HC Deb 21 May 1990 vol 173 cc121-43

[Relevant document: Un-numbered explanatory memorandum submitted by the Department of Employment on 24 November 1989 on a Community charter of fundamental rights.]

10.26 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Tim Eggar)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 9978/89 and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Department of Employment on 15th March 1990 relating to Commission action programme relating to the implementation of the Social Charter, and endorses the Government's view that a key factor in ensuring that the achievement of the single market has a social dimension is to continue efforts to stimulate job creation and bring down unemployment. Tonight's debate focuses on the European Commission's proposal for an action programme to implement the social charter. However, the issues go wider than that. The debate raises the question of the sort of Europe that we are seeking to build, and how we can ensure that that Europe can best serve the interests of its people. The debate is an opportunity to set out the United Kingdom's position on the social action programme in the context of the challenges faced by Britain and her Community partners.

A key challenge that faces the Community is the growth of international competition. Europe is a trading community: it simply cannot survive through protectionism or state subsidy. The Community must compete with Japan, north America and the fast-growing economies of the far east. At the same time, it must be attractive as a market for inward investment. In Europe, we also face the challenges of major demographic and technological change. The Community must respond to all those challenges, and the single European market in 1992 is our major response. It holds out the prospect of new prosperity for the people of the Community.

At the Madrid European Council in June last year, all Community countries agreed that achieving the single market offered the best prospect for improving living standards and working conditions and creating new jobs within the Community. However, there are some differences of view within the Community—and within individual countries—when it comes to the so-called "social dimension". Some fear that more intense competition will lead to pressure on businesses to reduce standards in terms and conditions of employment, and therefore conclude that the Community needs a wide-ranging programme of regulation on employment and social issues. In response, the Commission has produced the social charter and the social action programme to implement the "social dimension". The British Government—like Europe's employers—take a different view. We believe that the first requirement for the "social dimension" is for action at Community level to increase the prospects for existing jobs and for the creation of new ones.

Community countries agreed at the European Council last June that the creation of jobs for the people of Europe is our top priority. It is not hard to understand why the Council decided that: about 14 million people are still unemployed in the European Community, including more than 7 million who have been unemployed for a year or more. That is the crucial issue in the "social dimension", because throughout the Community it is the unemployed whose living standards are the lowest. That view is firmly borne out by the United Kingdom experience.

By following a policy of deregulation, devolution and decentralisation, Britain has set one of the best records on jobs in the Community. Employment is at record levels; we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the Community; and we have succeeded in cutting long-term unemployment by about half compared with the total two years ago. It is because of our record on creating jobs that we oppose measures from the Community that might increase costs, create barriers to employment and prevent jobs from being created.

That is why we believe that the social charter is unnecessary and that the social action programme to implement it could imperil the success of the single market—the engine of job creation—with restrictive and unnecessary regulations that are in nobody's interests, least of all the 14 million unemployed people in the Community.

The real social dimension is not about regulation, but about raising people's living standards and levels of prosperity through job creation throughout the Community.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Surely the social dimension has everything to do with regulation. If there is to be a single market—the Government wholeheartedly concur with it—who will regulate it? The labour market is part of the social dimension. If we are talking about a labour market, surely the Minister should talk about the regulation of the social market, which in our terms is industrial relations legislation. Although I agree that the level of employment is a significant social factor, is not the regulation of the social market of great importance to a single market economy?

Mr. Eggar

In view of the hon. Gentleman's beliefs, surely he accepts that where there must be regulation, for example in industrial relations, it is right to regulate at national rather than Community level. The Community has a role in other areas, an obvious one of which is health and safety. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not demur from that. Given the freedom of workers in the Community to work in any country, they should expect the same standards as exist in their country to apply wherever they work. Clearly, that is an area of competence which is rightly the Commission's.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Where do migrant workers stand with regard to freedom to move from one Community country to another? Will they have the same right to move or will Turkish gastarbeiter be confined to the Federal Republic of Germany and north African workers to France? As many of them will have spent many years in Germany or France, will they have the same right to move freely within the Community?

Mr. Eggar

The answer is that we do not know because we have not yet seen the directives of the Commission. We must wait for them. At the moment that matter is left to national Governments. We strongly believe in the idea of subsidiarity—not doing things at the Community level that are best done at national level. We will almost inevitably argue that the matter should be left to national Governments. However, we are not making up our mind now in advance of seeing the specific directives. I am sure that the House and the Select Committee on European Legislation, chaired by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), will examine them.

When viewed against the criteria that I have outlined the Commission's social action programme is worrying. It represents the Commission's view of the proposals needed to implement the social charter. The programme does not include the proposals themselves, nor much detail as to what the individual proposals are likely to include.

About 47 proposals are to be considered, alongside existing Community business, in the next two years. The House will understand that that is a formidable legislative agenda. We will consider on their merits all the proposals that come forward and apply to them the test of the three criteria that were agreed at the Madrid Council. Will the proposal encourage the creation of jobs for the people of Europe? If it will, is action at Community level the right level at which to take it? If it is, does the proposal respect the different national traditions and practices? To that we want to add whether the proposal, if passed, is likely to be properly and effectively implemented.

