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Mr. Ashton: Is the young Minister aware that it is now 20 years since a Labour Government introduced equal pay for women and that the Tories voted against it, saying exactly what they are now saying about a minimum wage--that it would destroy jobs? Is he aware that when the young women working at Marks and Spencer got their extra money they went to Debenhams and bought curtains and that when the people at Debenhams got their extra money they went to C and A and bought children's clothes, thus increasing the number of jobs?
Mr. Oppenheim: The not quite so young Minister will reply that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken in referring to the previous Labour Government because the previous two Labour Governments refused to implement a minimum wage. They, at least, were honest enough to admit that there was nothing they could do about the problem of differentials. I quote to the hon. Gentleman his former colleague, Lord Healey, who only a couple of months ago said on Radio 4: "Don't kid yourselves--the minimum wage is something on which unions will build differentials . . . and therefore the minimum wage becomes a floor on which you erect a new tower."
Until the Opposition have the honesty and guts to tell the House at what level they would introduce the minimum wage and what they would do about differentials, the House will treat their policy with nothing but the contempt that it deserves.
Mr. Sykes: Will my hon. Friend ignore the old fogeys in the Opposition and confirm that policies such as the absurd social chapter and the minimum wage are shredding jobs in Europe even as we speak? Is he aware that a large company in my constituency cannot afford to build a factory in France because of such polices and has decided to double its production line in Scarborough instead?
Column 136significant level, is far higher than in Britain. The situation in the United States is also instructive. For years, successive Governments hardly raised the minimum wage. When he came to power two and a half years ago, President Clinton committed himself to raising it but he has done absolutely nothing about it because his own Labour Secretary, Robert Reich, said that it would threaten the recovery. Even the left-leaning Democratic Leadership Council recently said that the
"Minimum wage is anachronistic, it's a loser, it's got no life". No wonder it is Labour party policy.
Will the Minister confirm that the taxpayer now has to fork out £2.5 billion a year to top up the pay of the low-paid through benefits? Is not that nothing more than a subsidy for bad employers? Does he not realise that that sum will continue to spiral upwards unless he accepts that there should be a floor under pay with a national minimum wage? How long will he carry on topping up the bottomless pit that he has created in pay?
Mr. Oppenheim: The hon. Lady was tittering; she is now wittering. She fails to mention that a minimum wage would cost the taxpayer more because it would increase unemployment, as it has in France, Spain and Belgium. If she is serious about that policy--if she is serious about putting a floor under low pay--why cannot she tell the House at what level a Labour Government would introduce the minimum wage, and what she would do about differentials?
Miss Widdecombe: We have committed £45 million to the out-of- school child care grant initiative to help create up to 50,000 new after- school and holiday places for school-age children throughout Great Britain.
Ms Eagle: I recognise that Britain's record in provision for the under-fives is the worst in the European Union and acknowledge that affordable and adequate child care is a major barrier to many women who are trying to work or who want to work longer hours. When will the Government do something to solve that problem, create a national child care strategy and start making some decent provision for 51 per cent. of the people in this country?
Miss Widdecombe: I suggest that the hon. Lady starts with her constituency. Perhaps she will welcome in her constituency the Wirral Latch Key scheme, the School House scheme, the Scamps scheme and the Rainbow scheme. When she has welcomed them, she might even smile at what is happening in her constituency.
Mrs. Gillan: Will my hon. Friend confirm that female earnings have increased by 30 per cent. since 1990, compared with male earnings, which have increased by only 23 per cent.? Will she further confirm that, compared with 1970, when women made up 36 per cent. of the work force, they now make up 46 per cent.? Are there not, in
Column 137practice, far fewer barriers to women in obtaining employment than that lot over there would have us believe?
Mr. Oppenheim: A statutory minimum wage would destroy jobs and job prospects. Set at two thirds of male median earnings and assuming full restoration of differentials, 2 million jobs could be lost. Even set at half male median earnings and assuming only half restoration of differentials, 750,000 jobs would be lost.
Sir Michael Neubert: Will my hon. Friend confirm that a report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies showed that a national minimum wage would benefit the richest 30 per cent. of the population more than the poorest 30 per cent.? Does not the adoption of such a policy sit rather oddly with the Opposition's claim that they will be tough on success and tough on the rewards of success?
Mr. Oppenheim: My hon. Friend is right. One of the major problems with a national minimum wage is that it would benefit better-off families disproportionately because many low-paid people are trainees or young workers who live in families with two or three incomes, so the national minimum wage would increase unemployment among poorer households and increase wealth in better-off households.
