha about the approach of 1992, we find that industrialists in Europe speak of one in three work places on the continent closing down as a consequence. We hear Britain's top industrialists saying that because Britain is less efficient and trains and invests less, as many as one in two work places may close down in 1992. The Government's low-pay strategy means not only inequality and injustice but enormous economic inefficiency. The Secretary of State keeps pointing out--as though he were terribly clever and understood the position in a way that no one else does- -that there has been an increase in participation in the labour force since his Government came to power. That increase has come about because over a long period there has been a growth in female participation, in this as in other countries. A high participation rate, however, is not a measure of high economic development. Some of the poorest countries in the world have even higher participation rates. In the more efficient countries far more people tend to be in education for far longer than in the less efficient. The Secretary of State is unwise, indeed foolish, to keep boasting about our high participation rate. It is a reflection of the low proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds in full-time education, and of the low levels of training and retraining in the course of working lives. I wish that the Secretary of State would understand that.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : My hon. Friend has interestingly and correctly challenged many of the statistics that have been given. Would she care to comment on the misleading impression given in the consultative document that very few employers actually underpay--that is, pay rates even lower than wages council rates? The Government claim that, according to the inspectors, only about 3 per cent. of workers are underpaid. If they read their own new earnings survey, they would see that 10 per cent. of female shop assistants are paid less than £2.10 per hour, against a wages council minimum of £2.33 per hour.

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Those shop assistants are being robbed in every hour that they work. Why is the Conservative party so uninterested in such disobedience of the law?

Ms. Short : My hon. Friend is right. Conservative Members are hypocritical about law and order. They do not give a damn about breaches of the law in respect of health and safety at work or the wage councils. They do not enforce the law although they know the statistics. Conservative Back Benchers have criticised the Government, even making a Nazi parallel, because a wages inspector dared to call on an employee in Thurrock. Conservative Members are hypocritical about law and order and decent standards of employment.

The country is becoming increasingly aware that the options are low-paid work, short-term schemes or unemployment. In addition, the Social Security Bill demands that people must prove on a weekly basis that they are actively seeking work, regardless of the number of jobs available in their locality. A new provision states that people cannot in future demand the rate of pay that would be offered by a decent employer in their area. The Social Security Bill is another ratchet in the process of encouraging low pay. If we do not get rid of the Government in the meantime, no doubt we shall come back in a year or two's time to say that there are another 1 million low-paid people in this country and that more than half the work force are low paid.

Mr. Bob Clay (Sunderland, North) : My hon. Friend will be interested to know that a phenomenon that has not been seen for many years in Sunderland is now returning. As the shipyards are running down towards closure, 40 people are now sent by the jobcentre to stand in the road at 5 o'clock in the morning, allegedly to go to Teesside to the ship repair yards, where there is no negotiation with trade unions and the skilled rate is £133 a week. A bus arrives and a chargehand gets off and says, "We want five burners this morning. The rest of you, go home." If the other 35 learn the lesson and do not turn up the next day, they are technically not available for work. That is the position in today's Britain.

Ms. Short : My hon. Friend describes a situation that we increasingly recognise. There has been a tremendous growth of casual and temporary work with a decline in the standard of employment protection that people can expect. The Government think that that is clever, but it is not, because we cannot have efficient organisations unless we have a stable work force with decent employment conditions, democratic work practices and high training and investment levels. That is the only healthy future for the British economy. This short-term, nasty strategy of encouraging low pay is unjust, bad for the low paid and damaging to the future of our economy. People will pay the price in the future and the Government will live to regret their strategy.

9.17 pm

Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East) : Thank you for the opportunity, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- [Interruption.] Anyone who has been in the Chamber for the whole of this debate will know that I slipped out earlier only for a few minutes. I have been in the Chamber considerably longer than most Opposition Members.

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Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough) : That is a Tory untruth. Everyone knows that it is untrue.

Mr. Paice : If that is an untruth, I should be interested to know what is a truth.

In this debate, Opposition Members have shown again that they do not understand the relationship between pay, jobs and standards of living. They have shown that they know nothing about running a business or about the relationship between costs and sales. If sales go down because costs and prices have gone up, jobs go down. Ultimately, that means fewer people in work and less prosperity. There is a fundamental point that it is sometimes difficult to get across. I often wish that I could speak in block capitals so that the Opposition could understand. Every job has a value that is reflected in the price of its end product. If there is no sale because the price is too high, the job will disappear.

Lord Wilson--often reviled by the Labour party, but at least he won four general elections, which is better than its last three leaders--said that one man's pay increase was another man's price increase. We must understand that.

As my hon. Friend said--

Mr. Nellist : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Paice : Yes. I am not as rude as some Opposition Members.

Mr. Nellist : Given that statement by Lord Wilson, what are the consequences of the wage increases awarded last year to Lord Hanson of 167 per cent. and to Lord King, chairman of British Airways, of 270 per cent.?

