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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying from the subject. He may be talking about that gentleman's minimum wage--I do not know--but he should return to the amendment under discussion.
Mr. McCartney: I was contrasting the Government's proposals in the Bill and their intention to drive down the position of the unemployed, who work for £1 an hour or less or run the risk of losing benefit, with their general policies in the labour market. The Bill supposedly provides opportunities for employment in the labour market. My contention, as shown by the evidence I have put to the House, is that the Government have double standards--one standard for their friends and one for the unemployed. It is legitimate to say why we have tabled these amendments. We want to put the unemployed at least on a level playing field. It may be that the job that is being offered leaves them worse off than when they are on benefit. They may be driven further into poverty by having to accept an employment opportunity that none of the Conservative Members would accept for themselves or their family.
It is clear that Ministers would never accept those wage rates for the companies and individuals who support them, whether in the privatised industries, the private sector or the banking sector. It is legitimate to state precisely what the Government are doing with the Bill.
Column 405Ms Eagle: Did my hon. Friend notice that Mr. Giordarno and Mr. Cedric Brown of British Gas said in their evidence to the Select Committee that they would have no objection whatsoever to a minimum wage?
Mr. McCartney: It is interesting to note that a large and growing number of employers not only accept but promote the idea of minimum standards at work. Many companies which are involved in compulsory competitive tendering now recognise that one can maintain standards and opportunities in the marketplace for their goods and services only if they provide minimum standards of investment, training and education for the work force. Many companies now fear that, following the total deregulation of the labour market, competition will be on the basis of who can pay the least wages. Instead of investment in quality, there will simply be investment in the firms with the lowest wages. Companies will then be in an unfavourable position when trying to compete in the marketplace.
Mr. Fabricant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. McCartney: No, I shall not give way. The hon. Gentleman may be able to make a speech during the debate. [Interruption.] I gave way to him earlier, and I was sorry I did because of the stupidity of his remarks.
Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman did not answer my question.
Mr. McCartney: The hon. Gentleman has had an answer. If he does not like it, he can lump it.
Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman adopts the intellectual approach.
Mr. McCartney: It says a lot for the hon. Gentleman's intellect that he supports what is happening in the privatised utilities at the expense of those on low pay. If that is a sign of intellect, I am glad that I have my intellect and he has his.
The Government have got themselves into a position where on the one hand, their proposals will further undermine the right of the unemployed to seek a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, while on the other hand, they will allow employers--such as the bosses of the privatised utilities--to set wage levels for their own benefit. There will be huge wage levels and minimum levels of pay for the privatised bosses, while no minimum level is set at the lower end of the market, where it will be left to the market to drive wages down further. With that will go the rights of unemployed people to seek employment which will take them out of poverty, and not drive them further into it. The Government's position is even more unsustainable when one looks at what the new JSA rules are doing to the incomes of people who are currently requiring benefits. Eighteen to 24-year-olds will lose £500 a year--a 20 per cent. cut--simply because they are under 25. They must still pay the same levels of national insurance contributions, tax, council tax and mortgage payments. But when it comes to their payments from the benefits system, the Government immediately make a cut in their income because of their age.
A person aged between 18 and 24 who has a partner working full time will have a 60 per cent. cut in benefit, and will lose £1,457 simply because of his age. Again, that is despite the fact that he pays the same level of
Column 406contributions as people over 24. A 25-year- old with a partner working full time will lose 50 per cent. of his income, or £1,205. Someone aged 25 or over with £8,000 of savings--which can include, of course, any redundancy payments--and a non-working partner will lose 70 per cent. of his benefit, or £2,694.
The House should look at those figures alongside the Government's support for Mr. Wallis and his one day a week job which gives him extra spending money of £17,000 a year. It is no wonder that we ask about double standards in public life, and about the hypocrisy, mean-mindedness and tight-fistedness of the Government. The Government are blatantly cutting the benefit of the unemployed and kicking them in the teeth. They are asking the unemployed to pay the price of the Government's failed economic policies.
Ms Lynne: Would the Labour party reverse those cuts? I asked that question before, but I did not get a satisfactory reply.
