Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 3 April 2001 (continued)

2.45 pm

Mr Hussey:

I regret that, owing to business in my constituency, I meet victims - not on this issue but on the difficulties that they face in other circumstances. I believe that one of the junior Ministers is well aware of the difficulties that victims face.

It was the murder of a very close friend of mine that brought me into politics. The area that I live in has suffered throughout the troubles. As a teacher, I have vivid memories of following the coffins of parents of the schoolchildren that I was teaching and the coffins of those that I had taught. These people had entered society, taken up a regular job in order to give something back to society and had also taken the time to serve their community through part-time membership of the security forces. As time went on I realised that there had to be another way. Like my Colleague Mr Savage I decided that coming to the Assembly and adopting that approach was a way forward. However, I also believed - and still believe - that it would be totally incongruous and outrageous for a body such as this Assembly to forget what those people have suffered.

Recently, groups representing the victims of paramilitary terrorism have begun to organise themselves. These groups have to be recognised, and I appeal to the junior Ministers to tell us how they intend to allow those groups to get onto the same footing as other long-established groups. The new groups feel that it is taking a long time to gain the same recognition and funding as the groups who represent other types of victims. It is time for the peace dividend to filter down to the victims of paramilitary terrorism.

These groups are still in their fledgling stages; they need their core workers. Their work is growing exponentially. The Ministers must be increasingly aware of this, for these groups are beginning to exhort them to give proper recognition to the people that they represent. They are establishing a growing reputation in their field, and this must be recognised. I hope that when the Ministers reply they will tell us how such groups are being recognised. I await their replies with interest, and I trust that the Assembly will never forget those who have suffered in such dastardly ways in the troubles that our community has gone through.

The Junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister) (Mr Nesbitt):

This is, as many people have said, a very sensitive issue. I have witnessed at very close quarters the immediate and sudden death of someone during the troubles. However, that pales into insignificance in other respects. I have not been a victim during the troubles, nor has a close relative of mine been a victim. Therefore I speak with a genuine sense of inadequacy.

I cannot for one moment comprehend the feelings of those who have lost a father, mother, or dare I say even more so, a son or daughter. You expect the next generation to outlive you; not to die before you. That must be very harrowing. I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate in a very serious way, by and large.

Mr Kennedy said that we can never compensate victims, but we can, at least, recognise what they are going through. Money is no compensation. In recognising that, we also acknowledge the significant monetary contribution that is now available to help victims in some small way. For the first time there will be a specific amount of money available solely for victims. In that respect, Peace II differs from Peace I. Victims will not be in competition with others, such as community groups that wish to utilise European money. The specific money for victims is to be welcomed.

Although the use of the money is yet to be fully determined, it will provide a source of practical assistance to victims. It will certainly be used in training and in re-employment. Above all, it will be used in giving practical assistance to victims.

We thank the European Union and the MEPs who contributed towards gaining this funding. We thank them for the serious contribution, made through Peace II, to the provision of funding. In the same breath, I must mention the Executive and this Administration. We are taking this matter seriously and are endeavouring to develop a strategy for victims and to identify their needs.

We will be undertaking widespread consultation. I ask each Member, especially those who feel that their communities have not been fully represented, to facilitate that consultation and encourage people to respond to it. People should make known to us what they want put in place when this money is spent. That is a genuine request from Mr Haughey and myself.

Mr Boyd and Mrs Iris Robinson mentioned the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust. There will be an intermediate funding body appointed to handle grant application, processing and the award aspects of Peace II. It is anticipated that that body will be appointed within two to three months through open competition.

I hasten to add that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will be very closely involved in determining the mechanisms and in monitoring all stages of how the money is used, once the new intermediate funding body has been appointed.

People might think that I am offloading accountability onto someone else. However, this Administration - the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in particular -has had no input into the previous elements of funding and the core funding scheme. We will now have responsibility for the new intermediate funding body and for our funding for it. Peace II accounts for about £7 million, of which £1·6 million will come from the Executive. That should answer Mr Poots's question about complementarity. Therefore funding from the Executive and Europe will be combined.