Mr. Paice : Those salary increases would have been approved by the boards of those companies. They would have taken the decisions on the basis of the effect they would have on the price of their companies, end products, such as flight tickets. It is the responsibility of each business to take such decisions, not the Government's.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) : What would the consequences have been if those companies had gone bankrupt through bad management?

Mr. Paice : The result would have been not just one or two, but hundreds, probably thousands, of lost jobs.

We have heard about the importance not just of gross pay but of take-home pay. Conservative Members have referred to the need to improve the latter, and to the great strides that have already been made.

The decency threshold has been mentioned. It is a European concept that has not been approved by Europe, let alone this country. The decency threshold is 68 per cent. of the national average wage, which rings close to what the Low Pay Unit describes as poverty--an income 40 per cent. above the benefit level. Both statistics suffer from the same fault--they are self- perpetuating.

Mrs. Gorman : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Paice : I shall not, because I must wind up.

Both statistics are self-perpetuating. If the benefit rate or the average wage increases, so does the percentage. By the very nature of averages, there will always be people below them, so the Low Pay Unit is also self- perpetuating.

I am sometimes worried that the Opposition pretend to be an alternative Government. This evening they have

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shown that they fail to understand the meaning of running a business. I hope that the House will throw out this absurd motion. 9.23 pm

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside) : The Secretary of State was nettled by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and lost his temper to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner). He forgot to explain that it was his Government who despatched more than 2 million jobs after 1979, before they began fiddling the falling rates of unemployment, of which they attempted to make much this evening. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) countered with effective European figures. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) spoke with the authority of a distinguished Select Committee Chairman. He described the debate in moral terms, and rightly used the word "wicked". My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) put the facts on record. This debate was preceded by desperate Government filibustering that was flagged by my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) and her concern for the scandalously low pay rates in parts of the Pontypridd constituency. The proportion of women in Mid Glamorgan who earn less than £100 a week is 17.5 per cent. The proportion of men earning less than £130 in Mid Glamorgan is 15.7 per cent., which may be one reason why there is no Minister from the Welsh Office to answer the debate tonight.

The Government claim that there have been a number of requests for the abolition of particular wages councils. But in the non-food wages council, for example, several members of the employers' side have expressed a wish that they should continue, including the booksellers, the Drapers Chamber of Trade, the National Association of Retail Furnishers, the Footwear Distributors Federation, the Radio Electrical and Television Retailers' Association and the Menswear Association. Even the threshold, as it is made out to be in Europe, is problematic.

In my constituency, a man earns £157 a week but receives only £133 per week net. He pays £10 a week for a lift to work, £27 weekly rent, £2 weekly car insurance and £5.63 weekly for a bag of coal. He tells me that he feeds the slot meter about £14 a week. His wife turns off the immersion heater at weekends, when a coal fire heats the back boiler. That family has much less than £100 per week before it pays for food, leisure and holidays. My constituent's wife buys stewing beef at £1.63 a pound, white loaves at 47p, pasteurised milk at 27p per pint and eggs at £1.07 a dozen. All of that mounts up quickly. My constituent's pint of beer now costs 91p. Holidays, new clothes and nights out rarely happen.

In my constituency, female cleaners earn the equivalent of £71 a week for 40 hours. It is little wonder that recently there was a one-day strike as they earn £1.78 an hour. In Clwyd enterprise zone, there are companies that pay £70 to £80 a week to grown men and the female cleaners are employed by a contract cleaning company that undercut

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its rivals to gain the contract and cannot afford to pay the girls. That is what privatisation is about, as a distinguished trade union official told me.

In that context, what a shabby speech the Secretary of State made. It was a miserable spectacle to observe a British Cabinet Minister who earns a small fortune arguing for what is, in effect, the depression of wages that are already low. His speech had the true whiff of Thatcherism. We know that some Ministers can jet off to Barbados with a first-class British Airways ticket costing £2,316 and, if they wish, can hire a private plane to islands such as Mustique. But those on low wages groan under the weight of higher rents, higher rates, higher water rates and higher electricity and gas bills. None of the speeches made by Conservative Members showed any comprehension of the problems faced by ordinary people on low wages.

I want to give some facts about low pay in the Principality. First, average earnings for men are lower in Wales than in any other region of Great Britain. The incidence of low pay among men is more severe in Wales than in any other region. One in four men in Wales earns less than the decency threshold of £150 per week set by the Council of Europe. Dyfed and Powys counties are at the bottom of the league of male earnings for all the counties of Great Britain. Low pay is a massive problem for women. More than 80 per cent. of women in Wales in manual jobs are low paid and one in five women working full-time in Wales earns less than £100 a week, including one third of those in manual jobs. In my own county of Clwyd, two out of three women working full-time are low paid and one third of those working full-time still earn less than £100 per week.

The problems of low pay in Wales have deteriorated, and the disparity between Wales and the south-east has widened. The proportion of men earning less than £130 per week in Wales is 15.8 per cent., which puts Wales at the bottom of the league--nobody would be surprised if I said the south- east was at the top. I imagine that that is another reason why no Minister from the Welsh Office will answer tonight's debate.

