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Minimum Wage

4. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): How many people have contacted the minimum wage hotline since it was inaugurated. [105752]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): There have been 150,000 calls to the national minimum wage hotline.

Mr. Prentice: I suspect that a good number of that 150,000 came from Pendle and north-east Lancashire which is a low-pay black spot. Is the Secretary of State aware that when the national minimum wage came in last April, 8 per cent. of all adults in employment in Pendle received a pay increase, as did no fewer than 30 per cent. of all part-time women employees? Not only did that have huge practical importance: for the Labour party and the Labour Government it had huge symbolic importance. Will the Secretary of State let us know whether there will be an annual uprating of the national minimum wage which people in my constituency and across the land fully expect?

Mr. Byers: I am delighted to hear that so many workers in my hon. Friend's constituency have benefited from the introduction of the national minimum wage. The important message that we can both put over to them is that they stand to lose that if the Conservative party is ever returned to office. In answer to his question, the Government have made it clear throughout that it is not their policy automatically to uprate the national minimum wage annually. Any increase will need to be considered in the light of the economic conditions at a particular time. I know that this cautious approach will be criticised in some quarters, but it is important that this radical change in the labour market is introduced successfully--as it has been. We must not take any steps which will disadvantage its successful introduction.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Does the Secretary of State agree that despite reservations expressed about the national minimum wage, by me among other people, it has proved to be a success and has been accepted as such across industry? In the same spirit of consensus, will he agree that there needs to be a mechanism for increasing the minimum wage at least in line with inflation over the past two years and for removing discrimination against younger workers aged between 18 and 22?

Mr. Byers: I welcome the Liberal Democrats' decision on the minimum wage. They described their own policy as being economically illiterate and politically inept, and that was absolutely right. Their policy was exactly that, in line with many of the policies that they pursue. The hon. Gentleman, who opposed the national minimum wage and the way it was introduced, is now calling for an annual uprating. It is important to remember that the national minimum wage is not a state benefit. It is paying people for work. That means that an increase will be linked to the economic circumstances of the day. It has made a break with state benefits, which are annually

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uprated. The minimum wage is about making work pay for people. That is exactly what we are doing and what we will continue to do.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): While I congratulate the Government on introducing the minimum wage, does my right hon. Friend agree that £3.60 an hour is too low? In view of the profits of various companies and the fat-cat increases, does he accept that it is time to increase the minimum wage and link it into a mechanism where it is increased annually, at least in line with the rate of inflation? I suggest that it should go up to £5 an hour.

Mr. Byers: An increase from £3.60 to £5 an hour would be an increase rather in excess of the rate of inflation. I know that my hon. Friend has been a powerful advocate of the minimum wage for many years--and in the years when it may not have been so fashionable to support it. The Low Pay Commission was kept in being after it made its first recommendations partly to monitor continually the impact of the national minimum wage on the labour market, and levels of employment in particular. It has just reported to the Government and we are considering our response, which we hope to make in the next few weeks. We will undoubtedly need to consider the questions of uprating and the youth rate.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): We know from previous answers that thousands of people have gone from low pay to no pay as a result of the Government's policies. Does the Secretary of State regard the thousands of people who have lost their jobs as a result of the minimum wage legislation as a sign of the success or failure of his Government's policy?

Mr. Byers: As usual, the hon. Gentleman is allowing his prejudices to get in the way of the facts, which are that there is higher employment in this country than ever before and that our introduction of the national minimum wage has taken well over 1.5 million people out of poverty pay. All that would be put at risk by the policies that his party pursues.

Debts (Late Payment)

5. Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): If he will make a statement about the use by businesses of the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998. [105753]

The Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The latest review of credit management activity shows that 5 per cent. of firms have already used the legislation--up from 3 per cent. six months ago--and that 11 per cent. are planning to use it.

Mr. Browne: Does my hon. Friend have any reliable survey evidence to show that there has been any improvement in Britain's historically lamentable payment culture since 1 November 1998, when the Act came into force?

Ms Hewitt: There are several surveys, not all of them consistent. I am glad to say that the survey by Dunn and Bradstreet, one of the most comprehensive, shows that 60 per cent. of companies are paying on time, compared

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with only 54 per cent. in 1997. That has taken us up to third place in the European Union league table on payment of debts. It is still not good enough, but we are going in the right direction.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Has the Minister been able to do a survey or analysis of the sort of businesses that are using the legislation? What percentage of small businesses are using the legislation against other small businesses that are late in paying their debts?

Ms Hewitt: I think the hon. Gentleman does not entirely understand the legislation. As currently in force, it allows small businesses to pursue large businesses because that is the real problem that we identified and set out to put right. The introduction of the rest of the law is being phased. The intention is that, from 1 November this year, small businesses will be able to use the law against other small businesses, and that, from 1 November 2002, all businesses and public sector organisations will be able to use the law, but we continue to keep those phasing arrangements under review.

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): Does the Minister agree that the Government should take a lead in promoting early payment of debt, and that it is regrettable that the Bill did not reflect that? Will she provide us with statistics showing the Government's record at both local and national level?

Ms Hewitt: Of course Government must take a lead and that is what we are doing. Every Government Department has signed up to the better payment practice code. Most paid almost 97 per cent. of their bills on time in the last financial year. The Department of Trade and Industry has substantially improved its payments record and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked officials to ensure that 100 per cent. of bills are paid on time.

Mail Order

6. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): What recent discussions his Department has had with representatives of the mail order companies on consumer protection in that industry. [105754]

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson): The Department has met representatives of the mail order industry to discuss consumer protection issues concerning implementation of the European directive on the protection of consumers in respect of distance contracts, and the proposals in the consumer White Paper relating to codes of practice.

Helen Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Not only do many hon. Members shop by mail order because of lack of time, but, more important, many of my poorer constituents do so because it is the only way in which they can phase payments. There are many good mail order companies, but in dealing with some of them, people may encounter particular problems in arranging deliveries and making complaints: people often cannot get hold of anyone in a responsible position to deal with the matter that they wish to raise. Will my hon. Friend assure

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me that, in future discussions, he will raise those topics with the mail order companies, so that our poorer constituents will be entitled to better protection?

Mr. Johnson: My hon. Friend raises an important point. One of the reasons for introducing better consumer protection in the sector is that, although the vast majority of mail order companies behave in an exemplary manner, the most vulnerable people are sometimes exploited by a small minority. I will take her views into account and pass on to her the response of the Mail Order Traders Association of Great Britain next time we meet, but I remind her that we are consulting on the implementation regulations until 11 February. All submissions will be gratefully received.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does the Minister accept that it is possible to receive junk mail not only through the post but by fax? What about introducing some consumer protection for the poor guy who owns the fax machine and ends up having to pay for the paper, the toner and everything else? What about some protection for hon. Members who return home to discover on the floor at least 200 yards of fax paper containing useless junk that has been faxed to us? We need such protection, too.

Mr. Johnson: The hon. Gentleman's remarks strike a chord throughout the House. I remind him that the consultation that I mentioned earlier, on the European directive on distance selling, includes measures to ensure that people have a statutory right to choose whether to receive advertising mail, regardless of whether it is sent by e-mail, the post or fax. As I said, the consultation period finishes on 11 February.

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