As currently presented and judged against those criteria, we believe that we will have few problems with more than a third of the 47 proposals. That third includes proposals on such things as health and safety, equal opportunities and freedom of movement. We believe that those issues are appropriate for European-wide standard setting and are likely to be consistent with the criteria that I outlined earlier. Insufficient information is currently available on a further third of the proposals on which to form a view, but we believe that we are likely to have some difficulties with the remainder.

I should like to illustrate some of the difficulties that we shall probably face. The House might like to know that the Community is considering statutory weekly and daily rest periods and perhaps a ban on night work. We wonder whether the full implications of that have been seriously considered by the Commission. Workers may not be able to work overtime, even if it is available and they want to work it. When factory workers have worked out the implications of that on the productivity deals that they have negotiated will they be willing to see those deals effectively ripped up and the financial benefits denied to them? Those are the types of issue that might have to be addressed as a result of the proposals that we expect from the Commission.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

That is the line of argument advanced by the defender of the great British paper boy. The idea is to invent something ludicrous and insist that it is up to the Community to disprove it. The Minister has suggested that night work might be banned by the Community, but that appears nowhere in any Community document, nor is it supported by any reference to speeches emanating from Europe. Where did the Minister get that example from? Did he just make it up?

Mr. Eggar

I did not just make it up—the hon. Gentleman should know me better than that.

Proposals are coming forward from the Commission that deal with the regulation of night work. The effect of those regulations may be to make it impossible to have people working at night. That is extremely serious for companies that rely on continuous working, and has all sorts of implications for industry that needs safety cover. The hon. Gentleman is putting his head in the sand if he does not understand the likely implications of the proposals that might be put forward by the Commission.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

My hon. Friend will know about the grave concern at the implications of the social charter and the action programme. As a member of the Select Committee on European Legislation I recently had the opportunity to go to Brussels and hear Mrs. Vasso Papandreou on this very subject. She is a determined lady and clearly has every intention of putting through her proposals.

In relation to the latter category—the one third of difficult matters—to which my hon. Friend referred, there are two separate questions. The first is the issue of competence and whether the Community has the power to be able to introduce these issues, which we can shunt off to the courts, although I would exercise the right of veto and have nothing to do with them. It is about time we started talking tough on that issue. I am looking to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, who knows what I mean.

Secondly, subsidiarity is a double-edged sword. I invite the Minister to consider the following question. If the definition—to which he rightly applied his question—is that that which is best done at local level should be done there, and that which is best done at the higher level should be done there, and the Commission has decided that it is going to abrogate to itself the higher level because it thinks that is best, how does his argument equate with the timetable for the inter-governmental conference when questions related to subsidiarity will be determined? Can he give any idea of the timetable that will be followed so that we know where we are before we go any further with this programme?

Mr. Eggar

My hon. Friend raised a number of complex and inter-related questions.

Mr. Cash

They were simple.

Mr. Eggar

If they were so simple, my hon. Friend took quite a long time to explain a few simple propositions.

These are difficult issues that must be considered in the light of the specific proposals from the Commission, and we shall have to make up our minds how to tackle each directive and proposal as it comes forward. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I am sorry that I cannot give him a fuller answer.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

To clarify the issue, which is obviously becoming complex, will the Minister answer the following question: if the Community puts forward a proposal to ban night or day work, or anything else, and it is passed with a majority, do we simply have to implement that decision whether or not Parliament likes it or the Government think that it is rubbish? Is that true or not?

Mr. Eggar

I wish that matters were as simple as my hon. Friend postulates. Of course, we shall have to look at the proposals in each directive. My hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that one of the questions we shall consider is the system of voting that applies—whether there is unanimity and which article it comes under. In the light of that we would argue the merits of the case. But if we believed that the proposal from the Commission was covered by the wrong article and, therefore, a different voting system—a qualified majority rather than unanimity—we would never exclude the possibility of taking the matter to the European Court, with all the implications that that has. My hon. Friend will not be at all surprised to hear me say that.

The Commission may also bring forward a proposal to regulate part-time and temporary work, which it apparently regards as atypical work. Perhaps the Commission is unaware that 6 million people in Britain work part time, and that 90 per cent. of them do so because they want to, not because they have to. We must question the motivation behind the Commission's attempt to introduce a proposal that might reduce the number of part-time jobs in the British economy.

We want to help to build a forward and outward-looking Community which can seize new opportunities and meet new challenges. We are not opposed to regulation in itself but we are strongly opposed to unnecessary regulation that burdens businesses and therefore destroys jobs. Regulation is not what the social dimension is about. The social dimension must not be about protecting traditional working patterns at the expense of jobs for unemployed people. The social dimension that we need in the Community is one that will encourage enterprise and opportunity for people to make choices about their own working lives. If we burden the Community's industry with new and unnecessary regulation in the name of the social dimension, we shall negate the single market and, in so doing, undermine job creation and hence the living standards of all our citizens.

10.47 pm
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

Once again we have heard an analysis from the Department of Employment school of fantasy of all that is ill in the European Community—particularly the Minister's absurd suggestion that the Community might ban night work at some stage. I suspect that that may come as a surprise to people working in the medical services throughout Europe who are, by definition almost, engaged in night work. It is inconceivable that people in Europe will want to do without night nurses or doctors——

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Or bobbies.