Responsibility for the management of victims' funding will fall to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and clear criteria will be agreed with the Department of Finance and Personnel. I am conscious of the point that Mrs Nelis made about bureaucracy; I shall not allow bureaucracy to be the tail that wags the dog. We must ensure that the money is fed down to those in need - the victims.

Mr Beggs asked about the geographical distribution of funding. Our purpose will be to meet the needs of all victims, regardless of where they are, and to give equal opportunities to all. Members who feel that their area has not been well represented should help us to ensure that those areas contribute to the development of the strategy. Mr Beggs also spoke about ongoing acts of violence. We will recognise the needs of victims of such acts; they must be included.

Mr Berry raised the sensitive issue of the treatment of widows of members of the RUC. They will receive practical help under Peace II. All victims and their families will be eligible, and that includes, without doubt, the security forces. Mr Watson raised the sensitive issue of compensation. I do not wish to disown the matter, but I must state clearly that compensation is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office. Nevertheless, Mr Haughey and I will press the issue of compensation at the regular meetings that we have with Mr Ingram and the NIO.

Mr Berry asked about the certainty of funding for the future. That is important. It is not enough to have money now; we must have certainty about the availability of funding in the future. I welcome the announcement that there will be £500,000 per year for the next three years from the Executive's social inclusion fund.

Mr Ervine and Mr Alban Maginness raised the issue of practical assistance to individuals. That has been a recurring theme, and, at the outset, I said that it was individuals who needed the assistance. This matter is connected to the issue of bureaucracy and the mechanisms that the intermediate funding body will operate under, with the agreement of the Department of Finance and Personnel. In order for us to give practical assistance, individuals must tell me what is needed. We will conduct research to meet as many victims as possible to get their views about what they need. We will undertake that research shortly; Members' help would be appreciated in that as well.

3.00 pm

The subject of individual victims leads me to the needs of victims - something that was raised by Mr Beggs and Mr Shannon. We are consulting on that, but there are certain general comments that I can make at this stage.

One theme that came through this afternoon and this morning was that ex-prisoners' associations are well organised and can utilise funding, whereas other groups are not. How can we give that assistance? I hope that we will be able to develop a strategy to help those who do not have the apparatus to make a claim or to apply for funding.

Core staff was mentioned; that is important as well. The core staff must be maintained. One sensitive element that came through - I keep using the word "sensitive", but all of what we are talking about is sensitive - was mentioned by Mr Shannon, Mrs Iris Robinson and Mr Berry, to name but three, and that is ex-prisoners' groups and their involvement. Let me make it clear - the Peace II programme contains a measure specifically for victims; it is called Victims and Survivors of Violence. Ex-prisoners' groups are not eligible for that. They may - to be up front about it - be eligible for support under other measures in the programme, but not under the victims aspect of the measure. I understand - [Interruption]

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Order. The Minister has said that he will not give way.

Mr Nesbitt:

I understand the strength of feeling in communities, no matter what side a person is on. Although I understand, as I said at the outset, I do not speak as one who has been directly affected by violence. My understanding is that of someone who has been able to stand back from events, so to speak. Those who have been affected articulate the hurt, and it is for us as Assembly Members to reflect that hurt, suffering and the needs of victims. However, our task - and it may not be accepted by all - is to give effect to the Belfast Agreement and to address the needs of all victims fairly, honestly and openly as described in that agreement. That is what I am charged with, and that is what this Administration is charged with.

There are many parties here, and if we are to move beyond conflict and truly reconcile - my party Colleague George Savage reflected on this accurately and pointedly a few minutes ago - we must take on board the needs of all.

One difficulty that I have in politics is meeting victims. A DUP Member said earlier that the victims of violence feel full of hurt and alienated, and Alban Maginness referred to another argument. I also hear the two arguments. Some people ask me how I can be in the Administration. Others say exactly what Mr Savage said: "You must continue in the Administration so that others do not suffer what we have suffered." It is for the latter reason that I stand here today, and that is why I mentioned what Mr Savage said in his concluding comments.

Alban Maginness mentioned a memorial or an archive. We are aware of that suggestion, and it is in keeping with the recommendations of the Bloomfield Report. It could be a demonstrable way of showing something on a permanent basis, but we must give it careful consideration.

