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Viscount Thurso: I did not realise that we would embark on a debate about regional variation this early on. We have an amendment coming up later, Amendment No. 51, which addresses this issue. It may be, for the convenience of the House, if I deal with it briefly at this point, which would enable my noble friend, therefore, not to move that amendment when we come to it.

In looking at regional variation, we have, on these Benches, long advocated that that is the way to approach the minimum wage. However, I fully accept the arguments which the Minister has put forward. It may well be that intellectually and logically it is more appropriate to have one single minimum wage for the whole country. Equally, there may come a time in the

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future when views change and it is thought desirable that some variation may be necessary between different regions. It may be between Scotland and England and it may be between greater regions than that. Therefore, it seems to me quite logical that if we put into the Bill at this stage the ability for that power to be exercised by the Secretary of State at a later stage, it does not mean that he has to exercise that power immediately, and if the Low Pay Commission chooses to recommend that it is not a good idea, then he certainly does not have to exercise that power.

In order to avoid the kind of enabling legislation, which so often comes to your Lordships' House, such as one in which I was involved recently that I call the mollusc Bill, which is in fact the Sea Fisheries (Shellfish) (Amendment) Bill, would it not be sensible at least to provide the power at this stage and then, if it is not exercised, it is not exercised; but if the Government wish to exercise it they have that power?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I am sorry to rise again, but I do so in order to answer the points skilfully made by the noble Viscount. As regards the principle, I made the Government's position clear. We take the view that there is, as a matter of policy, a balance of advantage strongly in favour of not having regional rates. The Low Pay Commission and the Minister setting the rates can take into account the differences throughout the regions. It is a strongly held view, and it is a view that is fundamental to the Bill, that a simple, single national rate is the appropriate way forward in relation to that. That being the principle, I submit that it is entirely right that the principle is reflected in a Bill which specifically states that there cannot be regional variations.

9.15 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe: One of our problems is that we have a different attitude to the whole issue. We believe in a minimum income and the Government believe in a minimum wage. We understand that the Bill is a manifesto commitment and that it will go onto the statute book.

The noble and learned Lord mentioned the report from the Low Pay Commission. Our difficulty is that we are working in a vacuum. It is difficult to say what our reaction would have been if we had known the facts. We agree that the proposal is easier, but the Government say that it is fairer. I wonder if people with small businesses in the south-west, who may have to close those businesses, will see it as being fairer. There will be the demise of many rural shops and the Government must take responsibility for that. We believe that the minimum wage will price many people out of work in that area.

We know that wages vary in different areas. We hope that at some stage there will be regional differences to reflect the different wages that are paid. I shall read what the Minister has said, discuss it with my colleagues and perhaps return at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 7 not moved.]

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Baroness Miller of Hendon moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 1, line 16, at end insert (", being at a rate not in excess of £3.00 per hour (at September 1997 prices) or its equivalent uprated in line with inflation").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 8, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 9 and 10. They are probing amendments and they were probing amendments in another place. We need to probe because we are working entirely in the dark as to the amount that the national minimum wage will be. It is bad enough that in the other place the Bill went through all its stages without honourable Members on either side being able to extract a figure from the Government. Here we are at what is probably the most important stage of a Bill, still being asked to consider major complex matters without having that vital piece of information. That information might well affect our attitude to some of the Bill's provisions.

We were told that there might be a Statement on the report of the Low Pay Commission early this week. What do we have? We have not had that and it could be said that we have had nothing. That is not absolutely true because we have had a heavy and, one assumes, an authoritative leak from the Department of Trade and Industry that the rate is to be £3.60 an hour, with a variation for under-21 year-olds. That is countered by leaks hinting at conflicts with the Chancellor of the Exchequer who apparently wants a lower rate. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has already hit out against wage inflation, backed by the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee whose increase in interest rates last week was on the grounds that it was concerned with the increasing size of wage settlements. During this bizarre Dutch auction between the Treasury and the DTI--which if rumours are correct, and they usually are, is conducted by what is often called "a full and frank exchange of views"--the Government paymasters--the trade unions--are also exerting pressure. Just like Oliver Twist, they are saying, "Please, sir, I want some more".