Mr. Lloyd

Or bobbies, as my hon. Friend——

Mr. Skinner

To check up on the Minister at night.

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend——

Mr. Eggar

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that a proposal that may well emerge from the Commission is that everyone be entitled to 12 hours rest a day and at least 36 hours rest a week, in an uninterrupted mode. Cannot he conceive of circumstances in which that might make it impossible to have night cover in hospitals?

Mr. Lloyd

If the Minister seriously suggests that there might be pressure that would threaten night work in hospitals, he is living in a peculiar world inhabited only by the small group of people who voted against the social charter—the British Conservative group and the French communists, a fairly unique combination.

Mr. Eggar

Stop wriggling.

Mr. Lloyd

I am not wriggling; I am happy to debate night work with the Minister through the night, here or in the many places in which night work will continue in future.

It was a sign of ministerial desperation that the Minister should once again pick on the trivial. This is the same Minister who gave us the spectre of the disappearing paper boys. Even the Minister would concede that not only was that nonsense then but that it is nonsense now. There was never anything serious in that, just as there was nothing serious in what the Minister said in the debate. His speech consisted of the usual tired old slogans, such as the Government are in control of unemployment. We learnt on Thursday that unemployment has increased. Would the Minister care to intervene again and tell the House when he next expects unemployment not to go up? Obviously he does not feel confident enough to speak about that. Will it be next month or the month after, or will it be next year? Does he have any views at all on when unemployment in Britain will begin to fall again? He does not think that that is important.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lloyd

Of course I will, if the hon. Gentleman proposes to answer that question.

Mr. Butterfill

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us when under a Labour Government we had 43 months of an uninterrupted fall in unemployment?

Mr. Lloyd

I would take that question seriously if the hon. Gentleman could give me a clear indication of when unemployment will fall to the level at which it stood when the Government came to office. That is a much more serious question because unemployment in Britain is still far above the level at which it stood when the Prime Minister came to Downing street.

Mr. Butterfill


Mr. Lloyd

I shall not give way because the hon. Gentleman has yet to make a serious point.

The Opposition have a much more serious but much more relaxed view of the action programme. Nobody could seriously say that of itself the action programme is anything other than a greatly watered down version of the original social charter. I am sure Conservative Members will want to pay tribute to the Prime Minister for that because she made determined efforts to ensure that there is no semblance of a social framework within which people in Britain or in the wider Community can work. The cost of that will not be suffered by ex Cabinet Ministers, present Ministers or Conservative Members until they become unemployed at the next general election. It is suffered by ordinary people throughout Europe. The cost will be borne not just by the 14 million unemployed people that the Minister mentioned, but by the millions who will have to endure deplorable working conditions that are imposed throughout Europe and in Britain by the Government.

The Minister says that the Government are seriously pursuing the benefits of the single market. Let us examine the impact of the single market. Louvain university recently carried out a study into regions of traditional industry. The two in Britain that were examined were south Yorkshire and Strathclyde and the study concluded that the future in the single market for both regions was extremely grim unless there was some countervailing move by the Government. There was no suggestion that of itself the single market would produce a magic overnight dividend. The study said that unregulated competitive pressures in the market would be greatly to the disadvantage of those traditional regions. The Minister frowns. I am surprised that he does not know about this study.

Another study by Professor Amin Rajan was published by the Industrial Society. It suggests that the United Kingdom would have to bear the loss of about 200,000 jobs in the single market unless action was taken to stem that. That is out of a total of 500,000 jobs that would be lost throughout the Community. That is the potential of the single market and it will be realised unless there is some countervailing action by Governments and action by the Community.

Let us look at the rise of the European company, in which I presently have a constituency interest. The Minister said that such matters are best left to national Governments and I think that he mentioned collective bargaining.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

Will the hon Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lloyd

I shall do so in a moment.

Perhaps Conservative Members have already dismissed the rise of European companies. I mentioned today an announcement made by a company that operates in my constituency, GEC-Alsthom, which has declared 180 redundancies. At least some of those have come about since the merger of GEC with the French company Alsthom. The joint company has decided to transfer some activities from Trafford Park in Manchester to France. The result, of course, is job losses.

At least one of the reasons why that could happen is that France has statutory rights to information and consultation that do not exist here. The first that the work force in my constituency knew about this was today, when the company announced its decision to the world. The fact that our workers do not have the protection of a right to information or consultation puts them at a serious disadvantage in the competitive decisions being made by the new Euro-companies.

We need a framework of European action, not to supplant national legislation or collective bargaining, but to recognise that, at the level of the Euro-company, national legislation and collective bargaining simply will not control what happens. In the context of GEC, collective bargaining proved irrelevant.

Mr. Hind

In what way would the social charter, and the directives that will follow it, stop the loss of jobs foreseen in the Louvain study, as a consequence of the implementation of the single market in 1992? Surely all that the social charter will do is to increase the costs of industry and make competitive factors much more important, so the desire to get rid of jobs will be greater rather than less.