We need to take on board the views of victims and their representatives when deciding what we should do. We must be conscious that the priority is to give practical help to support victims. Perhaps the money should not be spent on some form of archive. It is something that needs to be, and will be, thought through carefully.

Two types of commission were mentioned. That needs careful consideration. What role should a commissioner play in general? More specifically, what roles would a commissioner for victims or a truth commissioner play? Should the money be used for that? We have not reached a firm conclusion. We are debating the issue, and we will be consulting the Northern Ireland Office.

The truth commission is an equally delicate matter. There could be advantages and disadvantages to such a commission. There have been references to the many difficulties experienced by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. My Colleague Mr Haughey has been speaking to its vice-chairman, Alex Boraine, and we are taking on board his experiences. It is something that we are considering. We are treading very sensitively and, I hope, very sensibly.

The experiences of the victims will remain with them for many years to come. I hope that we will not have to witness new victims being created in the same way that they have been in the past. That is why I am here. That is why this Assembly and this Administration are here. That is why we - Mr Haughey and myself in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and others in this Assembly - are endeavouring to do our best for victims.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly welcomes the inclusion of a specific measure for victims in the European Peace II programme.

(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)


Minimum Wage


Mr B Hutchinson:

I beg to move


That this Assembly considers the current minimum wage threshold to be too low and supports a minimum wage level of (at least) £5 per hour and calls for the youth exemption contained in the current legislation to be abolished so that the £5 per hour rate applies to all.

I want to point out a number of things about the legislation, even though it is a reserved matter. The legislation has been ineffective in tackling the problem of low pay and exploitation. Low pay is not an issue about people not doing the work; it is about exploitation.

There are three reasons why the legislation has not tackled the problem properly. First, the minimum wage has been set too low. It does not even keep pace with inflation. For many, it becomes the maximum, not the minimum wage, and we need to take that into consideration.

Secondly, there is no adequate enforcement. The unit that deals with enforcement is hidden away. There are very mild penalties. The unit is understaffed, and employers know that if they are caught the worst that will happen to them is that they will be made to pay the minimum wage.

These factors illustrate the fact there are few incentives to deal with the problem.

The third problem with the legislation is the inclusion of exemptions, the most obvious of which is age. We all know that for a long time a number of "high street" companies have been paying their staff a low wage. Some Members have sponsored Third-World issues. However, when considered in the round, it seems that some of the cases in Northern Ireland are just as bad. For example, certain companies pay 17-year-old staff members £1·70 an hour. That is a total disgrace, and we need to deal with it. Those Members who have supported such worthy causes elsewhere need to recognise that we need justice for people in the United Kingdom.

The Anti-Poverty Network's statistics show that low pay affects 300,000 people in Northern Ireland. That is a damning statistic that we all need to take into account. The NSPCC claims that one in four families and one child in three live in poverty. These are also damning statistics for such a society as ours, and we need to look at this in the context of low pay.

Northern Ireland wage levels are 20% lower than those of our counterparts on the mainland, yet the cost of living has increased at a quicker rate. My Colleagues on the Unionist side of the House continually, and rightly, refer to the need for parity with the rest of the United Kingdom. We need to look at the levels of wages needed to keep abreast of inflation and to ensure that people do not end up living in poverty.

Among the other factors that put Northern Ireland at a disadvantage, in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom or even with the rest of Europe, is the 140% increase in our fuel prices. These are matters that we have to deal with on a daily basis. Electricity prices here are 21% higher than in Scotland, 27% higher than in England and Wales and a massive 53% higher than those of our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland. Those statistics highlight how important it is for employees here to earn a decent wage which enables them to keep their heads above water.

Our domestic electricity prices are the most expensive in Europe. The cost per unit in Northern Ireland is 9·43p. Electricity is cheapest in Finland, where it is 4·47p per unit. These factors need to considered when we, or employers, are deciding how much people should be paid. Statistics showing electricity prices and the earnings of those at the lower end of the pay scale are damning. In the financial year that ended in April 2000, Viridian made £70 million in profits, but it also announced that prices would rise again. Six weeks ago we had a heated debate on electricity prices.

Mr Cobain:

A heated debate?