Mr. McCartney: If the hon. Lady and her party had bothered to serve for eight weeks on Committee, she would have had an answer to that question, and a lot of other answers as well. The Labour party has consistently tabled amendments and new clauses to defend the status quo and to try to challenge and defeat the Government on the Bill. The next two days of discussion on the Bill will be about the clear proposals from the Labour party to defend the rights of the unemployed. We cannot make our position any clearer. We have not spent the last eight weeks of our lives in Committee--without the support of a single Liberal Democrat--defending the rights of the unemployed, to come here and have a silly smart Alec question about what we will do at the next election.
We are desperate for the Government to announce a general election so that we can put our new proposals on the minimum wage and other issues before the British public. With every day that goes by without a general election, more people are ending up in poverty and unemployment, and more people are being exploited in the work place because of low wages. If the Government are really serious about the Labour party's position on policy issues, they should give us a general election.
I understand that right hon. Members in the Cabinet set themselves up a little sub-committee to look after Government gaffes. Their first mistake was to put the chairman of the Conservative party in charge of the gaffe committee.
The Government would seem to have no intention--either before the passage of the Bill or slightly after--of allowing us to put the issues to the British public. But they cannot run away for ever, and we await the day when we can put some different proposals to the public, not only on the minimum wage but on recreating a welfare state which takes people out of poverty and into work and which gives people access to a range of issues which the Government currently deny them.
Mr. Heald: Getting back to the amendment, what would be the "minimum prescribed amount of remuneration."?
Mr. McCartney: The Government have three choices, and each time we asked the Government about them they
Column 407failed to respond. The Government can--by regulation--say that the minimum would be a person's current unemployment benefit level, his current income support level or his current jobseeker's allowance level. We have asked questions about that, as the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) knows. The hon. Gentleman served on the Committee, and that is why I was prepared to give way to him. We asked the Minister of State, who was so eager that she answered before I could get the question out. She said that there would be no level in respect of the protection of an individual in relation to the minimum level of salary which can be given in an offer of employment. Therefore, the three options available to the Government could offer protection for the unemployed going back to the work place.
Mr. Heald: Which option would the hon. Gentleman choose?
Mr. McCartney: If I were the Minister, I would not be putting the unemployed in the position in which the Government are putting them. No Labour Minister would force people into employment at wages of less than £1 an hour or take away their right to benefit. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North's support of the Government's proposals in Committee has been shameful.
Ms Eagle: Does my hon. Friend recall that the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State for Employment, when asked about that very matter, said that the correct answer to question 18 of the jobsearch plan is the level of wages a person was earning in his last job?
Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend is right, and when we challenged the Government on that, no answer was given.
Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman knows that he cannot say that no answer was given when I was challenged. I gave the Committee a full explanation of what happened. The hon. Gentleman will recall, as will the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), what happened that night. There was a great deal of yah-boo stuff coming from the Opposition Benches. There was chaos. One could hear the chaos several miles off. My hon. Friend was not allowed to complete his sentence. Far from being confused, had he been allowed to finish he would have said that the amount was someone's last salary within the permitted period. The hon. Gentleman was given that explanation in Committee.
Mr. McCartney: The Minister is absolutely consistent in the excuses that she gives for the mistake either by herself or by the Under-Secretary, her hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim). The fact is that the Government got themselves into a mess on that occasion. If I remember rightly, for her trial and tribulation in trying to trip around her hon. Friend's terrible error, we gave the Minister a Gotcha award on behalf of the rest of the Committee.
Ms Eagle: When my hon. Friend read the Hansard record of the response of the Under-Secretary of State for Employment did he notice the full stop at the end of the sentence?
Mr. McCartney: I do not want to discomfit the Minister any further. It is a difficult position when a Minister prays in aid a full stop or comma in respect of
Column 408Government policy, but there we are. The Minister is right. She gave an explanation in Committee, but the problem was that all the members of the Committee laughed their heads off and we did not hear it all.
The Labour members of the Committee found the Government's position on this matter unacceptable. Through their labour market policies, the Government are trying to price the unemployed into low-paid work by denying them benefit. The unemployed have two choices, neither of which is acceptable. The choices are exploitation or the dole. The Government's proposals for JSA offer a simple choice.
