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Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. The fact that he said that the amendment is unnecessary because Clauses 3 and 4 deal with the matter and that it will be kept under review gives me some comfort.

I am sure that both the Government and Her Majesty's Opposition have the same object in view, to do the very best we can for disabled people. We feel that our way would be better in that it would give a definite enabling power. I am certainly content with the Minister's reply that the matter will be dealt with and kept under continual review, and that Clauses 3 and 4 will be adequate. I imagine that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, will be satisfied with that response. In view of that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Miller of Hendon moved Amendment No. 7:

After Clause 51, insert the following new clause--

Annual reports on operation of minimum wage

(".--(1) The Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer acting jointly shall lay before Parliament an annual report on the operation of the national minimum wage and of this Act as described in subsection (3) of this section.
(2) The Low Pay Commission may from time to time make a report to the Secretary of State on such matters relating to the operation of the national minimum wage and of this Act as seem to them to be appropriate and the Secretary of State shall lay any such report before Parliament except in so far as it is contained in the current or most recent report made pursuant to subsection (1) of this section.
(3) The report under subsection (1) of this section shall, and the report of the Low Pay Commission under subsection (2) may, include an assessment of the effect of the national minimum wage and the provisions of this Act on--
(a) competitiveness and economic growth in the United Kingdom generally;
(b) the balance of economic activity between the various regions of the United Kingdom;
(c) the actual wage rates of the lowest decile of employed persons, and their relationship with rates paid to other employed persons;
(d) the level of unemployment and of welfare benefits related to unemployment;
(e) the relationship between the rate of the national minimum wage and the tax and national insurance contributions then in place;
(f) training and labour markets;
(g) small businesses;
(h) persons with learning difficulties or physical disabilities; and
(i) persons of different ages.
(4) The Chancellor of the Exchequer, acting in consultation with the Secretary of State, shall include in the Financial Statement and Budget Report an assessment of the cost of the national minimum wage to Her Majesty's Government in respect of employment costs in the public sector.
(5) The reports made under subsections (1) and (2) of this section need not be confined to the matters referred to in subsection (3).").

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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I did not move this amendment on Report because of the lateness of the hour. As I have said previously, the time that had been allocated to Report stage had been seriously eroded by two ministerial Statements. When I moved this amendment in Committee--it was then Amendments Nos. 124 and 125--I was both surprised and disappointed that they were emphatically rejected by the Government, especially after the Solicitor-General began his remarks by confirming:

    "As with all government policies, we will wish to evaluate the effect of producing a minimum wage in full, which is likely to include most, if not all, areas listed in the proposed new clause".--[Official Report, 22/6/98; col. 76.]

The noble and learned Lord then went on to criticise the proposed new clause on the ground that it might not be exhaustive enough, although I should like to point out to your Lordships that my shopping list did not limit the matters which might be included in the reports. Despite having agreed just a few moments earlier that the Government would, indeed, be collating the necessary data for the purpose of their own evaluation, the Minister then went on to say (col. 77) that converting that into a report,

    "would be, an extremely time-consuming exercise".

I cannot agree that with all the resources available to the DTI it is not possible to convert the evaluation into a report to Parliament. I also cannot agree that the department should be in possession of relevant data which it is unwilling to share with Parliament. What are the Government saying? Are they saying that there are some results of government policy and activity that are none of the business of Parliament?

In the 15 months that the Government have been in power, there have been numerous complaints that they are trying to marginalise Parliament. A leading article in the Daily Telegraph on 1st July on another topic commented:

    "ever since it won the election, this Government has shown a remarkable aversion to Parliamentary scrutiny".

Is the refusal to provide information on the effects of this Act another manifestation of that policy or is it that the Government already know that the results of passing this Bill will be job losses, as conceded by the Deputy Prime Minister; wage inflation, as feared by the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and the closure of many small businesses? Knowing that, is it not a fact that the Government would like to keep away from Parliament and the public the news that this plank in their election manifesto was such a disaster, as we have predicted?

I am not just making a party political point here, because the Solicitor-General also said in the very same paragraph:

    "An annual report from the Secretary of State and the Chancellor specifically on the national minimum wage could easily become seen as part of the annual pay round and lead to expectations of annual increases".

And there I believe you have it. That is a clear admission from the Government that the national minimum wage is likely to lead to wage inflation. It is a clear admission that our predictions about the national minimum wage leading to claims to restore differentials are correct. It is a clear admission that the predictions

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to the same effect which were made by the noble Lord, Lord Healey, are correct. Do the Government really believe that sweeping their internal evaluations under the carpet will prevent the information getting out? Not only does Whitehall leak like the proverbial sieve, but the media simply swarms with analysts who will produce their own evaluations in every Sunday newspaper, every financial journal, and on whichever television programme thrusts a microphone under someone's nose. Those evaluations would be better based on real facts rather than on the edited morsels which are dropped from ministerial desks.