Mr B Hutchinson:

Yes, it was a heated debate. Funny comments are not very appropriate to this debate, especially when they come from the Chairman of the Social Development Committee, who knows about the problem of fuel poverty.

We should be linking all of those with low pay. Take the lack of investment in the transport infrastructure and the effect that has on such people. Most people here need cars to journey to and from work because of that. One example, which cripples most people, is the cost of car insurance in Northern Ireland compared with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is just another element.

3.15 pm

We listen to and comment on Budgets and Programmes for Government. On Committees we talk about sustainable development in communities, job creation and urban and rural regeneration. Even if we achieve all of that, will it work when the Anti-Poverty Network is telling us that 300,000 people in Northern Ireland are affected by low pay? Surely we must do something about that and ensure that the Assembly deals with poverty here? We say that we want sustainable development, and yet 300,000 people are affected by low pay. We cannot even guarantee that people in work will receive a wage from their firms that will keep their families on a weekly basis, yet we are asking communities to produce sustainable development.

The Green and Orange Tories in the House will argue that if we increase the minimum wage to £5 we will lose jobs rather than create them. That brings me to the amendment from Dr Birnie and Mr Beggs. They are asking us to look at the impact on national and local employment and to consider possible alternative threshold levels. Why not look at the European threshold level, which is set at £7? Regarding the amendment, I am not asking for a change in legislation today - it is a reserved matter - but I am asking people to do a number of things. We need to look at what the Assembly can do today and tomorrow without having to change legislation. The legislation can be changed as we go along.

As I have already said, we have to take action to lessen the burden on the 300,000 people in Northern Ireland who are affected by low pay. The Assembly could do something, if it wanted to. Bringing the motion to the Floor has already started the process. That has allowed a discussion to take place, and when I am finished speaking I hope that a serious debate will ensue. I call on everybody in the Assembly, and those outside, to lobby our Westminster MPs to try to get the minimum wage changed to £5.

I also call on the Assembly to establish a policy whereby all departmental employees, direct or indirect, are paid at least £5 per hour. A precedent has already been set here with the Assembly Commission's deciding to set the minimum wage at £5. Departments could follow suit. We should take the lead and talk about what we can do. In summing up, my Colleague, Dara O'Hagan, will provide a breakdown of the figures of people being paid under £5 per hour in each Department. Let us establish a policy whereby the Industrial Development Board (IDB) does not award Government grants to companies that will not pay £5 per hour. We could restructure Government-sponsored training programmes to ensure that they top up state benefits to a level of at least £5 per hour.

Many lessons have been learnt about community development and economic regeneration. One is that without an integrated approach, they will not work.

The other is that Government aid is being poured into different areas, but the issue is not being viewed in a holistic way. Now is the time to do that. We must look at how much money is being injected into Government programmes and at how much money the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is contributing. All these issues must be examined to see if resources can be better utilised. There is an opportunity to look at the New Deal and other schemes - which do not work in any case- to see how they can be restructured.

If the Assembly cannot implement my suggestions on the 300,000 people who are on low pay, it is telling society that it is not prepared to deal with such matters. This is one way of dealing with some aspects of poverty. I ask all Members to support the motion.

Dr Birnie:

I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after "low" and add

"and calls for an adequate research assessment of the national and local employment impact of possible alternative threshold levels."

The proposer of the motion referred to me and the co-sponsor of the amendment as "Orange Tories". I can only speak for myself: he is half-correct, but perhaps not the half that many people might expect.

Mr Ervine:

When the Member reads Hansard tomorrow he will see that neither Member was named as an Orange or Green Tory.

Madam Deputy Speaker:


Dr Birnie:

I do not deny that the proposers of the Sinn Féin/PUP motion have some worthy objectives, to the extent that Mr Hutchinson referred to the problem of non-enforcement - that is, the illegal non-payment of the current minimum wage. I doubt if anyone in the House would disagree with that. I hope that we all support enforcement of the law as it stands.

In this amendment we are not attacking the minimum wage in principle. We accept that it is in the law. However, the motion raises the crucial question of what the correct minimum wage should be.

There are many reasons to doubt the wisdom of pushing for an increase in the minimum hourly rate from its current level - which in October will rise to £4·10 - £5 without also giving adequate consideration to all the consequences of such a change. This could have an impact especially on the poor, for whom the proposers have a high regard. Furthermore, policy elsewhere in the United Kingdom would have to be considered because this is a non-transferred matter.