Mr. Lloyd

This is what the Government frequently refer to as the level playing field. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that we should compete with Portugal, with a minimum working age of 14, or Greece, with a minimum working age of 12? He should understand why I feel that we cannot compete on those terms. In the example that I gave in my constituency, the company did not have to give information because legislation does not force it to do so on a European-wide basis, and such legislation would have made a difference to the loss of 180 jobs in my constituency.

The European Community has already had an impact on domestic legislation. The Government have been forced through the European Court on a number of occasions—for example, on legislation enforcing sexual equality, particularly at work. The Equal Pay Act 1970 was amended by the Equal Pay (Amendment) Regulations 1983 to introduce the concept of equal pay for equal work, because of such a move. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was also amended as a result of the European Court ruling. With a Conservative Government who are determined to push back the rights of workers in Britain, it is important that we have some framework to offer more than they are prepared to offer.

For example, the document says: The fact remains however that the difficulties encountered on the labour market have led to the development of wages practices which no longer afford those concerned a decent standard of living. That is addressed to Britain. One in five people in the north-west are low paid by any definition, and in my area of Greater Manchester, two in five are low paid, and the bulk of the low paid are women. The Government have no intention of doing anything about low pay. It is still something of a mystery to me why they did not abolish the wages councils—we all know that that is their real intent, and the Minister has not made any secret about it.

The action programme will give a framework within which a Labour Government can bring in a minimum wage, and we must applaud that.

Mr. Skinner

We can do that anyway.

Mr. Lloyd

Of course, there is nothing to stop a Labour Government from introducing it when they come to power, but for the next two years it is unlikely that there will be one. The Government say that they do not operate in accordance with Europe, but I have already shown how equal pay and sex discrimination legislation have been amended, unwillingly, by the Government because European legislation guarantees those minimum rights for British workers and British women at work.

If a Labour Government were in power, those provisions would have been introduced, in accordance with the original legislation that we implemented. My hon. Friend is right to say that there is nothing in the measure that would stop a Labour Government going further, but there is nothing to prevent the present Government from further worsening working conditions.

Mr. Cash

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lloyd

Not on this point.

Mr. Cash

The hon. Gentleman ought to give way.

Mr. Lloyd

The hon. Gentleman does not need to lecture me on whether I should give way.

The Government are being hypocritical if they say that they take no interest in what is happening in the rest of Europe. The action programme makes particular references to training, for example. It is interesting that the Minister did not mention that aspect, because only four to six weeks ago training was all the rage among Government Ministers. The Secretary of State for Employment was up and down like a yo-yo at press conferences and on television, extolling the virtues of the Government's training policies. The reality is that they have lost their way—so much so, we are beginning to witness again all the usual short-term phenomena and their effects on the economy, including undertraining of the British worker.

Recently, the Under-Secretary gave a parliamentary answer on average expenditure by employers on vocational training. Britain is supposed to lead the world in insurance, but it is worrying that that industry spends less on training its employees than France, Germany, and Denmark, the same as Portugal, and less than Belgium. The Minister makes no mention of what the Government will do to outdistance the rest of Europe.

The same Government are nevertheless prepared to take from the European social fund £111 million this year, to fund the YTS scheme. The Minister looks puzzled—perhaps he did not know about that. A considerable percentage of the money that funds the YTS comes from Europe. The Government unashamedly take that money, yet will not acknowledge that British training lags way behind the rest of the EEC. That is why a framework is needed to impose standards that do not currently exist.

When the Minister winds up, perhaps he will say whether he believes that the paper boy is still under threat, and that Britain is still threatened by other European countries prepared to employ youngsters who are little more than children and thus undercut British employers. I mentioned the 12-year-olds at work in Greece, and the 14-year-olds employed in Portugal, but the Minister does not want legislation to control minimum ages.

On both moral and economic grounds, it would be the height of foolishness for Britain not to support a European standard. The Minister says that Britain has no problems in that respect, but a number of proposals will be coming from the Community this year. He referred to atypical employment, and that word is used by the EEC. We have seen a massive growth in part-time working in Britain, and one consequence of that has been massive deregulation of the labour market. Workers who would have enjoyed employment protection had they been in full-time jobs do not receive it as part-time workers.

A Labour Government will introduce legislation on standards for part-time and home workers, who currently have only the most tenuous relationship with the labour market.

Mr. Eggar


Mr. Lloyd

The Minister says, "Ah." That is most curious. Let us examine the nine out of 10 people who he says prefer part-time work. We are not opposed to part-time working and to people obtaining the kind of employment that suits their circumstances. Nevertheless, the nine out of 10 people who prefer part-time work would also like the security of pay rates and conditions that approximate to those enjoyed by full-time workers, and the kind of job security that does not currently exist.

The idea that the Minister is trying to peddle that part-time work in Thatcher's Britain offers security, decency or permanency is so ridiculous that it warrants no more than mockery. If he believes that, he should visit with me some of the sweat shops in London, or of any other major city, and ask part-time workers whether they prefer part-time work without any social conditions to prop up their employment rights.

