HC Deb 31 October 1989 vol 159 cc168-70
11. Mr. Colvin

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what representations he has received regarding the progress of the European social charter; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Fowler

I have received a number of representations.

At the European Council in Madrid, it was agreed unanimously that the top priority of the Community in the social area should be job creation and development. In addition, any proposals should take full account of different national practice. Action should be taken at national level unless there are demonstrable benefits to be gained from action at Community level. The Government do not believe that the present draft charter takes sufficient account of those agreements.

Mr. Colvin

Has my right hon. Friend seen the headlines in today's newspapers which say that Britain is isolated over the social charter? Does he agree that that is hardly surprising given that we are so far ahead of our European partners— [Interruption.]—in creating new jobs and reducing unemployment? Should not our European partners be following our lead in not increasing but reducing burdens on employers who want to expand and create new jobs?

Mr. Fowler

My hon. Friend is correct. At the meeting of the Social Affairs Council yesterday, there was no doubt that a range of countries had reservations about the social charter. There is no question but that unemployment has fallen faster in Britain than in any other European country. It currently stands below the European average, and below that in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Greece and Italy. We believe that the social dimension should be about jobs and that the social charter simply does not live up to that. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is a background of chatter this afternoon. It is very difficult to hear questions.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Is there not a strange inconsistency in the position of Cabinet Ministers, who parade their Euro-virility and credentials around the country while they stand aside and watch the Secretary of State sabotage and undermine the perfectly excellent principles behind the social charter? Is it not about time that some of them developed a little backbone and vision?

Mr. Fowler

For good reason, the social charter is opposed by the entire Government on the ground that it simply does not live up to the aspirations that it puts forward. The Government are certainly in favour of a social dimension, by which we mean new jobs and the reduction of unemployment. The social charter will not achieve either of those objectives.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. Friend agree that since the end of the second world war we have had enough of this nonsense about signing pieces of paper and charters, most of which came from the last Labour Government but produced little? They resulted in inflation, unemployment and ghastly problems. We do not want such problems from Europe. More people are in work now than under the regime of the last Labour Government.

Mr. Fowler

The charter covers a range of subjects, such as minimum wages, holiday periods and the unqualified right to strike, all of which will have detrimental effects on employment in Britain. That has not been denied by the European Commissioner in Brussels. The only question is how many jobs it will cost, not whether it will cost jobs.

Mr. Wallace

Although the social charter may not be entirely perfect, why does not the Secretary of State try to build on its many good aspects and make constructive criticism rather than being negative? He recently made points about provision for young people, so will he explain what is wrong with the prohibition of full-time work for people under 15, the special health and safety regulations for people in work under the age of 18 and the establishing of quotas for employing people with handicaps?

Mr. Fowler

There are a range of measures, of which health and safety is one, with which we agree. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that we have not played a constructive role in the debate. We have played a constructive role, and talks will continue. I should not wish to deceive the House because I believe that there are a number of fundamental defects in the charter, which I hope can be solved.

Mr. Knapman

Does my right hon. Friend agree that most matters are better left to market forces rather than any social or Socialist charter?

Mr. Fowler

The regulations set out in the charter will not achieve what all hon. Members want. The House deceives itself if it believes that the social charter will be good for employment or will reduce unemployment in Britain. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I again appeal to the House to listen to employment questions, which are important, and are of some concern to other hon. Members.

Mr. Meacher

Does the right hon. Gentleman still think, like the Prime Minister, that the Euro social charter is the product of Marxism and the class struggle? If so, why has it now been agreed by every other Right-wing Government in Europe? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that under this Government British workers now have the worst industrial conditions in Europe, with no minimum wage, no protection against arbitrary dismissal and no right to participate in decisions at the workplace? After Madrid and Kuala Lumpur, is this not yet another example of the Government and the Prime Minister being completely isolated and manifestly out of touch with public opinion here and abroad?

Mr. Fowler

I must point out that only a couple of years ago the hon. Gentleman was running for office by supporting a proposal for Britain to come out of the Common Market altogether. [Interruption.] Yes, he was. If the hon. Gentleman disagrees with that, I shall give him the reference. In the Labour Herald of 24 September 1982, the hon. Gentleman said—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Gentleman change his principles every five years? The fact —[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Minister has a right to reply, but I hope that he will be brief.

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the social charter will not create jobs. It will destroy jobs and create unemployment. The hon. Gentleman should be opposed to the charter as it stands.

Mr. Raison

Although I accept that there is much in the social charter as it stands that is questionable, are there not other elements in it that are rather good, for instance, the right not to join a trade union?

Mr. Fowler

Indeed. There is a basis of proposals which we believe could be used for a social charter. Our objection is not to a social charter in all circumstances but to this kind of social charter.