Mr. Eastham: I remind the Minister that when the Government abolished the wages councils three or four years ago they advanced the very same arguments. They said that abolition would create more jobs, but a horrendous number of young people are now without jobs. How does the Minister explain that?
Mr. Oppenheim: The hon. Gentleman predicted when the wages councils were abolished that the wages of former wages council workers would fall; in fact, they have increased slightly faster than the wages of workers in the rest of the economy. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that the previous Labour Government abolished no fewer than 11 wages councils, affecting no fewer than 600,000 workers.
Mr. Paice: The step-by-step reform of trade union and employment legislation has returned control of trade unions to their members and brought realism to the workplace. The industrial relations scene is better than at any time this century.
Column 138compare with the one for 1979? How does Britain's strike record compare with that of the rest of the European Union?
Mr. Paice: Last year only 0.26 million working days were lost in only 178 stoppages. As has already been said this afternoon, that constitutes less than 1 per cent. of the 1979 figure and it is much lower than the averages of the 1970s and 1980s. Our record has been below the European average for the past nine years.
The Labour party has failed to tell the House which reforms it would get rid of if it had the chance to do so. What will be the price of buying off the Transport and General Workers vote on clause IV?
Madam Speaker: We have made abysmally slow progress with Employment questions owing to a combination of factors, such as long answers, long quotes, long questions and far too much noise. Let us make up for that now.
Mr. Ottaway: Does my right hon. Friend agree that his Government have done much to help the leisure industry in this country--so much so, that Ladbroke leisure group has been able to award 1.2 million share options to its directors? Is my right hon. Friend aware that a member of the remuneration committee who approved that share option scheme is also Chairman of the Employment Select Committee?
The Prime Minister: As I said to the House last week, the Greenbury committee is examining executives' remuneration. A number of important issues must be addressed, especially the disclosure of remuneration to directors and ensuring that bonuses and share options
Column 139reflect the performance of a company. I am sure that practical, first-hand advice of that sort will be useful to every hon. Member. Mr. Blair rose --
Mr. Blair: Now that the electricity regulator has finally bowed to months of pressure and has cut prices because of excess profits, will the Prime Minister agree that there should be a thorough overhaul of the regulatory regime of all utilities so that we can be sure that the same thing is not happening in gas, water and in the other privatised monopolies?
The Prime Minister: As I understand the position, the regulator has decided to have a look at the prices charged by regional electricity companies to consumers. That shows that the regulatory system that the House approved is working and that the regulator is using his powers to act in the light of the information available. I think that the action of the Director General of Electric Supply does exactly that. It shows that he can take into account the latest information. Information has become available since his last review. He is now looking at it again. That shows that the system is flexible and is working.
Mr. Blair: Surely it shows precisely the opposite. Is not the point that the electricity regulator acted only after the Trafalgar House bid for Northern Electric exposed the full scale of the excess profits and because of public pressure, not his own internal investigations? Does that not strengthen the case for a review of the system to make sure that the same abuses are not happening in gas and water?
The Prime Minister: No, I think that the right hon. Gentleman has not taken the point fully on board. He cannot claim at one moment that the regulator has too few powers and a few moments later complain that he is using his powers to deal with the situation that has arisen. New circumstances have arisen in the regulator's mind, and the regulator has used his independent powers to look again at the question of pricing. Those are precisely the powers the House required him to have and he is now using them.
Mr. Blair: The information became available not because of the regulatory system but because of the external requirements after the bid. Does the Prime Minister not understand that unless he acts firmly to stop the abuses in the privatised utilities--whether they are the pay deals, the overcharging or the excess profits--they will stand as a visible symbol of everything that is rotten in a Conservative Government?
The Prime Minister: I know that the right hon. Gentleman has now managed to unleash his soundbite, but what he is actually proposing would not enlarge but would narrow the authority and options of the regulator. The fact that this arose out of something that the regulator did not determine shows how wide his powers are. That is the point. The right hon. Gentleman is saying that the regulator should have acted only if he himself had discovered precisely what was likely to happen.
Column 140the means of production, distribution and exchange? Is it not extraordinary that a major political party should spend so much time on clause IV and does it not prove--
Madam Speaker: Order. As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Prime Minister has no responsibility for that matter. He is, no doubt, coming to a question for which the Prime Minister has responsibility.
The Prime Minister: I think the evidence of the past two or three decades will spare me the necessity of travelling the country on that point because very few people who have sensibly looked at the matter do not believe that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) is right to seek the abolition of a dinosaur that most sensible people realise has been dead for the past 20 or 30 years. The only surprise is that a substantial number in the right hon. Gentleman's party still do not understand that.