Will the Government oppose the directives on working time, on atypical work, on proof of employment contracts or on pregnant women? Will they use the veto? The hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) posed that question and it is incumbent on the Minister to answer it. Whatever our different views, the House should know where the Government stand.

The Minister will say that it is too early to say. He said that he opposes some of the directives. If his worst fears come to fruition, will the Government oppose those directives? Will they oppose the third action programme for women? I noticed with interest that when the Minister was talking of the conditions for acceptance, he mentioned the need for subsidiarity and for maintaining national cultures. The recommendations on child care would fit all those criteria. Will the Government welcome the recommendation that is likely to be made by the Community on child care, or will they go further and implement it and begin to build the care facilities for women who want to work but cannot do so because of the lack of facilities? That is important for millions of people, in whom the Minister claims to have some interest.

I mentioned the need for and right to information and for consultation to prevent a situation such as that in my constituency, where 180 of my constituents and those of my geographical neighbours will lose their jobs. They did not know what would happen to them, although they have what would be regarded as a traditionally strong union, the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions. Despite that protection, their jobs will he lost. Will the Minister ensure that they have information to enable them to fight, through collective bargaining and the principle of negotiation, without two hands tied behind their back?

Those are the important features of the action programme. It is no panacea. It does not promise to cure our industrial and economic woes overnight, but it provides a minimum level of protection which is not provided by the Government but which any worthwhile Government would go beyond. A Labour Government will most certainly go beyond it, but if the Minister does not provide people with the minimum level of protection, all his cant about seeking to reduce unemployment and to protect people through the single market will lead lo tragedy for millions in the north and throughout Britain.

11.8 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

The first point that I want to make is in respect of the timing of the debate. Fortunately, the Government have released their response to the report of the Select Committee on the Scrutiny of European Legislation. Without going into it, I simply want to draw the attention of the House to the fact that it is available in the Vote Office. It is a major step forward, because not only will we have the opportunity to consider European legislation and developments well in advance of debates but Special Standing Committees are to be set up to consider measures such as this, which we are discussing at a late hour in an almost empty House. There are other points in the Government's response that I applaud, but it is not necessary for me to go into them now.

During my altercation with my hon. Friend the Minister, we discussed whether this was a complex or a simple issue. It is complicated to deal with 47 directives and action programmes and the broad principles of the social charter, but it is hoped, and expected, that they will be considered properly by people who are versed in them because of their experience on Special Standing Committees. I hope that, at the inter-governmental conference, we will not sell the pass on the vague notion of subsidiarity, which I view with apprehension. As a political concept, it has advantages, but there will be considerable difficulties if, as a legal definition, it is incorporated in treaty amendments.

The explanatory memorandum dated 29 November was followed by a supplementary memorandum dated 6 January. Following the report on 28 March of the Select Committee on European Legislation, we have had to wait until 21 May before being able to debate it. I hope that the Government's proposals will deal with this serious problem.

Mr. Skinner

It is down to the Leader of the House.

Mr. Cash

The hon. Gentleman says that it is down to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House. The questions must be tackled, and we must pay tribute, albeit belatedly, to the Government for the fact that the procedures will be put in motion.

The substantive issues involved in the directives are more important matters. I say without the slightest criticism of my hon. Friend the Minister that, whatever one's view on them, it is not possible in the short time available to deal with the 47 action programmes, any one of which could be put in a Bill or semi-Bill and might easily take up one, two or even three months. To expect us to consider these matters not just at a late hour but in a relatively short time is an insult to the British Parliament.

I do not intend to criticise the Government—these faults are inherent in the system. We should seriously consider inverting our procedures to have regard to the pyramid of legislation that invades us because of our voluntary consent through the European Communities Act 1972 and to give a due proportion of time to matters that are important to my constituents and, as the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) said, to his constituents. I, too, have constituents who are employed by GEC-Alsthom and I share many of his worries, for the same reasons.

Macro issues arise with regard to the rump of the one third of these extremely difficult aspects with which we must deal. The minimum wages proposal is, as much as anything, one that has come from the German Government. If we are to be realistic and consider the issues of political, economic and monetary union and everything that goes with it, we must be aware that the Germans have recently increased their investment in the United Kingdom by 200 per cent., that they will not change their company structure and that they have control over the secretariats and standards of the Community.

That is no criticism of the Germans, but we must wake up and realise what is happening. Let me concentrate for a moment on one issue—minimum wages. The workers in Dusseldorf will insist on having a minimum wage set at their level. Those in Spain who are employed by Volkswagen's subsidiary, Seat, are having kittens at the moment because they know that the whole system is being orchestrated to provide an in-built advantage to Volkswagen's employees in Dusseldorf. The same will apply throughout the Community.

It is not my purpose to make a speech about all these questions tonight. Incidentally, I shall have the opportunity to debate them with my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) at the Oxford union tomorrow night. Having said that, I think that we should be very wary of all the present proposals, of the proposal for a central bank and of the way in which the Franco-German axis is operating, which is implicit in the document, not because we do not want to remain in the Community but because, in fundamental questions such as those arising from the social charter—with some parts of which I agree but most of which I regard as unnecessary and avoidable—we must be sure that we do not end up surrendering to the interests of a Franco-German axis which exists for the benefit of a small proportion of the Community, rather than the Community as a whole. That is not what the European Community is all about; it is not communautaire.

