By Alex Ross
Various Conservative MPs have put forward Private Member’s Bills that would, if they became law, water down to the point of uselessness the National Minimum Wage.
I have counted three that were currently going through the process.
The first is the Employment Opportunities Bill, that would allow ‘opt-outs’ of the Minimum Wage, though anyone who has worked for an agency will know there will certainly be situations where if you want to sign up for an agency to get work part of the contract would include an opt-out of the Minimum Wage. You only have to think of the various Labour law abuses that have gone on with cockle shell pickers and Primark clothes manufacturers to know this law would be eagerly manipulated by certain groups.
We already have enough problems enforcing the Minimum Wage without creating complexity through opt-outs. This was the bill that started the whole Wage Concern campaign – the group still exists on Facebook and I’ve started updating it again now that the Minimum Wage is coming back into prominence after Chope’s current defeat on the issue.
This was of course also the bill that the MP for the area I live in, Shipley Conservative MP, Philip Davies supported, saying he wanted to have a debate on the issue before promptly making no reference to it on any leaflet he produced that went to tens of thousands of households across Shipley.
The absurdity of the arguments made in support of this bill, that people should have the freedom to opt-out of the Minimum Wage, and that because it will be ‘voluntary’ there is nothing wrong with it, was compounded when Christopher Chope claimed it was, in fact, against someone’s ‘Human Rights’ to be barred from working for less than the Minimum Wage.
Coming as it did from a group of Conservative MPs who vigorously oppose the Human Rights Act and regularly bemoan any emphasis on someone’s human rights I genuinely don’t know if Chope was merely injecting an element of satire to the farce of a bill or if he actually meant what he said.
Thankfully with huge support from Labour’s GoFourth team and John Prescott, we got Chope to pull the bill on the day of our rally in the Houses of Parliament when it was due to be read. Although we were pleased to win, I was eager to see the Tories get trounced in a vote on the issue and it allowed them to essentially hide from the spotlight where their views could be exposed properly through parliamentary debate.
The second bill is the one that’s just been chopped, a Minimum Wage Amendment Bill, that would force the Low Pay Commission to look at areas with above-average unemployment rates and automatically set the Minimum Wage at a lower rate, which the government would be obliged to enact.
As Paul Waugh’s blog post makes clear the bill has been nobbled by the government, who obviously want to keep the public in the dark as much as possible about the anti-Minimum Wage tendencies of its own MPs. It’s currently down for a second reading on the 18th March but it is unlikely to be read given he has pulled it once already.
I find it slightly ironic that pressure from the government has encouraged Chope to pull the bill. At the time of the Employment Opportunities Bill and the Wage Concern campaign I repeatedly questioned why David Cameron did not use the bill as an opportunity to show his supposedly centrist, modern Tory credentials by publicly disassociating himself from the members of his backbenches who were still implacably opposed to the Minimum Wage.
Even now, in government, he prefers to stay silent on the issue rather than allow it to be debated and lead from the front in supporting the Minimum Wage. It might well be because he is in enough trouble with his backbenchers as it is, that he doesn’t want to inflame things further. It might also be because he campaigned hard against the Minimum Wage when it was first introduced, incorrectly warning it would send unemployment ‘straight back up’ (If anyone can find the original article he mentioned this in please get in touch). In 2008 senior Tories briefed the press he would allow it to ‘melt away‘ if he became Prime Minister. His lack of leadership on the issue hardly encourages those of us who believe that support for a National Minimum Wage should by now surely be cross-party.
The third bill is the Training Wage Bill, which will again allow opt-outs of the Minimum Wage for people who are training. The fact Chope now wants to use this bill to debate the Minimum Wage is a sign that really all these bills are about the same thing – undermining and emasculating the National Minimum Wage. Its next reading will be on the March 18th and I hope it gets a reading and furthermore Labour organise a decent showing in support. If the Lib Dems had any sense they’d do likewise in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their Tory coalition partners.
All these bills are supported by similar Tory MPs, such as Peter Bone, famously dubbed Britain’s meanest boss when he boasted at Conservative Party conference he once paid an apprentice a mere 88p an hour. However my own MP, Philip Davies is conspicuous by his absence from these bills given his previous support for the Employment Opportunities Bill.
What I don’t really understand is why, if Chope feels so strongly about the issue, does he keep pulling his own bill? He first pulled the Employment Opportunities Bill after a lot of pressure from John Prescott, culminating in the Wage Concern rally I had the honour of speaking at. But really there was no reason he had to. If he had the courage of his convictions he would have gone ahead and debated with Prescott and other Labour MPs on an issue he obviously feels strongly about.
Likewise he must have known the government wouldn’t support anything that would undermine the Minimum Wage, even if secretly many Tory MPs shared Chope’s view.
I’ll be keeping tabs on how these bills progress, Chope has said he still wants to debate his Training Wage Bill, so we’ll see what happens.
Personally I’d like these debates to go ahead so we can flush out the Tories who really think we should be scrapping the Minimum Wage, or at least the ones who have the guts to admit it.
Alex’s original article on this issue can be read here.