Question 18 of the draft agreement on the jobsearch plan asks the claimant:
"What is the lowest wage you are willing to work for?" There are even boxes in which to put the lowest hourly, weekly, monthly and annual wage rate. I do not think that Mr. Ed Wallis of PowerGen will be filling in the form, but it would be interesting if he did.
Ms Harriet Harman (Peckham): The box is not big enough for all the noughts.
Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend is right.
The Government's proposals for the jobseeker's agreement are different from what happened under unemployment benefit. JSA is not a daily benefit but a weekly benefit. In the jobseeker's agreement people have to sign up in advance for seven days a week at a minimum of 40 hours. If that is calculated in relation to the level of the jobseeker's allowance, it equates to about £1 an hour. The Government are giving a green light to poor employers in local markets to offer employment opportunities with pay at or around jobseeker's allowance rates. They will do so in the sure and certain knowledge that the Minister will offer up large numbers of unemployed people who will either have to take the job or lose their right to benefit. Unemployed people will be criminalised. They can be fined and fined again. They have nil choice. It is either to have no income or to take the exploitative job. That is why the Government have made this proposal. It is a cowardly attempt further to manipulate local labour markets not by investing in quality training and job opportunities but simply by driving down pay to the lowest possible level. Our position is in stark contrast to the response from the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Amber Valley. This is the hon. Gentleman who got the Minister into trouble in Committee. In a letter to the Financial Times on 23 December last, he stated that £2.70 was an extremely low level of pay. He can write that in the Financial Times , but as a Minister in the Department of Employment he backs the Government to the hilt when they are prepared to introduce the jobseeker's agreement and force people to work for not half but almost a third of that.
What is the Government's position? If £2.70 is extremely low, would the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North support it, given that that is the position of an Employment Minister? People could legitimately say that offers of less than that could leave them considerably worse off. The Government should respond to that. Is that Government policy? Did the hon. Member for Amber Valley declare the Government's position on the minimum level of wages in the economy?
Mr. Fabricant: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way a second time. He quoted earlier the view of The Guardian on the minimum wage. While I have not read that article, I have read reports by the OECD which say that the single common cause for high unemployment levels in France and the Club Med countries is a minimum working wage. So what is the hon. Gentleman's policy and what is his response to the OECD, if not to The Guardian ?
Mr. McCartney: I say two things to the hon. Gentleman. This is not a complaint. The article that I quoted from The Guardian was not about the minimum wage. It was about Mr. Wallis's personal position in relation to his minimum wage. As for the OECD, the report did not say what the hon. Gentleman said it said. The Government interpret it in the same way as they do the ILO report. Those reports make it clear that the Government's position is unsustainable in terms of the market.
The ILO report, which is less than a month old, has made it clear that the position of this and other Governments who promote free market policies to the extent of poverty pay is driving their economies in the wrong direction. In the long run, that will damage the economy as a whole. Academic research has also shown that, in countries that have a minimum wage, there is no net loss of employment opportunities. The Government have not been able to prove their case.
Does the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire believe that the Under-Secretary was correct? Does he believe that £2.70 is the level that the Government should choose in respect of the jobseeker's allowance? Does he think that that is a fair level? Does he think that that should be the floor?
Mr. Fabricant: I am concerned that people should have jobs. It is pointless to set a minimum working wage if it creates unemployment. Would the hon. Gentleman's party welcome the creation of unemployment?
Mr. McCartney: We are the only country in Europe that does not have statutory pay protection. Ours is the only country out of 100 ILO signatories that is opposed to providing minimum pay protection for its work force. The bulk of empirical evidence shows that the impact of minimum wages on unemployment is insignificant. That evidence comes from studies by the ILO on the minimum wage throughout the world. The Government do not have a case for opposing the minimum wage. They are opposed to people having fair standards, wages and conditions of work. The Government have set their face against that. It is interesting to note that the hon. Member for
Mid-Staffordshire did not support the Under-Secretary's view. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister of State supports the Under- Secretary. The excuse that she gave in Committee--that the hon. Gentleman was shouted down by yah-boos--does not stand up. He wrote the letter in the closeted, quiet atmosphere of the Department of Employment and sent it off after due consideration. The Minister can give no excuse for what her hon. Friend believed about extremely low levels of pay.