I hope that, when the time comes, the Secretary of State and the Minister will regard some of these matters as of vital interest and, if necessary, exercise the veto on them rather than shunting them off to the European Court of Justice.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

We cannot exercise the veto.

Mr. Cash

My hon. Friend says that we cannot exercise the veto. We could debate that. I think that it is still possible and that the arrangements stand.

We must make quite certain that the rest of the Community understands that the EC is a community and that it does not exist merely for the benefit of one or two of its members.

11.17 pm
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

I find myself in difficulty because I disagree profoundly with the two Front-Bench spokesmen. I want to tell the House why. I find the Minister's position—standing up, it seems, for Britain's interests against the proposals of the social charter—not very credible, coming, as it does, from a a party that took us into the Community, and into the single market, without consulting the electorate. One element that has not been discussed by any hon. Member is the impact of all this on the elector's role, which is what concerns me.

I can understand the Cabinet's nightmare. Cabinet Ministers think that the social charter is a reincarnation of Frank Cousins and the Ministry of Technology, Barbara Castle and the Department of Employment and Productivity and George Brown and the Department of Economic Affairs put together, suddenly looming at them in the form of that radical Socialist, Jacques Delors, and they are fending it off. On the other hand, what they want to do—it is the precondition of their acceptance of entry into the ERM—is to hand this country over to market forces. They want everything to be determined by market forces, which are not accountable to the electorate either.

I presume that when the Minister said that we had to consider competition with other countries, he was thinking that if the Pacific rim countries can challenge us with cheaper goods because they pay lower wages, we shall have to bring our wages down to that level to survive. I do not agree with that. It is profoundly wrong.

I am afraid, however, that I did not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) either. He spoke for a party which, I gather from press reports, is on the point of endorsing the social charter—subject to our discussions on Wednesday, when my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and I will be present to put a contrary view. But if one of us is in the lavatory, the other will have no seconder. We will have to keep together throughout the day. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford ignored the fact that, once a law or directive is agreed in Brussels by one Government, it is irreversible. Our electorate should be told the truth: whoever they vote for in the next general election, our Government will not be able to change that Brussels legislation.

Although I am not a labour law historian, I know that the Taff Vale judgment penalised the railwaymen in 1906. That legislation was repealed by the Liberals. After the general strike, the Conservatives introduced the trades disputes legislation and that was repealed by a Labour Government. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) introduced the Industrial Relations Act 1971 and the Labour Government repealed it.

However, I must warn my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford that legislation from Brussels cannot be repealed. It is open to either a Labour Government or a Conservative Government to agree to directives at a Council of Ministers that tie any other Government for ever because Community legislation cannot be reversed. Admittedly it may be easier to influence that legislation with majority voting than with the unanimity rule. Under the latter, if one country stands out, a directive cannot be introduced. However, that works the other way round—it cannot be repealed without everyone agreeing. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) referred to Franco-German interests in high wages. Those countries would be unlikely to repeal something that might assist employment in a place like Manchester.

We should be considering a range of issues. The provisions in the social charter contain many things that look attractive on paper. However, if they were implemented at the Brussels level, even with the principle of subsidiarity, masses of legislation would go through this House without our debating it.

Perhaps the Minister has discovered something about his civil servants that my civil servants were quick to discover. They discovered that they did not have to bother with a Bill in the Queen's Speech when the legislation could be slipped in through Brussels. I remember a sensible proposal to standardise gas pipelines. Normally, such legislation would appear in a Bill. The Minister knows what it is like: Ministers queue up at the Queen's Speech committee or the legislation committee or whatever it is called under this Government and there is great pressure. Civil servants can bypass that process. They say, "Don't bother, Minister. We will have a word with COREPER and get it back as a directive. You just have to go to Brussels and agree to the proposal." The whole parliamentary process is then bypassed. That is the danger.

Democracy always hangs on a thread of public confidence. If I have to go to Chesterfield during the next general election and tell people that no matter who they vote for, we cannot deal with any matter that has been predetermined by previous Governments, are they going to bother to vote? If they vote thinking that we can change such legislation and we cannot, what will they say?

I loathe the word subsidiarity. However, subsidiarity should mean that everything should be considered at the lowest level, that is by the electors. It is not Parliament, but Ministers of any Goverment taking away the electors' powers. I was president of the Energy Council of Ministers during our presidency. I exercised the royal prerogative. In those circumstances, Ministers do not care about the House of Commons. We sit in solemn impotence. Even if few modifications were required, if Conservative or Labour Ministers had carried through such legislation at the Community level the House would be legally and constitutionally impotent.

The House must consider that problem. I have always believed that we are servants of the electorate and that sovereignty belongs to the people. They lend it to us in five-year terms. In the end, as stewards, we have to hand it back. We cannot tell them at the end that we gave it away to Jacques Delors. They would regard that as a breach of the Rousseau social contract. We are only the custodians of that power; we are not in a position in law, morality or constitutional practice to hand it to anybody else.

