Beckett gets rough ride over pounds 3 wage


LABOUR MPs voiced "bitter disappointment" yesterday over the minimum wage statement. They attacked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Margaret Beckett, giving her a rougher ride than the Opposition. Mrs Beckett announced a pounds 3.60 minimum wage but, to the dismay of many Labour backbenchers, confirmed that workers under 21 will receive just pounds 3 per hour. This will increase to pounds 3.20 in June 2000.

The minister said her announcement marked "a further milestone in implementing this Government's manifesto commitments" and in her closing remarks said: "Among the few people out of step appear to be the party opposite."

The sharpest criticism came from Labour's Lynne Jones (Birmingham Selly Oak), who said the announcement was "bitterly disappointing".

She said: "Having been elected in 1992 on a promise of the pounds 3.40-an-hour minimum wage and having seen what has happened to MPs' salaries since then, may I say that I find today's proposals bitterly disappointing - even more so at the failure to implement the Low Pay Commission's proposals in full.

"You said that today's measures would be the beginning of the end of poverty pay. When do expect we will end it for good?" Ms Jones added.

Mrs Beckett replied that the minimum wage had been set at a level which would minimise its impact on employment.

Three more Labour backbenchers echoed Ms Jones's attack. David Winnick (Walsall North) voiced "some reservations" while John McAllion (Dundee East) demanded why young people could be "discriminated against simply because they are young people?"

"How can you get young people to take seriously our talk of trying to tackle social exclusion when we ourselves exclude them from the same rights every other adult citizen has simply because of their age?" he asked.

Dennis Skinner (Bolsover), while acknowledging "a huge leap forward in the Labour Party's historic crusade against unemployment and poverty", urged Mrs Beckett to "have another look" at the wage rate for young people.

Mr Skinner also wanted to know whether payments like tips would be taken into account. If so, he said: "Ministers would be in some serious trouble."

The President of the Board confirmed to MPs that any tips that were included on a payroll would be subject to minimum wage legislation.

Maria Fyfe (Glasgow Maryhill) attacked this recommendation. Urging Mrs Beckett to reconsider, she argued that when a customer gives a tip for good service they do not expect the employer to skim off the money.

Both David Burrow (Ribble South) and Chris Pond (Gravesham), a former director of the Low Pay Unit, welcomed the statement but asked the Government to ensure that, when the Low Pay Commission reconsiders the wage level for 21-year-olds, all aspects will be reviewed, including the under-18s.

Mrs Beckett told the Labour MPs: "The Government has long since come to the conclusion that what was better was to proceed by means of social partnership, by practical discussions between those who draw their experience both from employers of varying sizes and also from the workforce and to come to an agreed view about what was thought the most practical and sensible way of implementing the national minimum wage.

"We decided long ago that this was the right path to pursue and, with deep respect to you, you fought the last election on that policy."

Mrs Beckett told the Commons that 200,000 young people will benefit, even at pounds 3 per hour, but John Cryer (Hornchurch) - son of the late Labour MP Bob Cryer - asked Mrs Beckett what guarantees she could give so that "16- to 18-year-olds won't be exploited?"

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