In an ideal world everyone's wages could be raised at the stroke of a legislator's pen. But - and therein lies the rub - you cannot legislate your way to prosperity. This can be achieved in the long run only by having a more competitive economy.

The proposers have not yet indicated that they have considered seriously the possible negative impact on employment that would result from raising the minimum wage by the extent they propose, and hence the implications for unemployment. Neither have they indicated that they accept that there are sound reasons for the so-called youth exemption, whereby there is a lower minimum wage rate for workers between the ages of 18 and 21. Workers in that age bracket generally have a lower level of productivity and are often still in training. They do not produce as much as fully trained adult workers. It does not seem unreasonable, therefore, that companies should economise on their costs until these younger workers reach full or average productivity and are fully trained.

Remarkably, the proposers have ignored the stance of the Low Pay Commission, which was the body established by the Blair Government in 1997/1998 to decide precisely what is being debated today - the level of the minimum wage. The commission recently recommended that the UK minimum wage should be increased to £4·10 this October and to £4·20 thereafter. Indeed, my party, through its Westminster spokesmen, has already welcomed that.

Interestingly, the Low Pay Commission includes representatives from the Transport and General Workers Union, the Confederation of British Industry and a number of labour market economists. Therefore it would appear to be reasonable to follow the figures that they have arrived at rather than the figure of £5.

Northern Ireland starts from a position of a lower average level of wages and productivity than the rest of the UK - something that the proposer did not mention. This implies that any ill-considered increase in the minimum wage here could have even more job-destroying effects on competitiveness. Members are too well aware of the tenuous position of firms in sectors such as textiles, clothing, farming and tourism. We should not lay the final straw upon such firms and possibly break their backs.

International evidence, as provided by the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation in 1998, implies that as a country's minimum wage rises as a percentage of the market wage rate then the rate of unemployment in that country also rises relative to other countries. For a long time, France has had a relatively high minimum wage for its youth and it has also had a much higher rate of unemployment among young people than either the UK or USA.

Mr Ervine:

Bearing that in mind, will the Member give some indication as to why Northern Ireland has had its lowest levels of unemployment for a long time, even though the minimum wage has been in existence and has been increased?

Dr Birnie:

I was going to come to that point later.

In a sense, we have been fortunate that the introduction of the minimum wage in 1998 corresponded with a boom that was happening in the Northern Ireland labour market. Therefore, any negative effects on competitiveness were submerged by other changes.

However, the international evidence is clear, and I have some of it with me. If the minimum wage rate is set at too high a level for people under the age of 21 then it will destroy jobs. For example, the youth unemployment rate in France in the late 1990s was at the shocking level of almost 30%.

The House will destroy its credibility if it establishes a pattern of adopting what are simply economic wish lists. We might think that those are popular - and, of course, there are elections coming up shortly - but we will not be delivering what is in the real, best interests of the people. Almost every economic study has indicated that when a minimum wage is set at a relatively high level compared to the market rate it causes some increase in unemployment. Perhaps the 1998 UK minimum wage did not cause obvious unemployment because the level was considered carefully by the Low Pay Commission and its introduction - [Interruption]

Mr Kennedy:

Would the Member care to indicate what he personally thinks is an appropriate level for the minimum wage, given that he does not want to legislate for it?

Dr Birnie:

My feeling is that a rate of £4.10, which will rise to £4.20 next year, as recommended by the Low Pay Commission, is not unreasonable because the commission represents industry and economic experts.

3.30 pm

Studies have indicated that minimum wages are not necessarily the best way to tackle poverty. That is another crucial point that the proposer of the motion did not adequately address. Many poor people are not in employment, so raising the minimum age does nothing to help them. That point was recognised by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Mr Byers, in the statement that he made on the increase to the minimum wage on 5 March this year. Moreover, many low-wage workers belong to families that are not in the lowest income categories. That point was recognised by the Northern Ireland Economic Council in its 1998 report on the introduction of a minimum wage and its impact on the local economy. The level of the minimum wage is not, in any case, a transferred matter; responsibility still lies with Westminster. The proposer recognised that, but he failed to show why we should move beyond the levels established by the UK Low Pay Commission, which are now being adopted by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

I agree with the proposer about the need to deal with poverty, but he did not prove the case that raising the rate to £5 an hour at this stage was the best means to that end. The amendment does not rule out an increase to the minimum wage, but calls for careful consideration of the impact of any increase on unemployment figures and consideration of whether that would be the best way of tackling poverty generally.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Because of the number of Members who want to speak in the time allocated by the Business Committee, I must ask that contributions be limited to five minutes.