Mr. Ashdown: How does the Prime Minister justify the fact that, contrary to the specific recommendations of his own personal efficiency unit, the amount of public money that the Government spend on private consultants has now increased by £130 million to £865 million-- sufficient to provide every child in the country with a year of pre-school education? How can the Prime Minister expect parents, teachers and governors to cut, cut, cut, when the Government's record is spend, spend, spend?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman did not address the savings and improvements brought about by the activities of consultants. All that concerns him is making a spurious point that would have been better made about his own Liberal Democrat-controlled county council in Somerset. If the right hon. Gentleman looks at the record on consultancies, he will find that one costing £50,000 yielded savings of tens of millions of pounds for the taxpayer.
Mr. Rowe: Did my right hon. Friend note that in the recent debate on utilities many Opposition Members were keen to see utilities restored to the public sector? Is not it an extraordinary definition of monopoly to imagine that in a world in which foreign companies compete globally with our former public utilities, we should not stimulate competitiveness across the world?
The Prime Minister: Opposition Members may still relish the day when it cost the taxpayer £50 million a week to subsidise utilities so that Ministers could run them inefficiently. These days, those utilities are yielding about the same amount of money each day for the taxpayer. Many utilities are selling their services and expertise abroad to great effect, generating from overseas activities huge sums of money for this country.
Column 141aware that today fewer than 4 per cent. of directors and fewer than 3 per cent. of senior managers are women? Does he consider Operation 2000 a success?
The Prime Minister: When my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster speaks in this afternoon's debate, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the improved opportunities for women across a range of circumstances--not least in public appointments for which the Government are directly responsible, where there has been a dramatic improvement. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is some way to go, but a significant improvement has been made in recent years, and I look forward to that continuing.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the document published by the Department of National Heritage last week, "Tourism: Competing with the Best"? It states that tourism could be the largest single issue by the year 2000. Tourism currently employs 1.5 million people, but the report makes it clear that we could do better. Does my right hon. Friend agree that tourism should have higher priority and that a single body should be responsible for encouraging inward tourism?
The Prime Minister: I should like to reflect with greater care on my hon. Friend's last point because of regional disparities in tourism in Scotland, Wales, the west country and elsewhere. My hon. Friend is right about tourism's importance and the number of people that it employs. In some parts of the United Kingdom--not least, most recently, Northern Ireland--increased tourism is making a material improvement to the local economy.
Mr. Burden: Does the Prime Minister recall specifically ruling out three months ago Government action on executive salaries on the ground that it would constitute--I believe that I quote the right hon. Gentleman correctly--"a pay policy for a small number of key executives"? In the light of the right hon. Gentleman's statement to the House last week, does he think that is a policy or is not a policy--or, as usual, does he not know?
The Prime Minister: I do not know whether you, Madam Speaker, would like to let the hon. Gentleman try again, so that he may get his question right. Only one side of the House wants a pay policy for top executives. Labour wants a pay policy for people at the top--a maximum wage at the top, and a maximum wage at the
Column 142bottom because then it would have the justification for a pay policy right the way down British industry. I am seeking to cope with abuses where they occur. If the hon. Gentleman had read what I said last week, he would understand that.
Mr. Marshall: Does my right hon. Friend agree that education provides an escalator of opportunity for all children? Does he believe that choice and standards would benefit from the abolition of grammar schools, grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges, all of which are popular? Would not the abolition of grant-maintained schools be particularly harsh on parents who prefer them to schools run by local education authorities, especially in Islington?
The Prime Minister: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that education is one of the areas that gives the greatest opportunity to people. The reforms that we have introduced in recent years extend choice, create a diverse education system and aim to give the best possible education to every child. It is for that reason that we have made reforms right the way through the education system--reforms that have been welcomed by parents and schoolteachers and, increasingly, are welcomed and used by hon. Members in every part of the House.
Mr. Lloyd: During this, the 50th anniversary of the ending of the war, will the Prime Minister today give some consideration to that generation who were prepared to fight and, in many cases, made considerable personal sacrifices in forced labour camps, for example, in Europe and elsewhere? Is the Prime Minister of the view that it is a fitting reward for that generation that they now spend their lives in poverty as pensioners under the Government?
The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman knows the respect that everyone in Britain has for the generation who fought in the war. He will also know what has been done, not just in the past few years but during the past couple of generations, to ensure that their living standards are as high as can possibly be the case.
The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman says, "Not successful." Perhaps he would like to reflect on the number of improvements that we made in 1979 that had not been introduced by the previous Labour Government.
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