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Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, particularly as it comes at the beginning of international women's week? Is he aware that, before the statutory minimum wage, countless women went out to work, often part-time, for what was derogatively called "pin money"? One effect of the statutory minimum wage has been to raise the status of part-time work--for example, in cleaning and private care homes, where formerly work was nothing more than exploitation.

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right. Before we introduced the national minimum wage, there is no doubt that there was exploitation of workers, especially of women in the workplace. Through the introduction of the national minimum wage, we have made sure that work pays for those women, and that part-time workers have the same rights as full-time workers. They are no longer treated legally as second-class citizens. We will ensure that part-time work has status and dignity. Of course, the majority of people working part-time are women, so I am pleased that, as my hon. Friend pointed out, we made the announcement at the beginning of international women's week.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): I know that the whole House will want to congratulate the mother of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) on her good sense. It is sad that she did not have more influence on him, so that we could have avoided a single sitting of 23 and a half hours in Standing Committee while he and his colleagues tried to talk down the national minimum wage.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's confirmation, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), that the youth rate will be considered before October. Did my right hon. Friend hear Mr. Chris Humphries of the British Chambers of Commerce this

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morning, when he said that his members, mostly small and medium-sized firms, did not oppose the national minimum wage? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the membership of that organisation--firms with fewer than 100 employees--were exempted, that would mean the abolition of the minimum wage for a large number of vulnerable employees?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to point out that if employers with fewer than 100 employees were granted an exemption from the national minimum wage, hundreds of thousands of people would lose the benefits of it. That is why we stated clearly that it should apply to all employers. I did listen to Chris Humphries this morning. I know that the British Chambers of Commerce endorses the principle of a national minimum wage, and I hope that now that he has had an opportunity to see the details of our proposals, he will welcome our approach to the matter.

On the specifics of the youth rate, my hon. Friend can be assured that the second volume of the Low Pay Commission report for this year will address it within the next two or three months. When the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) has read the Low Pay Commission report, he will see that it considered in detail the impact of differentials in relation to the recommendations that it made. In the light of that, the Low Pay Commission recommended a significant increase, which the Government have endorsed.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): May I take the Secretary of State back to the issue of the youth rate? When he considers the next report, which will deal with the youth rate, will he also consider extending the national minimum wage to young people aged 16 to 18? As I am sure he is aware, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that many 16-year-olds are grossly exploited because they are not covered by the national minimum wage, and some employers take great advantage of that. Will he consider, too, the problem of the increasing benefit trap in areas of high housing costs? When people get a job, the loss of benefit combined with very high rent costs unfortunately means that they are worse off. Finally, will he put another 90p on the national minimum wage?

Mr. Byers: The Low Pay Commission has been charged with the responsibility of examining the youth rate, but we have not restricted that to the existing youth rate; we have specifically asked the commission to examine the position of 16 and 17-year-olds, so they will be covered by the second volume of the report, which is due in a couple of months.

As for the impact of the national minimum wage on the benefits system, the Government keep it under review generally, because it is important that the existing barriers to work--my hon. Friend identified one of them--are removed, so that people are rewarded when they go out to work and recognise that there is a better future for them in work than on benefit. It is important that the barriers are removed wherever possible.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): My right hon. Friend's announcement will be warmly welcomed by the people of Devon and Cornwall, where pay is traditionally very low. Thousands of families in the region have benefited from the national minimum wage, so is it not telling that not a

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single Conservative or Liberal Member from those counties is present to welcome the announcement? Furthermore, is it not time that we were given a fulsome apology by those who opposed the minimum wage? They claimed that it would boost unemployment, but there is record employment in Devon and Cornwall and throughout the country, and it is still rising.

Mr. Byers: I welcome the fact that we have been proved right on the introduction of the national minimum wage. As my hon. Friend said, it benefits the tens of thousands of people in Devon and Cornwall who have been taken out of poverty pay because of its introduction. Those people will benefit also from the significant increase that will be made in October, as I have announced. I share his disappointment that no Conservative or Liberal Democrat Members who represent constituencies in the south-west were present to hear the announcement.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): In low-paid constituencies such as mine, the announcement of the £4.10 figure will be much welcomed, as will the assurance that the Low Pay Commission will continue its work, which demonstrates the Government's commitment to continuing the national minimum wage at the right level and to ensuring that it will be relevant in future years.

There is one further thing that we should do in relation to the minimum wage: we should recognise that many employees are worth a lot more than the minimum. We must urge employers who can afford to pay more not to rest on the floor of the minimum wage. When they can pay more and their workers deserve more, we should ensure that a fair wage is paid.

Mr. Byers: The minimum wage is a safety net below which no employer can legally go. Obviously, it is to be hoped that individuals who merit a higher wage will receive proper rewards, but I am pleased that thousands of hard-working people in Burnley will benefit from today's announcement. The minimum wage is about rewarding communities and individuals, and that is exactly what it does. As a result of the increase, 1.5 million people will be better off in October than they would otherwise have been.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite the Opposition's forced weasel words of support, there can be no doubt that if a Conservative Government were elected, the national minimum wage would be allowed to wither on the vine? Does he also agree that the success with which the measure has been introduced and extended should give us greater confidence to proceed with further family friendly employment policies?

Mr. Byers: I agree with that final point. We must ensure a balance so that work and family life can be lived to the full. My hon. Friend was also right to point out the Opposition's view. It was the shadow Chancellor who announced what appeared to be a policy U-turn by saying that the Opposition would support the national minimum wage. He did so having had very little consultation with his Front-Bench colleagues.

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Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): How do you know?

Mr. Byers: Because they have told me. Later, on the "Today" programme, the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) said: "You know, we're not great enthusiasts about the minimum wage." That is absolutely right.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) indicated assent.

Mr. Byers: At least the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) agrees with that. He is among the foremost of those who do not believe in the national minimum wage, but the reality is that most Conservative Front-Bench Members who speak on trade and industry matters do not believe in it either.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): Can my right hon. Friend confirm that north-east England will benefit most from the minimum wage? It is another great achievement for the Government, but, above all, it is a socialist achievement.

Mr. Byers: It is an achievement that manages to combine economic efficiency and social justice. I know that my hon. Friend will be pleased for the thousands of people in Blyth Valley who will benefit from the increase announced today. Indeed, hon. Members who represent constituencies in the north-east will take particular pleasure in the announcement. We know that for far too long, good, hard-working people in the region that we represent have simply not been rewarded for their endeavours. As a result of the national minimum wage, that is now happening, and they will benefit from the significant increase that is to be made in October of this year.

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