The Government have every intention of taking wage levels in Britain to the lowest possible point, regardless of the social and economic consequences. They have no desire to see any wage protection for workers in Britain. It suits the Government to have high levels of
Column 410unemployment because they create a market in which unscrupulous employers can call the tune. There is a trough for the wealthy fat cats to eat and gorge themselves in and for millions there is a trough of despair. That is what the Government's policies offer. A national minimum wage would get people back to work, off benefits and out of the poverty trap. It beggars belief, but, as we approach a new millennium, earnings inequality in the United Kingdom economy is greater than at any time since 1866. For the bottom quarter of wage earners, earnings fell in comparison with average pay by 10 per cent. The earnings of the upper 25 per cent. rose by 11 per cent. The earnings of the top 10 per cent. of earners have risen by a staggering 50 per cent. Wages councils for 4.5 million people were abolished by the Government in 1993-94.
Mr. Heald: I am still trying to find out what the minimum prescribed amount of remuneration is. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it will be equal to the statutory minimum wage that the Labour party would introduce as an incoming Government? If so, is he talking about £4.05 an hour for 40 hours a week--£160 a week--as the minimum amount that would entitle a claimant to refuse a job?
Mr. McCartney: During the eight weeks in Committee, I know that the hon. Gentleman found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that he was in the Committee to defend the Government's position and that we were debating a Government Bill.
The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley): This is an Opposition amendment.
Mr. McCartney: The Secretary of State must contain himself a moment longer. The position is this. The Government have four choices on this amendment and I will repeat them: employment benefit level, income support level, jobseeker's allowance level and the £2.70 suggested by the Under-Secretary in the Financial Times . I have given the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North four choices. Given that the Bill will be law before the next general election, if he wants a debate in the general election campaign about the minimum wage and any changes that an incoming Labour Government would make to social security, I shall be delighted to come to his constituency to help remove him. I have no problems with that.
As regards the Bill and what happens if it becomes law this summer, the Government must make choices and so far they have chosen to offer people £1 an hour or less. The amendment gives them four opportunities. I will make it easy for the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North. Which opportunity does he choose? Which one would he agree with? I see that he is smiling, but he will need to do better than that--he cannot buy food with a smile. What choice will he make? I will give him four opportunities--one out of four, two out of four, what is it to be? What is his choice?
Mr. Heald: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me another opportunity. The choice that he is offering is totally bogus because the potential law that we spent eight weeks debating does not make choices of that sort. It says that it is up to the claimant to show good
Column 411cause, and he knows that. Will he finally answer the question and say that the minimum prescribed amount of remuneration would be the same as Labour's figure for a statutory minimum wage--that is, £4 an hour?
Mr. McCartney: The hon. Gentleman has surpassed himself as he has given us a fifth choice, which is no floor. The position is clear--the Government are not prepared to defend people from having to accept £1 or £1.50 an hour, or less. Theirs is a total zero position.
Miss Widdecombe: This is an Opposition amendment and presumably its purpose is to make clear what they want in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman consistently refused to make it clear throughout the Committee and the beginnings of this debate. What does he want us to do and what is his choice of the five, six, seven or eight options? Will he specify that figure in that box?
Mr. McCartney: The hon. Lady is being rather disingenuous with me. During the passage of the Bill, I gave her the options. From the moment that she got out of the trap and made it clear that there would be a zero rate for the unemployed and that the sky is the limit for the public utility bosses, she has had opportunities. In this debate, I have given her a fourth opportunity to agree with the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Amber Valley. I would call it a draw if I got anything out of this debate that improved the situation for the unemployed from zero. I give the hon. Lady another opportunity to come to the Dispatch Box to support her hon. Friend's assertion in the Financial Times . Does she agree that that should be the minimum floor?
Miss Widdecombe: My hon. Friend has not suggested a minimum floor as regards the Bill. All I want to hear from the hon. Gentleman is the figure- -whether for an unemployed agricultural worker or an unemployed ex-boss of a public utility--that he wants in that box under the Bill. What is he asking for?
Mr. McCartney: I am going to have to give the hon. Lady a lesson about her own Bill. An unemployed ex-head of a public utility would not qualify because of his capital resources--he would probably retire with about £2 billion of taxpayers' money in the bank, so the question does not apply.