Mr McGrady:

Madam Deputy Speaker, your pronouncement cuts to pieces what I was going to say. Little can be said in five minutes.

I welcome this cross-party motion. It addresses the culture that exists in Northern Ireland of paying people at the lower end of the wage scale. That has, in turn, created a further dependency culture, as people seek benefits and other ways of augmenting their income.

I listened with interest to what the proposer of the amendment said, especially the statistics. The problem is not new to Northern Ireland, and I am glad to support the motion. At a conference a quarter of a century ago, in 1973, my local branch of the SDLP proposed a motion calling on the conference to support a demand for all workers in the North to receive a national minimum wage that would be reviewed annually. It has taken a long time for that demand to reach fulfilment, and I think that we are still falling short of what is required.

Ms McWilliams:

Will the Member give way?

Mr McGrady:

I have only five minutes, so I am not going to give way.

I was glad that the Labour Party in Britain had caught up - albeit a quarter of a century later - in their manifesto for the 1997 general election.

The proposal in the motion is for a minimum of £5 an hour. People who work a 38-hour week - a full week's work - are entitled to £190 a week for their labour, whoever they are or whatever their skills. No one should object to such a basic rate. Some may think that we are getting ahead of ourselves by proposing an increase of 10p or 30p an hour, but we should consider the statistics. Of all the European countries with a minimum wage - for example, Belgium, Greece, Spain, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Portugal - the United Kingdom is second last.

It contributes only 38% of average earnings. Some Members are fond of statistics so I am giving them some. The United Kingdom is second last in the list; Spain is the only country that is lower. We have all the statistics we need. The low pay units have been cogitating on the matter for decades. The purpose of the amendment is to nullify the motion and remove the £5 figure. There is no other purpose for it. Statistics are coming out of our ears. We know what is happening. The SDLP is interested in creating a greater degree of social justice, less deprivation and less dependency on handouts from the state or charities. Surely to God that is not only a political commitment but also a Christian commitment. The Assembly must endeavour to give equality to the people who are working hard, long hours at wages below the minimum wage.

Since the current legislation was introduced, between 1·25 million and 1·5 million people have benefited. That is how bad the situation was, and it can be improved. In Northern Ireland 50,000 people are going to have at least a measure of their regular income - earned by the sweat of their brow - delivered to them by the motion. It is a modest increase - about 10p per hour. That is not a big deal.

The SDLP is seeking to achieve a degree of justice and equality of treatment and to give some pride to people. They should receive a just reward for their labour.

The low pay unit concluded that a national minimum wage had not adversely affected the economy. That has been statistically proven by the Low Pay Commission. Therefore another few pence will not make much difference. The SDLP supports the motion.

Mr R Hutchinson:

I came to the House today with a mind -

Mr Ervine:

Does the Member come without a mind sometimes?

Mr R Hutchinson:

I will treat that comment with the contempt that it deserves.

I came to the House with a mind to support the amendment. However, having listened to Mr Birnie, I will not be doing so. It is a disgrace that there are 300,000 people on the poverty line in Northern Ireland. A verse that is quoted so often - "The labourer is worthy of his hire" - is a good motto for any society to live by. There are many reasons why the minimum wage should be raised to a sensible figure in Northern Ireland. Too many people are struggling. In our surgeries and in the course of our work we meet many people every day who, through no fault of their own, are struggling to pay their electricity bills and their insurance bills. They are trying to make a decent living for themselves.

Many of us have come from working-class families and are not ashamed to say that. We have watched our parents and families struggle year after year. They are people who went out to do a decent day's work but were not given a decent day's wage.

