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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I start by saying that I would not for a moment describe this as a wrecking amendment. But it is a totally uncharacteristic stance on behalf of the Opposition because everything else has been.

We have debated this issue quite substantially on previous occasions in the House. I should point out also that I have written to the noble Baroness about her concerns and a copy of that letter has been placed in the Library.

I apologise if I engage in some repetition but it is inevitable because the amendment has been debated before in substance. The new clause provides a power to exempt which in my judgment would be invidious. In that respect, it is very similar to the new Clause 2 which was put into the Bill as a result of your Lordships' decision to support that amendment on Report.

However, on that basis, this proposed new clause is unnecessary if the more general exemption power in Clause 2 remains. I hope your Lordships will understand

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that in debating this amendment on its own terms, I also make an assumption that the decision on Clause 2 may well be overturned in another place.

In the Government's judgment, this new clause would be extremely difficult to operate. It could open up a huge loophole in the Bill and would suggest--and this is most important--that workers' rights, and in particular the right to a national minimum wage, is simply for the good times and can be dispensed with when times are hard. I speak of that not only in terms of the economy in general but also in terms of the fortunes of a particular company.

The amendment makes the assumption that poverty wages can be reinstated by suspending the national minimum wage in the public interest because of some unnamed, unidentified emergency. The phrase used is "extreme economic circumstances". We inherited some fairly extreme economic circumstances from our predecessors. That is exactly why we need a national minimum wage and it is a matter of urgency as regards the interests of this country. People who are receiving poverty pay on a daily basis may be considered to be in extreme economic circumstances. That very fact has never for one moment been understood by the Opposition. It is in the interests of the people receiving that poverty pay that this legislation should be enacted as soon as possible. We do not want to have the power to suspend the Bill's provisions, and certainly not in the circumstances described by the noble Baroness.

It is simply not in the public interest for people to be earning poverty wages. The whole point of the national minimum wage is to tackle exploitation. The underlying discontent arising from exploitation and the lack of motivation compound to work against the public interest. So we are seriously at odds with the Conservative Opposition on the matter. Indeed, the public interest lies at the very heart of our approach. What we are really urging here is a partnership approach--in fact, that of the Low Pay Commission, which consulted extensively with all sections and all partners in industry and NGOs. We need to encourage firms to compete not on poverty but on quality. Part of that quality is the quality of the workforce and the need to respect the interests of the workforce. The drive towards greater decency and fairness in the workforce is what all this is about.

I ask the noble Baroness: how can all these things not be in the interests of the public? Quite apart from the principle, which is pretty bad anyway, the proposed new clause would not work in practice. I shall tell your Lordships why. Every time an individual employer got into financial difficulties, what would happen? That employer would come running to the Secretary of State requesting an order rather than exploring other ways of averting a crisis. If economic circumstances changed, the LPC could be called to review the rate at any time. That is the nature of the flexibility we have provided in the Bill.

Of course, there can be shocks to an economy and unexpected crises. Indeed, we know all about that and we have developed a mechanism that can deal with the situation. We certainly do not need the one incorporated

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in the proposed new clause. I am well aware that there is power in the Bank of England Act to cover action in extreme economic circumstances, but that legislation deals with macro-economic circumstances. That is not what this Bill is about. This Bill covers a relatively small part of the economy; it is a matter of proportion and a matter of fairness.

In the earlier debate and indeed in the correspondence in which I engaged with the noble Baroness, the subject of management buy-outs of ailing firms arose. I shall make two points in that respect so that our position is on the record. First, if a buy-out were to take the form of a group of former workers who, in some way, became the owners of a company, the Bill may no longer apply to them in any event because they might not have workers' contracts. Secondly, the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 prevent employees involved in management buy-outs from agreeing to any worsening of their pay and conditions. The introduction of the national minimum wage will not affect that position.

The Opposition have again underlined the strength of their resistance to the very idea of a national minimum wage. Their approach challenges the very fundamentals of what we are seeking to do. It makes an implicit assumption that somehow or other a national minimum wage is something which is very revolutionary, dangerous and unacceptable. They want to guard against it. That is the very opposite of our approach and, I believe, the approach taken by the Liberal Democrats.

I hope that noble Lords will agree that the effect of the proposed new clause would be harmful to the entire principle of the Bill. If the noble Baroness persists with her amendment, I shall have to ask the House to reject it.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, for the sake of the record, perhaps I may begin by saying that I do not accept that any of the amendments I proposed either in Committee or on Report were in fact wrecking amendments. As the Minister started off by saying that, it is only right that I should clarify the position. I can confirm that I received the letter from the Minister on this matter. I should also confirm that I did not accept then what he said and that, frankly, I do not accept what he says now.

