Is my right hon. Friend aware that the chief executive of Sears the retailers has said that if a minimum wage policy were introduced it would be bound to lead to unemployment going over 3 million? Has not the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said that the French minimum wage has reduced employment opportunities, particularly for young people with few skills? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the height of hypocrisy for Labour to say that it cares about the most disadvantaged people in society when its own policies would deny job prospects to those very same people?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A number of estimates have been published by business of the damage that would be done by a minimum wage and of the number of jobs that would be destroyed. All of them are very large. Only the Labour party, in the shape of the Opposition spokesman on employment, maintains that there will be no impact on jobs from a minimum wage. Asked by Jonathan Dimbleby:
is it your view that there is no negative impact on jobs from a minimum wage of any kind?
Yes, that is my view.
Is the Secretary of State telling us that he has so little confidence in the ending of the recession that he does not believe that there will be sufficient wealth in the economy to cascade down to those on the very lowest wages, who are asking for just £3·40 per hour, which is barely enough to maintain a reasonable standard of living?
I do not think that one can ever afford to be reckless with jobs in the way that the Opposition plan to be. It is particularly unwise to destroy the jobs of those on the bottom rung of the employment ladder. If they can never get on to the first rung of the employment ladder, they can never rise up it. If the Labour party says that a minimum wage of £3·40 would have no impact at all on jobs, why stick at £3·40? Why not set it at £5? Would that have any effect? Or is the Labour party saying that there is some magical higher figure which will influence them but that £3·40 has no impact at all?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that minimum wage legislation will encourage illegal immigration and overstaying? Would it not encourage some employers to employ people in the unrecorded and perhaps ironically called black economy?
Does the Secretary of State accept that Northern Ireland already has a low wage economy and that we still have the highest unemployment? Does he agree that we have a responsibility to ensure that people receive a fair reward for the services that they provide and that they are not exploited? Will he tell the House how many other members of the European Community have a minimum wage strategy?
The one thing that is absolutely certain is that a minimum wage would do great damage in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It is also equally certain that in France, where the OECD carried out a study, it has been recognised that the minimum wage has destroyed jobs, particularly among the low paid, the young and the less skilled. I cannot believe that it would be to the benefit of the Province of Ulster that its unemployment problem should be aggravated further by this imposition.