I am sad that this is a reserved matter. I hope that the powers that be take note of what has been said in the Assembly. People need to have a decent minimum wage. Mr Hutchinson said that the price of electricity is higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in Europe. We pay more for petrol, food and insurance. Why should Northern Ireland be treated differently from other regions in the United Kingdom and Europe?

A lot of people claim income support, and many are put off going out to work because their hourly rate is insufficient for their needs, though some break the law by doing the double. Are we encouraging people to break the law simply because the minimum wage is so low? We need to consider this very seriously. Many people need help with their wages. Imposing a minimum wage which small businesses cannot afford to pay will cause difficulties. We need to be careful to avoid problems of this kind.

Dr Birnie:

Surely that is precisely what the amendment seeks to do.

Mr R Hutchinson:

I have no problem with the amendment; it was your speech, Dr Birnie, that put me off.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order. The Member will address his remarks through the Chair.

Mr R Hutchinson:

It is not because you are not an Orange Tory either.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order. The Member will address his remarks through the Chair.

Mr R Hutchinson:

Sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Many small companies would be burdened if we raised the minimum wage too much. We have to consider them because they have provided employment over the years. I support the motion.

Mr M Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion. The exploitation of one person in the workforce is bad. However, it is an indictment of our society that over 100,000 workers in the Six Counties receive £3·60 an hour - particularly when one considers that it is women and young people who are being exploited. This is a return to the Dark Ages - sweatshop employers are exploiting the workers through pure greed.

Multinational businesses with over £1 billion annual profit worldwide come to mind. While the fat cats get fatter, the strays get thinner. We need to support workers and set the minimum wage at £5·00 an hour to lift them and their families out of the poverty trap. This will enable mothers and fathers to worry less at the end of the week about how to feed their kids and pay their bills. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Neeson:

First, I would like to thank Mr Hutchinson and Dr O'Hagan for bringing this motion before the House. However, I am surprised that such a limited amount of time has been set aside for such an important issue. The Alliance Party has always supported the principle of the national minimum wage, and we have also supported the European social chapter. The two are inseparable. It is a basic human right for an individual to get a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. We welcomed the introduction of the national minimum wage in April 1999.

It became illegal for an employer to pay less than the minimum wage. We all know that, contrary to that legislation, a number of employers tried to avoid that by threatening their workers with the sack if they complained. Unfortunately, many young people became victims of that. The exploitation of the young is nothing new in Northern Ireland or in other societies around the world.

3.45 pm

One of the main benefits of the Good Friday Agreement was that it created a focus on basic human rights. I look forward to the production of a Northern Ireland bill of rights that will, I hope, become a model for the rest of the world and will deal with issues such as this.

Under the present legislation, different categories with different wage levels have been established. I firmly believe that that sort of categorisation contradicts the spirit of the existing equality legislation in Northern Ireland. The Equality Commission should look at that issue very closely, because we are well acquainted with the whole question of whether things are discriminatory. That is an issue that needs to be looked at very seriously.

On 5 March the Government announced that the national minimum wage would increase to £4·10 per hour from 1 October 2001 and £4·20 per hour from 1 October 2002. Such a proposal shows contempt for those in the low-wage economy. I strongly urge the Low Pay Commission, under the chairmanship of Prof George Bain, who comes from Northern Ireland and should realise and understand the problems that exist in Northern Ireland, to seriously reconsider those recommendations.

It had always been my fervent hope that the uncaring and selfish society of Thatcherism was dead and buried, especially with the election of a Labour Government. I am sad to say that I have been very deeply disappointed by the approach of the Labour Party to many of the important social issues that permeate society, both here and in the rest of the United Kingdom. At the moment, Northern Ireland is being promoted overseas by the IDB as an economy that pays affordable wages. It would greatly concern me if in fact Northern Ireland were being promoted as a low-wage economy, as it has been in the past. In trying to attract American investment to Northern Ireland, the IDB makes the point that wages in Northern Ireland are 35% lower than in America.

It is vital that all these workers receive a fair wage for a fair day's work. I support the motion, not only because it reflects, in full, the policy put forward in the most recent Alliance Party paper on the economy, but also because it is fair and right. I oppose the amendment because it is a fudge and does not deal directly with the issue at hand.


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