The Minister made his position clear and said that I, too, had made mine clear. He says that we are totally opposed the national minimum wage. At the beginning of this Third Reading stage, perhaps I may say that yes, indeed, we are. However, the truth is that wherever there is a national minimum wage--that is to say, in other countries--there are always exceptions. All I have been trying to do right the way through these proceedings is to suggest that the Government might include the same exceptions and exemptions which are absolutely standard in all the other countries that have a national minimum wage.

However, having said that, the Minister talked at some length about poverty pay and said that I am in the business of trying to suggest that people should have poverty pay. That is not so. I was actually talking about the position of a management buy-out. However, I was

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glad to hear the Minister say that that might well be exempted because the workers who formed such a management buy-out might not have workers' contracts and might therefore fall outside the national minimum wage legislation. If so, that would give a defence for the position I had in mind. Nevertheless, in view of everything the Minister said and the fact that I have also made certain things clear for the sake of the record, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.45 p.m.

Clause 11 [Worker's right of access to records]:

Viscount Thurso moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 8, line 21, after ("notice") insert ("and during the paid contractual working hours of the employee").

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, before I speak precisely to my amendment, perhaps I may associate myself and my noble friends wholeheartedly with the remarks that the Minister made in respect of the principles of the Bill. I am an employer in an industry which has a problem with both low pay and recruitment. I have long felt that the proper way to deal with the situation would be to bring in a national minimum wage. In terms of principle, I wholly support that aim, as indeed do my noble friends on these Benches.

I return for the third time to this amendment. I should perhaps say, "third time lucky", because I drafted it incorrectly on both previous occasions and, therefore, was unable to put it before the House. However, this time I have managed to draft it correctly. I believe that I summed up on Report the core of the amendment, when I said:

    "It really concerns the balance of unreasonableness which I feel should be placed on the employer rather than on the employee".--[Official Report, 20/7/98; col. 648.]

Effectively, what I am seeking to do is to amend Clause 11(9). The clause provides for the production of "relevant records"; in other words, it gives the employee the right to receive relevant records. Subsection (9) provides the manner in which an employee should receive such records, set out in two paragraphs. Paragraph (b) takes care of the situation where everyone is being reasonable, and states that such relevant records can be produced,

    "at such later time as may be agreed during that period between the worker and the employer".

That assumes that the worker and the employer are both reasonable and come to a reasonable arrangement.

My amendment seeks to add to paragraph (a) the words,

    "and during the paid contractual working hours of the employee",

so that it would read:

    "The relevant records must be produced--

    (a) before the end of the period of 14 days following the date of receipt of the production notice and during the paid contractual working hours of the employee".

I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for the time and trouble he has taken to speak to me in an effort to persuade me that my amendment is wholly unnecessary. In terms of principle there is

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nothing between us. Indeed, we both wish to see employees properly protected and looked after. I suspect that we both believe that the danger is liable to come much more from unreasonable employers than from unreasonable employees. The noble and learned Lord has drawn to my attention subsection (7) of the clause. I believe it is his contention that that subsection, which requires that,

    "reasonable notice of the place and time",

must be given for the production of the relevant records, is sufficient to cover the terms of my amendment and thus make it unnecessary. So far, the noble and learned Lord has failed to persuade me that that is the case, but I promise to listen most carefully to his response.

I am seeking to provide a means whereby a nightshift employee would be able to require his employer to produce such records while he is at work. As I argued in Committee and on Report, if an employer wishes to be unreasonable, I believe that he has the power to force the employee to return to work during his free time for such purposes, when he would normally be asleep. Not only would that cause the worker inconvenience; there would also be a cost involved. I believe that where there is a risk of that happening it is only right and proper that the duty should be placed on the employer, rather than on the employee, to try to be reasonable. In that regard I am wholly in sympathy with the Bill and everything that it seeks to do.

I believe the difference between us is that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and his advisers have probably never had to work at the "bottom end". For the first five years of my working life I worked in kitchens washing up and doing various other tasks. I received a small allowance from my father of £50 a month in 1972. I had to survive on what I earned. I remember what it is like not to have enough money at the end of the week. I am thinking of those workers--not the highly paid ones--who are on the breadline. An unreasonable employer can make life difficult for those workers. I ask the noble and learned Lord to think again. I believe this measure is wholly within the principles of what the Government seek to do. I hope he will be persuaded by my argument. I beg to move.

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