The Minister cannot use the excuse that the Under-Secretary has been misquoted. He took the opportunity, in his own time, to submit the letter to the Financial Times . She either agrees with him or she does not. I will repeat his remarks. On 23 December last, he stated that £2.70 is an extremely low level. That is the position of her junior Minister. That being the case, how can the Government accept a zero position in the Bill for the unemployed? It is clear that the hon. Lady--
Mr. Heald: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Opposition to table an amendment and for no guidance to be given in the speech for the Opposition about the essential point--what the prescribed minimum amount of remuneration should be? If I may give an example--
Column 412Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman need not bother to give an example because it is not a point of order and the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) is responsible for his speech.
Mr. McCartney: The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North should know better than to challenge the Chair as it was obviously in order or we would not have been debating it. I should have thought that he would have learnt his lesson, as he got himself into hot water on more than one occasion in Committee with similar points. He is using yet another tactic, but he has failed to answer.
The Government are extremely embarrassed. They never expected that from the young boy Minister--he is the only Minister who went straight from a youth training scheme to be a Minister and he is the only person I know of who qualified and got a job out of the scheme. The "young Minister", as he was described in the last Employment questions, has put it on record--I assume that he is speaking for the Department as he is not speaking on his own--on behalf of the Government and of the Department, that he believes that £2.70 is an extremely low level. Opposition Members would all say, "Hear, hear." What we find interesting is that, during the passage of the Bill, it has been obvious that the Minister of State believes that a zero rate or £1 an hour is not too low. There is a difference of about 66 per cent. between the hon. Lady and the Under-Secretary. I do not want to labour the point too much, but it is a further sign of Government confusion over minimum wages and standards at work. I see that the Philadelphia lawyer is coming to the Dispatch Box.
Mr. Roger Evans: The question that I want an answer to is this--the hon. Gentleman may not want to give a figure, but he used the phrase
"a minimum prescribed amount of remuneration"
in amendment No. 1. Is that the same figure as Labour's minimum wage? If it is, could he tell us, and if it is not, could he explain it?
Mr. McCartney: The hon. Gentleman must do better than that. I know that he can convince juries at the Old Bailey with his arguments, but that was a bit threadbare. We state clearly that there should be designation in regulations-- [Interruption.] I cannot make it any clearer. Through the amendment, we are trying to ensure that there is a floor, so that an unemployed person can be defended against exploitation.
This Bill will be law before the next general election, when the Labour party will put forward its position on the minimum wage and a range of other issues. The Bill is a stop-gap between this and an incoming Labour Government, which there will undoubtedly be--we will get rid of the whole damn shower of them. The position is clear. Does the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North think that the Under-Secretary was right about £2.70 an hour? Does he think that he has put the Government's position? If so, we will call it a draw and we will accept that and
Column 413designate it in the regulations. At least that would be better than what the Minister of State is saying--£1 an hour or nothing.
Mr. Evans: Do I take it from that evasion that, if there ever were a Labour Government, the figure that he is proposing for the minimum prescribed remuneration would be Labour's minimum wage?
Mr. McCartney: The Under-Secretary thinks that he is at the Old Bailey again. He seems to be rather troubled by the judge in this matter.
Mr. McCartney: Let me tell the hon. Gentleman about yes or no. The Government must defend the Bill which, unamended, provides for a zero rate. Unemployed people can lose their right to benefit if they do not accept a job that pays £1 an hour or less. We have offered four options in that respect. I ask Tory Members again whether they would accept: a minimum level of unemployment benefit; income support; jobseeker's allowance; or the suggestion of the Under-Secretary of State for Employment of £2.70 an hour? For God's sake make up your mind and pick one of those four options before tens of thousands of unemployed people lose their right to benefit or are forced into skivvy jobs that leave them in in-work poverty at the end of the week.
