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Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I certainly agree with what the Minister has said and am interested in his remark that there might be an
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alternative way of dealing with this, which I will find out more about in due course. Could he at some stage give me an idea of how the consultation is going? As he knows, we loathe having to pass Bills before knowing what the consultation outcomes and regulations are. They just come out, and there ought to be a definitive time by which this must end. I do not know why Bills cannot be timetabled to be dealt with after all that has finished. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 15 in Clause 14 introduces the concept of uprating of the ceiling on the amount of wages for the purpose of calculating redundancy pay. In a piece of self-denial, the Government claim that this will be a once-and-for-all provision. Yet the Government know perfectly well that not only can no government bind a later one, but also one administration cannot be prevented from amending their own legislation in the same Parliament if they believe that circumstances warrant it, or if they change their mind. I absolutely do not, and never would, impugn the good faith of the Minister on this; I accept his word unequivocally. However, the pledge that the Government give in this clause, that this is a once-only provision, is technically and from a legislative point of view meaningless. One may mean to do it that way, but it can be changed.
I bring this political point into my argument because of a telling phrase used by the Minister in Grand Committee when he rejected my amendment. He justified this increase on the grounds thatI quote him exactly
"we should recognise that successive governments have let the relative value of the weekly limit fall . . . because it is linked to RPI rather than average earnings".[Official Report, 9/3/06; col. GC 393.]
As statutory redundancy pay has always been linked to the RPI, as the Minister admitted to the Committee, the explanation in the paper is not correct. The real explanation will be found in the Minister's refreshingly frank admission in Committee which, to some extent, gave the game away: the Government want to restore the link between redundancy pay and average earnings. To achieve this, they will have to make an increase more dramatic than the Minister had
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promisedor, despite the self-denying provision in this clause, sooner or later the unions will be back, like Oliver Twist, asking for more.
As an aside, perhaps the Minister will explain why it is right in principle for the Government to restore the link between average earnings in the case of redundancy pay, but refuse to do so in the case of state pensions. Clearly, the brothers have more political clout than their mothers.
This is not a matter where the Government are free of expense. In many cases, the employee is made redundant because the employer is insolvent. In such a case, the taxpayer has to pick up the pieces and make good the deficiency in the sum available to pay the employee. There are more civil servants now than ever before, so redundancy pay is simply not a problem for the governmentexcept perhaps in the National Health Service, where staff now appear to be sacked wholesale.
However, once again, the form of this legislation is that of a blank cheque. We do not know when it will come into force. The Minister wrote to me to say that he was not at that time prepared to comment on the timing of the increase, and the Government refuse to commit to the amount of the increaseexcept that the Minister told me in Committee that he suspected:
Once again, the Minister cites "consultations" as the reason for all this uncertainty and the Government's reluctance, even at this very late stage of the Bill, to commit to a figure. It does not take much imagination for me to work out the employers' organisations likely attitude. I suspect that some continuing haggling is going on between the Government and the unions. Of course, I do not know; I only suspectas the Minister would probably expect. Perhaps the Minister will give us a clear picture of who is asking for how much in these consultations.
Taking the Minister at his wordwhich I have no hesitation in doingthat any increase is closer to the 10 per cent mark, that is the figure I have again inserted in the amendment. The Government have had since this Bill first went to Committee to come up with a binding figure. I put this amendment down early to give them time to consider their position. Even at this eleventh hourjust before seven o'clockI am open to a serious offer. I have to say, however, clarity is essential on an important matter such as this. The Government cannot leave Parliament in this vague and uninformed state. I beg to move.
Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I will be brief. Although the Government are clearly not in a position to restore the link between redundancy pay and average earnings, we regard this measure as a step in the right direction. Despite the fact that we deplore the Government's coyness in not telling us how much they have in mind, if the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, wishes to test the opinion of the House this evening, I am afraid that we will not be supporting her in the Lobby.
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Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, I always try to be refreshingly frank in these matters. She will certainly bring me to book if I am not. Perhaps I may challenge her on trying to put words in my mouth about where we are going on this. There was certainly reference to the fact that the figures had been eroded over time in relation to earnings, but the one-off adjustment cannot, and should not, be seen as a relinking of that with average earnings. On pensions, she will be aware that the answer is, as usual, that we need to await the Government's response to the Turner report which will, doubtless, be with us before too long.
We have been slightly political on this last amendment. I think it was a Conservative government who cut the link in the first place. I do not think I can help the noble Baroness further than I did in Committee. The Government's position on the amendment has not changed since it was discussed in Committee. As I said then, discussions on the level of the limit will continue over the next few months and I do not expect a figure to be agreed for some time. I repeat the assurances that I gave in Committee about the likely level of the limit. The Government do not have any intention of making an irresponsible increase which business cannot accept. I expect the increase to be much closer to the 10 per cent figure sought by the noble Baroness than the 100 per cent figure quoted in some press articles.
It seems to me that over and above the assurances that I have just given, the key point is that the regulations will be affirmative. This will provide an opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise what comes forward in due course. I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment and that that has again given her the level of assurance which I sought to give her in Committee.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I have a couple of comments. I did not attempt to put any words into the Minister's mouth. I shall look very carefully at what I said and what I thought it meant. On the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, cannot support us on this amendment, I shall simply have to bear that with as much fortitude as I can muster.
On the fact that the figure is still 10 per centI am still talking about itthe Minister is saying that he thinks it will be closer to that than the 100 per cent that was bandied around. We were talking about the figure being close to £600 a week, whereas at present it is £290. If it went up with the RPI, it might be £300 or whatever.
I really think that as these consultations will take for ever. The Minister has said that it will be an affirmative regulation, but we cannot do anything about that; we cannot amend it. I really do not like passing Bills with we know not what regulations and with consultations still taking place. In those circumstances, I shall test the opinion of the House, so that the Minister will know that I am serious about the way in which these Bills are conducted.
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