Rodney Bickerstaffe, the Secretary General of Unison, said in a television interview last Sunday that there was a lot of pressure on the Low Pay Commission from the Treasury to keep down the national minimum wage. Perhaps we should be told what other pressures were put on the Low Pay Commission by the DTI in respect of the other aspects of its deliberations, bearing in mind that the Low Pay Commission was supposed to be conducting an independent and impartial inquiry.

Mr. Bickerstaffe, in that same interview, predicted that the Bank of England's latest interest rise would result in yet another rise in mortgage rates and that his members would then want increased wages. In other words, the Bank of England is generating its own wages inflation spiral.

Is the reason why the Government have been so coy about releasing the report of the Low Pay Commission and announcing, in accordance with Clause 5(4), what their intentions are that they are split on the matter; or is it that they hope they can spin out the announcement until the Bill has made further progress through your Lordships' House--perhaps until the Recess?

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If the Minister will not tell us what the minimum wage is to be, will he tell us when he will tell us? If he will not tell us even that, will he tell us why he will not tell us that? Will he at least tell us what is the cause of the hold up? The Bill's passage through the other place included several all-night sittings in Committee. It has had its Second Reading in your Lordships' House. Will the Minister not accept that the fundamental principles and theoretical issues have been debated almost to the point of exhaustion? I say "almost" because in the absence of satisfactory answers to some of those fundamental points, and with an obstinate refusal by the Government to pay any attention to valid and constructive arguments, we shall have to go through some of them again, plus some new ones, in this place.

The amendments and this discussion would have been totally unnecessary if the Government had treated Parliament with the minimum of courtesy and provided it with the facts on which this Committee could base its judgment. The Government are not merely expecting Parliament to rubberstamp whatever they decide to do and are not merely asking us to sign a blank cheque. They will not even let us see how much the cheque is made out for. I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Those Members of the Committee who did not have the amendment in front of them would be surprised to hear that the speech that the noble Baroness has just delivered was to amendments that recommended that £3.60 should be the upper limit for the minimum wage and £3.20 the lower rate for 18 to 20 year-olds.

I appreciate that the procedures of this House are quite lax, but I imagine that there must be some talking to the amendment itself rather than to any issue of a more general nature. The noble Baroness made the point that there has been no publication of the report of the Low Pay Commission. As I am sure the noble Baroness is aware, the Bill sets out the framework within which, by means of secondary legislation, the Minister can determine what the national minimum wage shall be.

In order to establish a national minimum wage, regulations must be laid before both Houses of Parliament and affirmed. So both Houses of Parliament will have the opportunity to debate the level at which the national minimum wage is set. Noble Lords opposite and Members in another place will have a full opportunity to debate the level at which it is set and make such points as they regard appropriate in relation to that.

The whole of the speech by the noble Baroness was devoted to the issue of why we have not published the report of the Low Pay Commission rather than to her particular amendments. As I said when the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, moved the previous amendment, I should have thought that, when scrutinising the Bill at the Committee stage, those opposite would want to concentrate on the structure of the Bill rather than on something that would occur at a later stage.

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I feel slightly diffident in talking about the details of the amendment because that is not something that the noble Baroness has done in the course of her speech. However, perhaps I may just say that it is not appropriate at this stage to talk about what the level is. It would be wholly inappropriate in the Bill to set minimum or maximum rates for the national minimum wage. That is something much more appropriately done in the procedure laid down in the Bill. It is obviously appropriate as well that a body such as the Low Pay Commission should give advice to the Government before such a conclusion is reached. That is what the structure of the Bill lays down.

I hope that in the light of what I have said the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

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