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National Minimum Wage

9. Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East): If he will make a statement on the action he has taken to raise awareness of the national minimum wage among businesses and employees. [71605]

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Mr. Ian McCartney): We are committed to informing businesses and employees about the national minimum wage and how the rules work. It is essential for as many workers and employers as possible to know their rights and obligations. My Department is already issuing preliminary guidance and preparing detailed guidance for release once the National Minimum Wage Regulations 1999 have been debated. There is a live national minimum wage helpline for guidance on individual cases and a

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website. We will be backing that up with other publicity measures over the coming weeks, which will be announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Heppell: I thank the Minister for that response and welcome his earlier comments about how well business is receiving the national minimum wage. However, what measures does he plan to have in place to ensure that people who are employed by the small number of unscrupulous employers who try to disregard the regulations on the national minimum wage have the confidence to speak out about the fact that those regulations have been broken, without fear of discrimination in the workplace?

Mr. McCartney: First, I can give an absolute guarantee that there will be a new, day one right for employees to claim the national minimum wage and not to be sacked or disciplined. For those who want to act on behalf of another worker to claim that right, there will be another new, day one right--the right not to be sacked or disciplined for claiming the minimum wage on behalf of that individual.

Secondly, we are changing the law on the burden of proof to ensure that the employer has to prove that he has paid the minimum wage once a complaint has been made. Employers are working with the Inland Revenue and Contributions Agency for the fair and effective implementation of the minimum wage. A significant number of employers are on side because they are sick and tired of being undercut not just on the quality of

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goods and services, but by the downward spiral of wages. That is why the minimum wage is as popular among employers as it is among low-paid workers.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a survey of 350 small and medium enterprises in my constituency, from Buckingham to Aston Clinton and from Long Crendon to Wing, shows that those companies are only too well aware of the imposition of the national minimum wage and are profoundly hostile to it?

Moreover, given the importance of learning from the successful experience in other countries, will the hon. Gentleman today pledge that he will conduct a full study of the legislation that was introduced in the United States--the Regulatory Flexibility Act 1980 and the Small Businesses Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act 1996--and send me the result of his homework before the Easter recess?

Mr. McCartney: The hon. Gentleman is in danger of being done under the stalker legislation because he been at me about the same question for the past three months. He seeks me here, he seeks me there, he seeks me everywhere. I have already given him a commitment about that in Committee. If I can find time, I will gladly read the documents that he wishes me to read, but the most important documents that I will read and have read are the National Minimum Wage Regulations and the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. Overwhelmingly, small business supports the minimum wage. I am looking forward to its introduction on 1 April. Perhaps if I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment to read that document, he can give me a commitment that, at the next election, he will campaign for the retention of the national minimum wage.

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Points of Order

12.30 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On Monday afternoon, you were gracious enough to allow the Home Secretary to make a statement to the House on the leak of the Stephen Lawrence report. At the end of the statement, the Home Secretary said:

I entirely endorse those sentiments--as I believe that you do, too.

The Home Secretary published the report yesterday. Again, you were gracious enough to allow him to make a statement to the House. The report and the appendices were then made available to Members of Parliament and to the press. A copy of the appendices currently resides in the Library.

About an hour ago, I went to the Vote Office to request a further copy of the report and the appendices. I was astonished to discover that, early this morning, the Home Office had given instructions that the appendices should be withdrawn.

I went to the Library to inquire whether any reasons for the withdrawal had been given. The Library, with its usual efficiency, established for me that, apparently, the appendices had been withdrawn, on the Home Secretary's instructions, because they contained confidential information that should not have been published.

It would appear that the Home Secretary may have permitted to be published, and to be placed in the public domain, material that could prejudice a re-trial of those believed to be guilty. If that is so, it is a very serious matter indeed and calls into question the Home Secretary's position.

Has the Home Secretary indicated to you that he wishes to come to the House to make a statement, to say why he withdrew that document this morning, without notice to the House?

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I have only just heard about the issue--which is a very important one, as the appendices and the information in them have been heavily reported in the media. To put the matter at its mildest, if the document has been withdrawn for a reason, the House and also the media will need some indication of why that has been done and which parts of the appendices have been withdrawn.

Much of the information is already in the public domain, and much of it is germane to the debate itself. Many hon. Members will speak in the continuing debate on the Lawrence report on the basis of the information

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given. We need urgent guidance from the Home Office on exactly what is happening, and on why the document has been withdrawn.

Madam Speaker: I understand that volume II of the Lawrence report, which contains the appendices, has been withdrawn from the Vote Office. My understanding--I have not made direct inquiries because, as I am sure the House will appreciate, I have not had the opportunity to do so--is that the volume was withdrawn because it contained some inaccuracies, but is to be replaced very soon.

As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield(Sir N. Fowler) and the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) will be aware, the report is the responsibility of the Department. I trust that the Department will ensure that the replacement is made available as soon as possible. The House can be certain that, as soon as I leave the Chair, I shall use my best endeavours to ensure that that is done.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The brutal gunning down and murder of the Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr in Najaf last week is roughly the middle eastern equivalent of the murder of Thomas a Becket, and is creating great difficulties in not only Iraq but the whole Shi'ite world. It has been widely said in the Arab press that that act was not the responsibility of the Iraqi regime, whose interests would hardly be served by such a public murder, but has to do with opposition groups financed by the west. That is what is being said, rightly or wrongly. Have you had any request from the Foreign Office to make a statement in response to what is so widely thought and believed, rightly or wrongly, in the Arab world?

Madam Speaker: I am not aware that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is seeking to make a statement today.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I had hoped to bring to the notice of the Leader of the House a serious breach of clause 79 of the ministerial code of conduct, which relates to the long-standing tradition of the House that Ministers should inform Back Benchers whose constituency they are going to visit. The right hon. Lady visited my constituency last Tuesday, but the first notice that I had was an article in the Malmesbury Standard. By coincidence, on the same day the right hon. Lady answered a parliamentary question from me listing the constituencies that she had recently visited and failing to list mine. Would it be appropriate for you to remind Ministers about that important clause?

Madam Speaker: I had hoped that we were sufficiently far into this Parliament for all hon. Members to be able to resolve such matters between themselves and not raise the issue in the House. I expect all Members of Parliament, including Ministers, to have the courtesy to inform others when they visit their constituencies.

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