Mr. Cash

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Benn

I do not wish to detain the House because other hon. Members wish to speak, but this point really must be made. In a strange way, it unites hon. Members who differ fundamentally about how power should be exercised by the House. I disagree strongly. I am not a nationalist. I am not in favour of whipping up feeling against the Franco-German axis—that would be a great mistake. We live in a world in which we must harmonise by consent. I do not share any of the political objectives of the hon. Member for Stafford, but perhaps I share with him the determination that the right to make that decision is taken by electors, not by Ministers in the name of the Crown in pursuit of objectives that have never been fully disclosed to the British people.

I have five questions that I ask people who have power, and I recommend them to the House. If I see someone who is powerful, be it a traffic warden, Rupert Murdoch, the head of a trade union or a Member of Parliament, I ask myself these five questions: "What power have you got? Where did you get it? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? How can we get rid of you?" That last question is crucial. We cannot get rid of Jacques Delors; we cannot get rid of the Commission. We can get rid of a Government; but we cannot get rid of European legislation that a Government have entrenched during their period in office—be they a Labour Government with the Tories coming or the other way around.

I know that the House is empty, that it is late at night and that we are not having a vote. We have all the conditions for public neglect. The Galleries are not as full as hon. Members would like. However, the issue is fundamental. If we get it wrong we shall destroy parliamentary democracy in Britain. It is a time bomb ticking away under us. Perhaps the fuse is still long. When the British people discover that, whomever they vote for, they cannot change the laws under which the Government have governed, this House will collapse as a valid part of a democratic constitution. That is the argument that we should be having. When we have established it in the democratic way, we can resume the argument about how we should recommend the people to use the power that remains in their hands.

11.26 pm
Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

It is probably worth remembering that the proposals in the draft charter go way beyond anything that is contained in the treaty of Rome or the Single European Act and that what is being proposed is totally novel and would extend the jurisdiction of the Community into matters that we never previously approved in this House or elsewhere in the Community. That may be good and there may be things in the charter that all of us would want. My hon. Friend the Minister of State stated that many things would be welcome. Equally, he said, and I agree, that there are other matters that would be profoundly unwelcome.

It was very helpful when the French presidency responded by saying that it felt that, in considering this matter further, there was a need to give greater consideration to the principle of subsidiarity. That is an important principle and I support it because, if the Community is to go forward harmoniously, it is important for us to decide which matters are important to be decided centrally as a group and which should be the preserve of national Parliaments. If we follow the principle of subsidiarity in doing those things locally which can best be done locally, we are not likely to have the conflicts that some hon. Members are worried may occur in the Community. We need to know what is acceptable and what is not.

What is clearly acceptable is health and safety at work. The British Government have quite a lot to teach other member countries. Our record on safety at work is very much better than those of most other Community Governments. It would therefore be to the benefit of all of us if those areas could be extended.

Equally, the mutual recognition of qualifications, which assists people to move across frontiers and to work in other Community countries, seems desirable. Once people move to other countries, it is, of course, important that they understand that they will be protected by health and safety at work measures which, before they go, they know will give them the same protection as that to which they are entitled at home. The big difference is that, although a person who is going to work abroad will probably find out how many hours he must work, his pay and the general conditions of his employment before he goes, he may not understand the health and safety at work conditions because they may vary widely between Community countries.

Health and safety provisions are therefore both sensible and desirable. What is not sensible and desirable is to build on that a whole series of corporate interventionist measures, such as are beloved of the Labour party and which used to be so beloved of many other Socialists in the European Community, although they seem to be less fashionable now in some quarters. Understandably, they are beloved of Madam Papandreou, the Commissioner. One can see that they fall within her general social philosophy. However, those measures seem to me to be profoundly damaging, not just to the British economy, but to the economies of many—in fact, most—of the other European Community countries.

Minimum wages are a good example and I entirely agree with what my hon. Friends have said about that matter. Fixed working hours are another example. They may or may not be attractive. Minimum rest periods could well be attractive to certain Members of this honourable House. One can well understand that the prospect of not having to sit all night could command considerable support in the Chamber. The notion of a statutory role for trade unions might not get such unanimous support on both sides of the Chamber—nor, I imagine, would the statutory compensation and worker participation proposals, with their shades of Vredeling. We thought that we had won the battle over Mr. Vredeling and his proposals, but no, back they come via Madam Papandreou. It is the same all over again.

I am concerned that the Commission is intent on bulldozing these matters through in an entirely unsatisfactory way. Perhaps the most worrying thing is that we do not yet know what articles of the charter it intends to use. We might be less worried if we were absolutely certain that there would have to be unanimity in the Council on all these matters, but I understand—perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to confirm this—that there is a suggestion that Madam Papandreou believes that many of these measures can be got through under the guise of health and safety measures. That would mean qualified majority voting on issues that go way beyond what most of us believe the treaties comprise.

Perhaps my hon. Friend will also confirm my understanding that the Commission has already received legal advice that its proposals are outside the law and contrary to existing treaties but that, notwithstanding that, it still intends to go forward on that basis, forcing us and anybody who disagrees to go to the European Court. If that is true, it is an extremely worrying development and is yet another example of Commission empire-building, against which all of us must be permanently on our guard.