In-work poverty affects millions of people. It is interesting to note that Tory Members have lost, within the confines of Government, the argument on the minimum wage. The Secretary of State for Employment is not here because he cannot take the embarrassment. The Minister of State and her hon. Friends wanted to get rid of the agricultural wages boards, which are the only statutory minimum pay boards left in Britain. They had to hold a public consultation on the matter and discovered that employers, employees and farming communities wanted to keep a minimum wage and minimum standards to protect their community from the onset of further poverty and to defend their local economies and local companies. The Secretary of State for Employment had to swallow that decision in Cabinet and his position was overturned.
So, the first time that public opinion was tested--it will probably be the only occasion between now and a general election--on the issue of a national minimum wage, the Government were defeated and had to climb down. I welcome the fact that a national minimum wage for agricultural workers is still protected. Tory Members have had to accept the principle and concept of a minimum wage, and the agricultural wages boards will continue to operate.
I wait to see whether the Minister will attempt tonight, by the back door or other means, to undermine the decision to continue the agricultural wages boards. May I put another question to her in respect of the jobseeker's agreement? In areas where agricultural wages board rates apply, what will be the position under the jobseeker's agreement of somebody who says, "I'm not prepared to accept a job below that rate."? The local labour market will have a floor agreed by the Government, as the agricultural wages board sets a statutory minimum floor in the local agricultural economy. What is the position of unemployed people in those areas? Will they be allowed,
Column 414under the JSA, to insist that they will not accept wages below the level that the Government set under the agricultural wages board? The Government were not in power when our right hon. Friend, Barbara Castle, put equal pay legislation on the statute book. The Tories screamed that millions of people would be made unemployed, industry would be laid to waste and destroyed, and the only casualty would be women. That has been proved to be a fallacy because women play an increasing part in the work force. The problem is that the equal pay legislation needs a little assistance because of the direct effect on low pay of the Government's market policies. Our proposals on a minimum wage will ensure that women have their rightful opportunity in the marketplace to take home a living wage. The Labour party is proud to support a minimum wage policy and, during the run-up to the next general election, we shall increasingly promote and put forward that proposal effectively.
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East): On low pay, is my hon. Friend aware of the case in Coventry some months ago in which an individual was paid £1 an hour? When we took the matter up with the Secretary of State for Employment, the individual was told that he should claim benefits. The Government are thus protecting employers while abusing taxpayers by using taxpayers' money to subsidise bad employers.
Miss Widdecombe indicated dissent .
Mr. Cunningham: The hon. Lady need not shake her head. If she wants a copy of the letter from the Secretary of State for Employment, I shall willingly send her one. That is the racket which the Government are perpetrating.
Mr. McCartney: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government are using in-work benefits not to lift people out of absolute poverty but to subsidise employers who are maintaining people in poverty. Not only do employers receive that incentive to pay poverty wages but, through the taxation system, they have huge tax rake-offs for their private income and capital at the expense of the low-paid. So it is a double whammy: if people work for a bad employer, the bad employer receives a subsidy to keep them on low pay, while his profits and personal income are hardly taxed at all. The vast majority of working people face a 7p in the pound tax rise, which is the highest tax hike in history. The Government have the worst record on tax of any Government ever, anywhere and at any time. They not only lie about taxation but pile it on as quickly as they can, especially on low- paid, middle-income and ordinary people.
Without a pay floor in the economy, low pay damages our economic prospects. It dampens consumer activity; leads to a high turnover of staff; weakens investment in training; and creates insufficient production by employers, who drive down wages to cut costs instead of improving investment in modern equipment and production methods. A statutory minimum wage would provide a floor to stop unfair exploitation. It would stop bad employers and corporate individuals having the subsidies that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) described a few moments ago.
Column 415Only in the two-nation Britain created by today's Tories can a massive taxpayers' subsidy to low-wage firms be considered sensible economics. If the Minister does not want to listen to me and to my hon. Friends, perhaps she will listen to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon, who clearly stated that there was general agreement within the Cabinet on the need for the agricultural wages boards and that a minimum wage in farming should be applied because it was fair. He said that it did not cost jobs and that both employers and employees wanted to keep it. If that is the hon. Gentleman's position, it is time that the hon. Lady gave up her bile and prejudice against low-paid workers and gave unemployed people a fair crack of the whip and an opportunity for a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. I ask my hon. Friends to support the amendment.
Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): I totally support the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney).
