HC Deb 05 June 1984 vol 61 cc140-2
2. Mr. Maxton

asked the Secretary of State for Employment what plans or proposals he intends to put before his European ministerial colleagues to reduce unemployment within the European Economic Community.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Tom King)

I will be meeting my colleagues at the Labour and Social Affairs Council on Thursday to discuss, among other things, proposals for a medium-term programme for employment in the Community and, in particular, the support given by the social fund to young people's training and to areas of high unemployment.

Mr. Maxton

Will the Secretary of State suggest to his colleagues that they adopt the scheme proposed by the European trade unions to operate a co-ordinated plan to increase expenditure on public works by 1 per cent., which, it is estimated, will improve employment over two years by between 4 million and 5 million? If not, does the right hon. Gentleman have some other scheme to put forward?

Mr. King

I had the pleasure of listening to representatives of international trade unions when they visited my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in her capacity as chairman of the summit meeting. I thought that the proposal, which was not fully explained, of an infrastructural programme was the less convincing part of their presentation. I shall certainly be talking to my colleagues in the European Community about the need to continue to ensure that Europe remains competitive and that we keep inflation down and public expenditure under control so that we have a chance to create more jobs in Europe again.

Mr. Stokes

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must not raise false hopes? Is it really the EEC's duty to concern itself with matters of employment, which are surely mainly for employers in industry and commerce and, to a lesser extent, for the Government?

Mr. King

It is important for Europe to act in a concerted way and not in ways that might undermine the competitive efforts of individual countries. It is striking to observe how, in the past year, the Socialist Government of France have increasingly come to recognise, more effectively than the Opposition, the need for a sound financial and economic policy.

Mr. Canavan

In view of the continuous bleating by British Ministers that British workers are pricing themselves out of jobs, will the Secretary of State explain to his European colleagues and to the House why Britain has one of the highest unemployment rates, combined with one of the lowest wage economies in the whole of western Europe?

Mr. King

I take some pleasure in the fact that we do not have an unemployment rate of 18 per cent. as in Belgium, 17 per cent. as in Holland, or 15 per cent. as in Italy. The hon. Gentleman says that we have the highest unemployment rate in Europe. He would do the House a courtesy if he checked his figures first. As I said in my original answer, I shall be talking about the better use of the social fund. I take some pleasure from the fact that, to help with training schemes for young people, we are now receiving from Europe three times as much money and a far greater percentage share than the Labour party achieved when it was in government.

Mr. Fourth

Does my right hon. Friend agree that misguided attempts arbitrarily to impose a 35-hour working week on member states of the European Community can lead only to an increase in unit costs, a lack of competitiveness by the Community vis-a-vis other economies and, ultimately, a loss of jobs?

Mr. King

I took the opportunity—I hope that my hon. Friend will approve—of sending to my colleagues in the European Community what I believe is the whole of the academic research that has been done on this subject by the Policy Studies Institute. There is no evidence in that survey that a reduction in working time leads to increased employment. In some firms the response to shorter working time appeared to be to reduce employment as a means of obtaining some of the productivity increases needed to compensate for reductions in working time.

Mr. Wallace

In the context of the European social and regional funds, will the Secretary of State estimate how many jobs would have been created in the past five years if the Government had properly applied the principle of additionality?

Mr. King

The funds that we have received from Europe have been extremely helpful in sustaining higher expenditure than would otherwise have been possible. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the fact that whereas when the Labour Government left office we received only 20 per cent. of the social fund, this year we shall receive 30 per cent. of the fund to provide help for a number of these important matters.

Mr. Marlow

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way not to get unemployment down would be to have no truck whatsoever with some of the interventionist claptrap coming out of the Commission at the moment, such as Vredeling and the fifth directive? Will he commit himself to the House and other Europeans and say that we will have nothing to do with it? Even if he were so tempted—which I am sure he would not be—the vast majority that the Conservatives have will ensure that any such un-Conservative legislation is thrown out.

Mr. King

I am not always given to the type of diplomatic language that my hon. Friend uses on these matters. He will be aware that I have expressed—if I may put it more forcefully — the gravest reservations about these proposals. The responses that we have received to the consultation document do nothing to change the Government's or my impression of the damage that could be caused by many of these proposals.

Mr. John Smith

Before the Secretary of State sneers at the efforts made by trade unions and other Governments to promote policies of economic growth does he accept that the Government, after five years in office, have at no international summit or forum in the EEC advocated a policy of economic growth for this country or Europe as a whole? Since the Government have no proposals for tackling the millions of unemployed in Europe, will he adopt one of those proposals?

Mr. King

I notice that the Opposition are so divided at the moment that they do not like to recommend any proposal, but offer us any one of several. I am glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made that point. I am not sneering at the trade union proposals. I said that the proposal for infrastructural expenditure was the least convincing part. He may know, if he saw the press release or my comments after the meeting, that the encouraging point about the meeting was the degree of agreement between the trade unions and the Governments involved, not least with the trade unions making it clear that people must accept the need for technological change if industry is to be competitive and if there are to be the maximum prospects for creating employment. I am glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman invited me to comment on that point. I should like to endorse what they said.