Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Mackie of Benshie: The Agricultural Wages (Scotland) Act, 1949 is accepted and the farmers' union pleaded with the previous government to keep it. It is significantly different from the Act in England in that for a long time there have been special rates for special jobs; in Scotland, for example, for hill shepherds and similar jobs. If that can be done, I do not see why we cannot do it with the national minimum wage as well.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, made very clear, the purpose of the amendment would be to devolve the subject-matter of the National Minimum Wage Bill currently progressing through Parliament. The amendment would not achieve that on its own: we would also have to delete paragraph (h) of the reservation which reserves the subject-matter of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998.

The Government have already made clear that they strongly believe that a national minimum wage should be just that--national. This is essential to maintain the level playing field for business, and the single market for jobs within the UK. These are of course among our

27 Jul 1998 : Column 1281

key objectives in framing the Scotland Bill. The national minimum wage is also in many ways, as my noble friend Lord Sewel said, an instrument of macroeconomic policy, another matter which it clearly makes sense to reserve. It is for these reasons that the Scotland Bill reserves the subject-matter of the proposed National Minimum Wage Act as well as other aspects of employment rights and duties and industrial relations. A single national minimum wage applying throughout the United Kingdom will ensure clarity, simplicity and ease of enforcement. Given that the Opposition wish to protect business interests in Scotland, I hope that they will recognise that that is best achieved by the subject-matter of the National Minimum Wage Bill being a reserved matter.

It makes no difference where you live and work in the UK, low pay is low pay. Putting a floor under pay to avoid unacceptably low levels is what the national minimum wage is about. The argument of some noble Lords, like the noble Lords, Lord Mackay and Lord Thomas of Gresford, might be valid if we were debating the level of wages. That would depend upon peoples skills and abilities and the need for those in different parts of the United Kingdom. But we are not talking about a wages policy; we are talking about a national minimum wage. This is a minimum level above which fairness starts and below which exploitation begins. And this should certainly be no different in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Government's proposal is for a simple practical system involving a single national minimum wage which can be established quickly in the public perception. Both sides of industry, both in Scotland and in the UK as a whole, accepted this proposal, which will achieve a level playing field for business and minimise bureaucracy.

In the Government's view, the economic case for regional rates does not stand up. How would it accommodate pockets of low or high pay within regions? The fact is that low pay is found in all regions. A system of unequal rates would also be confusing and impose an unnecessary burden upon business. We do not want to create low pay ghettos. The aim of the national minimum wage is to encourage firms to compete in terms of the quality of goods and services, not to focus on low prices based on rock-bottom rates of pay.

The recent Opposition amendment to the National Minimum Wage Bill will not deter the Government from their manifesto commitment to introduce a single national minimum wage. That amendment introduced a power for the Secretary of State to undermine the national minimum wage through exemptions. I should make clear that this Government would have no intention of using the power, if it still remains after the National Minimum Wage Bill has completed its parliamentary consideration.

Some Members of the Committee raised the fact that the Agricultural Wages (Scotland) Act 1949 will be one of the exceptions. Obviously, it is not the purpose of the exception to enable the Scottish parliament to legislate to exclude agricultural workers from the national

27 Jul 1998 : Column 1282

minimum wage. The 1949 Act covers the setting of minimum rates of wages and other terms and conditions of employment for agricultural workers. That is a different purpose from those of the National Minimum Wage Bill and we do not consider that the exception would enable the Scottish parliament to remove the under-pinning which the national minimum wage would provide for agricultural wages.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: The wages under the Agricultural Wages Board are far higher than the minimum wage that I have seen.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: That is the point. The exception would not mean that the Scottish parliament was in any way stopping the wages being higher. The National Minimum Wage Bill means that they cannot be below the national minimum wage. It does not put a ceiling on wages; it puts a baseline below which they should not sink.

In view of my explanation, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment, though I do not say that with great hope.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: The playing field to which the noble Baroness referred reminds me of some of the playing fields in Wales on which I referee rugby matches--they are on the sides of mountains.

The Minister said nothing tonight which suggests how the differences that exist between Scotland, England and Wales are to be levelled. The fallacy of what she says is that she presented the national minimum wage as a social policy dressed up as macro-economic policy. When she suggests that the national minimum wage is intended to create the point between a fair return and exploitation, that is social policy; it has nothing to do with economic policy. I do not have at my fingertips the statistics for Scotland, but I know that in Wales the average wage is around 83 per cent. of the wages that are prevalent in England. I want to see, through devolution, those levels equalised. A national minimum wage is not the way to do it.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: I cannot resist coming back to remind the Committee that the national minimum wage is about drawing a baseline below which nobody should fall. It has nothing to do with wages policy and whatever else the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, would like to do to even out distribution across the country. That is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about a national "minimum" wage Bill.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: We do not seem to have made too much progress from where we left off on Thursday night, when the answers to questions merely repeat what the Bill says; do it often enough and hope that we might vanish from the field of battle through exhaustion.

If I heard the noble Baroness right, she said that the Government do not want to create low pay ghettos. Does that mean that she thinks the Scottish parliament would deliberately create low pay ghettos in Scotland? Has she

27 Jul 1998 : Column 1283

that little confidence in the Scottish parliament she is busy setting up that she believes it would deliberately create low pay ghettos? If so, why is she allowing the poor agricultural workers to be left at the mercy of the Scottish parliament? That is an amazing contradiction. It is sauce for the goose and sauce for the gander and it is the problem we had at the tail end of Thursday night's Committee stage. The Government could not give a logical explanation as to why some matters fell in "reserved" and others fell in "not reserved". They fumbled about and hoped we would tire from exhaustion.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, is right that there is a difference in Scotland. Under this Bill Scottish wage earners might be paying 3p in the pound more in taxes. As I have told Members of the Committee before, a Scottish wage earner who unfortunately lives in Glasgow is paying hugely more council taxes because of the disgraceful way in which the Labour Party runs the City of Glasgow. It hammers people who live there, except the lucky few who escaped from the City of Glasgow in order to live in the leafy suburbs where their council tax bill is so much less.

Those factors are important. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, suggested that Scotland overall might be a lower wage economy than England. In fact, I suspect that in oil-led Grampian, that will not be the position. In fact, a minimum wage in Grampian, if one looks at the average wage, may look a great deal higher than in the rest of Scotland.

The real point is this. I would not be arguing so much about this matter if both the Agricultural Wages (Scotland) Act and the National Minimum Wage Bill were reserved or if both were exempt. It is the way in which one is reserved and the other is exempt without any good reason that worries me. Of course, we are not talking about a wages policy, though I am not entirely sure whether the National Minimum Wage Bill is not a form of policy. We are not arguing about whether or not we should have one; that is an argument for others in the Chamber. The Chamber decided about that and the Government decided that the National Minimum Wage Bill will become an Act. I am simply saying, if it is going to the Scottish parliament, that the Agricultural Wages (Scotland) Act ought not to be exempted. It is that exemption that puzzles me most of all and for that reason I shall seek the opinion of the House.

8.48 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 210) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 43; Not-Contents, 81.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page