What has angered me most in Committee and in successive debates and Question Times in the House is how the Government and Tory Members preach about creating jobs and attack a minimum wage, when their party is full of people who have several jobs and think that the salary that they receive to serve in this place is insufficient. At the same time, they expect millions of people to live on poverty wages and accept any job, however low paid, that is offered to them. Tory Members are good at preaching about people who are workshy, but would they consider taking a job that paid £2.70 an hour or less? The Government's employment policy and the Bill are all about creating a skivvy economy where hundreds of thousands of jobs are low paid and short term, while a few thousand people--like some retired Tory Ministers and the chairmen of the privatised public utilities--rake in up to £150,000 a year for just one day's work a week.
My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield has already mentioned the evidence that was given yesterday to the Select Committee on Employment. Another fact that particularly angered me and should anger every hon. Member was the news that Michael Bett, the chairman of the Nurses and Midwives Pay Review Body that recommended the paltry, insulting increase of 1 per cent. to the thousands of people who devote their lives to caring for the population, has been offered £57,000 a year for a three-day week. If the Government are willing to offer that kind of remuneration to the thousands of my constituents who are unemployed, I am sure that they would be more than happy to accept it. If the Government want to tackle unemployment, perhaps they should limit the number of jobs that any one person can do, because it seems that just a few hundred people grab every job that is going.
The Bill, if it is unamended, will force people to accept wages of £2.70 an hour or less; otherwise their benefits will be stopped. Just in case anyone thinks that the Opposition are exaggerating about jobs that pay less than £2.70 an hour, let me quote three examples from my part of the world.
First, there was the recent case in the Strathclyde area of a taxi office controller, working a 54-hour week for £1.48 an hour. If that person became unemployed, would he really be expected to be willing to work for even less? The second case is that of a qualified hairdresser in the
Column 416Fife area, whose take-home pay is £68. She and her partner would be better off living on income support, because they would then receive the great sum of £71.70 a week. I came across the third example of low pay when I opened my local jobcentre in Dunfermline in July--a week before the Government confirmed the closure of Rosyth naval base, which has put thousands more out of work. A security guard's job was advertised, which required the man or woman to make their own transport available and offered between £1.80 and £2 an hour.
Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley): The hon. Lady has cited examples of people on low wages, but is it not fair to say that they are entitled to family income supplement, which increases their income considerably?
Ms Squire: As far as I am aware, family income supplement disappeared some years ago and we now have family credit or income support. Because of the complexity and maze of rules concerning family credit and income support, many people on low wages are not entitled to either benefit.
The hon. Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth) leads me on to quote another example of a constituent who came to see me at my surgery at the weekend. He has worked for 29 years at Rosyth dockyard and is to be made compulsorily redundant. He has discovered that, first, because he is 55 years of age, he is not entitled, under current legislation, to unemployment benefit, even though he has paid all his life in the expectation that such benefit would be available to him. Secondly, he will not be eligible for income support because he will receive a pension of £79 a week. That is what he is expected to live on.
Some other Ministry of Defence Rosyth employees, who also face the prospect of redundancy, came to see me yesterday. They told me how shocked they were by the low level of income that people are required to live on.
In Scotland alone, 83,000 people earn less than £2.50 an hour and 24,000 people already earn less than £1.50 an hour. That is the type of wage for which people are expected to work. They are expected to accept such low-paid jobs or face the risk of losing benefit. The Opposition have made it clear that we want to promote decency and decent pay and conditions for those who are in work and then, unfortunately, find themselves out of work. That is why we believe that it is only just that we should amend the Bill, so that men or women can refuse to work for poverty pay without having their benefits stopped.
My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield has already mentioned that, under the Government, the gap between the highest and lowest-paid workers is greater than it has ever been since records began in 1886. The bottom 10 per cent. of full-time workers earn on average about one third of that earned by the top 10 per cent. In 1992, the richest 20 per cent. of the population had net income five times as great as the poorest 10 per cent. That disparity will have grown even larger in the intervening years. It seems that the Government are in favour of low pay, but we are not.
The Government claim that the unemployment rate is falling. I would argue that that is happening not because they have created decently paid jobs, but because they have encouraged low-paid and frequently part-time work. In the past 16 years, I have, time and again, seen jobs that