I beg to move amendment No. 1, in
clause 2, page 2, line 14, leave out subsection (6).
This is a technical amendment. It is unusual for me to move such an amendment. The subsection (6) was inserted in another place to avoid infringing the privileges of this House as regards charges on public funds. The amendment merely removes the provision.
Clause 2 provides that the Bill shall extend to Northern Ireland in addition to the remainder of the United Kingdom—that is the same arrangement as that in the 1998 Act. It also addresses the enforcement of the agricultural minimum wage in Scotland. The reason for that is that agriculture is devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland and the agricultural minimum wage has been in place throughout the United Kingdom for more than half a century.
At present, schedule 2 to the 1998 Act makes several amendments to the Agricultural Wages (Scotland) Act 1949 to incorporate several provisions of the national minimum wage into the agricultural minimum wage. The Scottish Executive intend to lay before the Edinburgh Parliament independent, parallel legislation similar to the Bill, but covering only Scottish agriculture. The clause therefore ensures that the Bill's provisions will not be carried across to the 1949 Act. For the sake of total clarity, I tell the Committee that the clause does not affect the existing structure of the national minimum wage or agricultural wages legislation.
Although agriculture is also a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, the Committee will be aware that the Stormont Assembly is temporarily suspended. My Department has confirmed with the Northern Ireland Office that it is content for the Bill to cover agriculture in Northern Ireland.
Clause 2(2) says:
''The Act comes into force at the end of the period of two months beginning with the day on which it is passed.''
We talked about that on Second Reading, but I want to return to it because the Minister should be aware that the Bill relates to a vulnerable group of people. Will the Minister give the Committee an update on how many cases are currently on hold as a result of the Bebb decision? A figure of 250 was mentioned in another place, but that was a few months ago so I assume that the volume of cases on hold is building.
Obviously, people's entitlement will not be changed and they will receive interest on the outstanding amount. However, will the Minister explain why we must wait for two months after the Bill receives Royal Assent before it comes into force? There are plenty of precedents of Bills coming into force immediately after receiving Royal Assent. I remind him that in recent
The Statute Law Society examined 105 Acts that were passed in the 14 months between January 1978 and April 1979. It found that 41 Acts came into force on the exact day on which they were passed. Twelve Acts came into force on a date specified in those Acts, which is fair enough because some Acts specify a future date. Only 14 Acts came into force after the expiry of two months.
On Second Reading, the Minister did not convince Opposition Members about the two-month period. This mini Bill is designed to correct a decision that the Government rightly thought was wrong and that we all thought removed an important provision on entitlement in the original legislation.
As I mentioned, the relevant people have been poorly treated and they are a vulnerable group of workers on low pay. Although people's ultimate entitlement will not be compromised, a two-month wait is a long time for them. They might be in another low-paid job, or out of work, so they will be looking forward to receiving their just dues. Why should they wait? That does not make sense. There is no reason why the Bill cannot come into effect immediately, unless the Minister can explain why, if it did come into effect, it would set some form of precedent or lead to technical difficulties.
The Inland Revenue is still appealing against the ruling of the tribunal. If it wins that appeal, will the Minister say whether there will be danger of confusion, given that, in effect, the courts would be saying that the original Act allowed the Inland Revenue to proceed in the way facilitated by the Bill. As a result, that will be how the 1998 Act will be interpreted and there might be confusion about the Bill. Will the Minister clarify the matter?
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk referred to the period to Royal Assent when we debated the Bill on Second Reading. He asked how many cases there were. I made it clear that the Bill applies in retrospect, so that we can pursue all the cases that have occurred since August 2002 when the Bebb Travel case went against us at the Employment Appeal Tribunal. There will be a delay, but every case will be picked up. There were 250 cases at the time. The hon. Gentleman said that that number was cited some months back; it was not, it was referred to on 11 February. It is now 27 February, and there are still 250 cases.
The hon. Gentleman's second point was about the fact that we are waiting for Royal Assent. I am always convinced by his arguments, but he represents a party
that abolished wages councils and allowed hairdressers to be paid less than £2.10 an hour, so it is a little strange that he is pursuing the case on behalf of low-paid workers. We want to protect them absolutely.
There have been previous cases in relation to Royal Assent. The hon. Gentleman referred to many of them on Second Reading, such as the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998 and the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. I think a lot of the Bill, but I do not consider it to be more important than those Acts. I can understand why their provisions came into effect immediately and did not have to wait after Royal Assent. We sought advice from the Attorney-General, and the protocol is that only in exceptional cases would we not give notice and wait for Royal Assent. Given that we shall apply the measures retrospectively and that we are logging each case for the enforcement officers to pursue, there is no need to have an argument with the authorities about protocol and the Bill.
The hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) referred to the potential confusion arising from our appeal. As I said on Second Reading, we do not accept that the wording of the original Bill was wrong or misleading. It has operated happily for three years. We have gone to appeal because, if we withdrew, we would have to pay the other side's costs. We could not pre-empt a decision of Parliament, nor could we be sure that we would gain a slot in the parliamentary timetable.
Therefore, we decided to take a belt-and-braces approach. We took forward an appeal and we decided to amend the law in case we lost it. If we had waited for the appeal before introducing the Bill, even greater delay would have been the result. There will be no confusion. If we win the appeal, many parliamentary draftsmen will be saying, ''Well, we were right all along and we told you so,'' and we will feel better, particularly those hon. Members who scrutinised the National Minimum Wage Bill in Committee in 1998. However, the Bill will make the matter absolutely clear, and that will protect us against any challenges or weird decisions that might arise in future.
We thought that the provision was clear enough, but for the avoidance of any doubt, we have made it absolutely clear that enforcement officers can claim purely for arrears—not arrears, current up-rating and future up-rating. They can go for arrears alone. As the Bill makes that absolutely clear, I do not think that any confusion can arise. It is sensible of us to deal with the matter in this way, given the concerns that have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the need to protect low-paid workers.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Bill, as amended, to be reported.
Committee rose at twenty-five minutes past Nine o'clock.