The proportion of women earning less than £100 per week in Wales is 19.8 per cent. I know that the county of Powys shares bottom place with Cornwall in the league table of male earnings in all the counties of Great Britain. According to the 1988 new earnings survey, Dyfed has the lowest level of male manual earnings of any county in Great Britain.

Mr. Redwood : Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House why he and his hon. Friends voted against the tax reductions which have been of great benefit to the lower paid as well as others?

Mr. Jones : The speech made by the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) was delivered with all the passion of a tired funeral director. It was the sort of speech that I would expect of somebody who formerly worked for Rothschild, who was a fellow of All Souls college and who worked in the policy unit at No. 10 Downing street. None of us was impressed by the hon. Gentleman's over-long speech. Women in Wales are particularly disadvantaged in the labour market. Six out of 10 women in Wales are low-paid and half work full-time for less than £130 per week. One

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in five still work full-time for under £100 per week. Average earnings for women are lowest in Clwyd, at £137 per week, which is £13 less than the decency threshold.

Mr. Janman : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jones : No, I have no more time.

Mr. Janman : I have a genuine question.

Mr. Jones : I wish that the hon. Gentleman had made a genuine speech. I am not giving way to him ; time is running out because of the length of his speech.

Over two thirds of women working full-time in Clwyd are low-paid and nearly one in three still earns less than £100 for a full week's work.

The Wages Act 1986 severely weakened the powers of the wages councils to set legal minimum rates of pay for over 100,000 workers in Wales. Over 20,000 young people aged under 21 have been removed from the protection of the wages councils. It is a sad fact that, in 1987, the only office of the wages inspectorate in Wales was closed and the responsibility was transferred to offices in Bristol and Manchester. I imagine that that is another reason why there will not be a Welsh Office Minister at the Dispatch Box tonight.

With the Government planning to abolish wages councils 80 years after they were first introduced to protect workers in sweated trades, about one in eight employees in Wales--over 100,000 workers--are covered by legal minimum rates of pay set by the wages councils. Those people work in 18,000 establishments across the country, in shops, bars, restaurants, cafes, hotels, hairdressers and clothing manufacturers.

The 1987-88 hourly rates of pay set by the wages councils are modest. In the case of clothing the rate is £1.99 per hour ; hairdressing, £2.05 per hour ; hotels and restaurants, £2 per hour ; pubs and clubs, £2.16 an hour ; and retailing, the princely hourly sum of £2.33--another reason, I guess, why no Welsh Minister will be coming to the Dispatch Box tonight to reply to this debate. So, abolishing wages councils and the wages inspectorate, which attempts to enforce the minimum rates, will mean workers at the very bottom of the earnings league having no redress against unscrupulous employers who pay poverty wages. A wise and prudent Secretary of State, a wise and prudent Government, would consider retaining the wages councils system, restoring the powers and coverage lost as a result of the Wages Act 1986, establishing new wages councils in areas that have grown up in recent times--for example, the contract cleaning business--and increasing the numbers employed in the wages inspectorate to ensure effective enforcement of the law. Then they should tighten the rules governing prosecution.

Mrs. Gorman rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Member is not giving way.

Mr. Jones : They should set penalties high enough to be an adequate deterrent to employers considering under-paying. In addition, a wise and prudent Government would consider publicising in the media the industries covered by the wages councils and their current minimum rates and conditions.

My right hon. and hon. Friends from Wales are deeply concerned that tens of thousands of our fellow citizens do

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not share, and have no present hope of sharing, in the prosperity of our society. When billions of pounds have been given in tax relief to the richest of British society, and when the North sea still yields billions of pounds to the national Treasury in oil revenues, it is not unreasonable to urge Her Majesty's Government to think again in the interests of the lowest paid and most vulnerable of our communities.

We believe that our case has moral force. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood was right to emphasise again and again in her speech that one of the biggest issues facing our nation is the growing divide between those on low wages, who are under-privileged, and the many millions who are getting quite a lot of the best things available in our modern society. In his speech tonight the Secretary of State made no attempt to address this very real issue. His speech was evasive. It was the speech of a Cabinet Minister who lacked the imagination to understand the predicament of ordinary people trapped on low wages. From no Tory Members did we hear any sympathy for, or understanding of, the families on low wages who are attempting to bring up young children, realising that they are not benefiting from the many good things in life that are now available.

This debate touches as much upon the quality of life as upon the standard of living of the low paid. The family on low wages does not receive the perks of subsidies or expenses. It is really what we might call basement living. It is the harsh world of making ends meet, and this is a Government who do not care about those who are getting a raw deal.

At the heart of this debate is proof of a greatly divided society of debt and of the temptation of petty crime. The Government appear to be interested only in the south-east of England, northern Europe, and the consequences of the Channel tunnel for the south-east of Britain. Hon. Members know that the Opposition speak for the common people and that the Government are only about the comfortably off. We are asking for social justice for the low paid. We say to the Government, for pity's sake, desist. We demand that these unjust policies are abandoned.

9.40 pm

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