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Mr. Byers: One reason might be that there are no Conservative Members of Parliament to represent the 80,000 people in Wales who benefit from the national minimum wage and will benefit from the increase announced today.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The Secretary of State will know that I am never miserable and that I have always supported the principle of a national minimum wage--indeed, I operated a company in the United States that was subject to the national minimum wage. However, he will recall that in 1997 his own party predicted a national minimum wage of between £5 and £5.50 an hour, which is why the Conservative party said that the result would be high unemployment. Far from the Conservatives being "wrong, wrong, wrong", as he put it, the national minimum wage is just another Labour promise made in 1997 that was broken, broken, broken.
Mr. Byers: I think that the hon. Gentleman opposed the introduction of the national minimum wage. He will be aware that when we appointed the Low Pay Commission, we said that it was for it to decide the level at which the minimum wage should be introduced. The hon. Gentleman said that
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): My right hon. Friend rightly received wide-scale plaudits last Friday when he visited the north-west, announcing improvements in the science base. Today, he will receive more plaudits from other parts of the community.
When he next visits the north-west, may I invite him to see lone parents in my constituency who have benefited in their attempts to get into work and obtain real paid work that takes them off benefit as a result of the minimum wage policy? The policy has made a fundamental difference to those people and others. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that message goes back to the Low Pay Commission? Will he tell it to keep up the good work, and will the Government continue to support the commission?
Mr. Byers: One reason that the Low Pay Commission is such a strong body is that it visits regions and talks to those who have benefited from the national minimum wage, as well as employers who are responsible for paying that wage. The members of the commission have a balanced and rounded approach to the recommendations that they make.
I have no doubt that my announcement will be good news for the tens of thousands in the north-west who will benefit from it. It is about ensuring that work pays and that there is real dignity for those in the workplace. The national minimum wage is an important element in securing those objectives.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): What advice would the Secretary of State give to small business men and women who perhaps employ only one or two people and work many more hours than their employees? Given the right hon. Gentleman's announcement, their net take-home pay will be considerably less than that of the employee in receipt of the minimum wage. Will the Government make up their wages through the social security system? That cannot be done now because they are self-employed. If someone cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel in terms of his business--he may be a farmer, for example--should he sell up before the increase in the minimum wage comes into effect in October?
Mr. Byers: When the Low Pay Commission considered its recommendation, it looked at the impact that it would have on all sectors of the economy. I am confident that the recommendation that we have been prepared to agree will escape the difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. It is a balanced approach. It is prudent and bold in that there is a significant increase, but it is being introduced in a way that will not adversely affect the economy or employment generally.
Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): My right hon. Friend's announcement will be extremely welcome in my constituency, where more than 2,000 people--most of them women--have already benefited from the national minimum wage.
There are always Scrooge employers who try to use every dodgy practice going to avoid paying a penny. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that his Department will mount an effective publicity campaign so that people know what they are entitled to? A clear message must be sent to miserly bosses that they need to pay what is due to people.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The Secretary of State referred to benefits for women, especially in respect of the hotel and catering industry. Has he had time to read the latest Bank of England quarterly report, which indicates that the trend in the increase in employment is less towards full-time jobs and much more biased towards part-time jobs? Does he recognise that the increase in the national minimum wage will therefore involve less full-time employment and an increase in part-time employment? That is fine if that is what women want when their children are at school, but not if the women are the main breadwinners and bringing up young children.
Mr. Byers: As I said, the rates will be the same, whether employees are full-time or part-time. As a result of today's announcement, the national minimum wage will go up to £4.10 an hour from this October. It is important that people have a genuine choice; many of them choose to work part-time. I welcome the fact that, as a result of employment growth under this Government, people now have that option and can decide how to balance their lives. If people want to work reduced hours or go part-time, it is important that they should be entitled to do that, particularly if they have responsibilities for child care or looking after an ageing parent. In a genuinely flexible work force, employees can choose to work fewer hours, if that is what they want.
Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Will he confirm that there are no grounds at all for differential rates, whether by sector or geographic region? In particular, will he resist calls from Liberal Democrat Members for a lower rate in the south-west and Yorkshire and Humberside?
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to point out what the Liberal Democrats' policy was; I am not sure what it is nowadays. [Hon. Members: "Neither are they."] That is probably right. When the national minimum wage was introduced, the Liberal Democrats wanted regional differences in the application of the rate, which would obviously have an adverse impact not just on Yorkshire and Humberside, but on the north-east, the north-west and Wales in particular. Under this Government, the national minimum wage is exactly that: it is a national minimum, which does not vary according to sector or geographical location. Wherever someone works in the United Kingdom, in whatever sector, in whatever size of organisation, he or she will be able to get the benefit of the increase that we have announced today.
Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that farmers who earn substantially less than the national minimum wage will shortly be on the receiving end of Government largesse? Further to the pertinent inquiry of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton- Brown), will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what specific discussions he is having, or intends to have, with the Federation of Small Businesses and the Forum of Private Business about the impact of the uprating on micro businesses?
Mr. Byers: The important point is that the Low Pay Commission has consulted and engaged with all organisations and has considered the impact of the national minimum wage. We, too, have looked at its impact, and are confident that some difficulties about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned will not arise. The report was published early in the cycle to ensure that small businesses have plenty of notice of the intention to introduce an increase in October this year. We are now giving them that notice. I have no doubt--and this point was reflected in the report--that, with that period of notice, the change will be manageable for micro businesses and other small businesses.