Returning to the Minister's objection about the preparation of such a report being, in his words, "time-consuming", perhaps he also meant that it would hence be costly. Last month, in reply to a Written Question from me, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, informed me that the cost of the new Strategic Communications Unit based in No. 10 was estimated to be half a million pounds a year. I am not sure exactly what the Strategic Communications Unit is supposed to do, but I suggest that using part of its large budget to assist in communicating to Parliament the effects of this major piece of government strategy would be very good value for money--and rather better than providing an endless supply of ministerial hymn sheets.

I began by expressing my disappointment that the Government had not accepted my amendment at an earlier stage. That was for two reasons. It was first and foremost because the amendment would in no way interfere with the operation of the Act. It would in no way diminish the rights of any worker. It would in no way affect whatever the Government conceive to be the objectives and principles of this Bill.

My second reason was that this Government were elected on a manifesto which said:

    "We are pledged to a Freedom of Information Act, leading to more open Government and an independent statistical service",

yet here they are, refusing to guarantee to make public information which relates to this Bill, and, in this case, statistical information to boot.

In our earlier debate on this amendment, I reminded your Lordships of the opening words of the Government's recent White Paper on freedom of information, which stated:

    "Unnecessary secrecy in Government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision making".

I also reminded your Lordships of the Prime Minister's preface to that White Paper in which he stated:

    "the traditional culture of secrecy will only be broken down by giving the people of the United Kingdom a legal right to know".

The trouble is that Oppositions are always in favour of freedom of information Acts, but, when they become the Government, all the Sir Humphreys talk them out of it. This Government keep on pledging, "We keep our promises". In fact, they do not. But here is one case where they could do so easily--and where we expect them to do so.

Last Thursday, when dealing with the business of the other place, the President of the Council was asked about when the draft freedom of information Act would be available. She reiterated the Government's

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commitment to freedom of information which she reminded the other place was one of their manifesto pledges. Now is the opportunity, without waiting for that Act, for the Government quickly to fulfil a specific promise.

Perhaps I may close by reverting to the Minister's plea that, preparing

    "such a report would be an extremely time-consuming exercise".

How much more time-consuming and expensive will it be if, instead of producing a comprehensive report, Ministers continually have to answer a series of searching questions at the Dispatch Box?

I urge the Minister to accept an amendment which does no harm at all to the Bill but which will add to the credibility of the Government's confidence in their policy in bringing in this measure. I beg to move.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, before the Minister responds to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, perhaps I may comment on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Benches. As the Minister knows, we have always been in some difficulty as the Bill has proceeded through the House in that we are fundamentally in favour of it and believe that it is a core plank of both the newly elected Labour Government and, indeed, of the Liberal Democrats. We very much support the introduction of the minimum wage. However, there have been moments in the course of both the Committee and Report stages when we have--dare I say it?--been seduced by the eloquence and charm of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and have supported her in amendments, on some occasions to the chagrin of the Minister. Indeed, when I listened to the siren voice of the noble Baroness talking about how Oppositions, always believe in freedom of information Acts until they become the Government, I wondered whether I dare remind her that after 18 years it may be somewhat hypocritical to use that argument the other way round.

I return, however, to this National Minimum Wage Bill. The Minister is well aware that, although we fundamentally agree with this Bill, we part company from the Government in that we have argued consistently that we want the Low Pay Commission to have permanent status. Furthermore, we should like the commission to produce annual reports to Parliament. We have argued for that because we believe that once the national minimum wage is enshrined in legislation--as we hope that it will be this week--the political debate should be taken out of the agenda so that we can have a much more technical debate in future years and thus avoid the partisan political debate that has ensued not only in this country in the past few months, but also in other countries which already have a minimum wage.

However, I must advise the noble Baroness that I do not think that the Liberal Democrat Benches can support her on this amendment. It goes far too far in prescribing the requirements on the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State in producing the report. As I have said, we are in favour of the Low Pay Commission having permanent status and making regular reports to

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Parliament. As I said on Report, we hope that the Minister will go the extra inch and finally confirm that the Low Pay Commission will be given permanent status. If that is the case the permanent status of the Low Pay Commission will produce a regular reporting mechanism which will need to be flexible in future and not prescribed in the way set out in the amendment moved by the noble Baroness. On this occasion I am afraid that we are unable to support the amendment.

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