11.33 pm
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

When I entered the Chamber this evening, it was my intention to listen, so my contribution will be short. Nevertheless, I hope that it will provide more perspectives on the significance and importance of the document that we are considering. Of course, it is a communication and individual items and proposals will appear later. However, the total shape must be recognised for what it is.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) advanced some constitutional issues on which I shall not comment, except to say that I have not heard them negatived anywhere. I should be interested to know whether any member of any party—certainly any member of the current Parliament—would give a negative response to his main thesis.

I should like first to comment on a subject on which the Select Committee on European Legislation has also commented, albeit indirectly: subsidiarity. Both the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) and the Minister referred to it tonight. According to evidence given to the Committee by its legal adviser, Mr. Speaker's counsel, subsidiarity is not a hard rock but an area of shifting sands, and a dialogue between the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) and the Minister—which has only just been published—demonstrates that.

The evidence that I gave, on behalf of that Committee, to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs about the operation of the Single European Act contains a lengthy memorandum about subsidiarity submitted by Mr. Speaker's counsel. I commend it to the Minister, and to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West: they will find if they read it that the only certainty about subsidiarity is that it is uncertain.

The issue arises in relation to conditions of work, a subject that forms part of the social charter. I am sorry that no hon. Member has mentioned an important point that was made by the Select Committee on European Legislation in HC11, Volume 7: The Committee recalls…that its Legal Adviser's note, annexed to its Twenty-sixth Report of Session 2 1988–89 gave fair warning that the proposed role of the Community in this sector would probably extend well beyond the subject area delineated by the Government. It also notes that the Select Committee on the European Communities of the House of Lords has made a similar assessment. In other words, the treaty—and the use likely to be made of that factor by the Commission and the Council—will go some distance. If the principle of subsidiarity in that respect were prayed in aid, I have no doubt that the matter would go to the court—the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West mentioned this—and that the powers of the Commission to propose, and of the Council to legislate, would be decided there. That would be the final word—which ties up with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield has been telling us.

The report also states: Indeed, the Government's explanatory memorandum goes some way to recognise this likelihood in its admission that 'taken together the proposals in the action programme could have a major impact on United Kingdom Law. Significant changes in employment and social security law could be required'"— I emphasise the word "required"— probably by means of primary legislation'. In other words, there would be a proposal to change the law relating to social security in regard to employment, and we would be forced by our treaty obligation to pass the necessary primary legislation.

It must be specified who will make the requirement, and on whose authority. Under the treaty, there is no single article under which qualified majority voting would give such a requirement—although the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West has mentioned what Mrs. Papandreou is reckoned to be thinking. That refers to article 118A, which nevertheless has quite a few holes in it with regard to implemenation.

Article 100, which requires unanimity, can be used for any matter that contributes to the completion of the Common Market for which the powers are not already in the treaty. Article 235 again requires unanimity and can be used for any purpose not contained in the treaty. There may be some controversy over article 100A, which can be used for legislation to create the single market in 1992. At present it excludes matters relating to conditions of employment. At first sight, therefore, unanimity on most of those matters is maintained.

That is the position now, but discussions are going on which will culminate in intergovernmental conferences towards the end of the year and some revisions of the treaty. What national Governments will say about such revisions, which fortunately must be unanimous, remains to be seen. There is a decent argument for saying that, as there is to be a single market, the requirement for a single set of laws on industrial relations and collective bargaining should be put in place by the same method. Some may hold to that and others not, but it appears to be a possibility.

Almost at the opposite end of the scale to those big issues are public holidays. Will holidays literally meaning holy days, and Sunday observance, legislation on which has proved highly contentious in the House, come within the ambit of such legislation? I do not know the answer, but I put it forward as one of the intriguing possibilities, with which one may agree or disagree, which one day may confront us as part of the package labelled the social dimension.

11.42 pm
Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East)

Many of the important points have been made, but I wish to endorse what my hon. Friend the Minister and other hon. Friends have said about health and safety proposals which should be dealt with on a pan-EEC basis. There are many reasons for that, but the one not yet given is competition. It is generally recognised that health and safety cost money and reduce output on many types of equipment because of working practices. Unless such regulations are common throughout the Community, competition will not be on an equal footing.

I emphasise the importance of enforcement and monitoring, particularly of health and safety measures, although they apply to many of the other proposals. We have a mix of countries with the Community, many of which have a dubious reputation on abiding by the regulations and directives issued by the Commission and approved by the various Councils of Ministers. It is commonly accepted that the French will happily agree to whatever seems politically right at the time, but subsequently may be lax on enforcement. When it comes to the Italians, anything to do with the work force is impossible to enforce because of the massive black economy, which is wholly outwith regulations. We must ensure that what is approved as a result of the action plan and the social charter leads to effective enforcement and monitoring throughout the Community, otherwise everything will be nothing less than a joke.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) and the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said that we should question which articles of the treaty of Rome should be used. I remind those hon. Gentlemen of the occasion when Madam Papandreou attended a meeting of the Select Committee on Employment, of which I was then a member. She made it abundantly clear that she intended to use article 118A, the health and safety provision, as the means to force through every aspect of the social charter in the spurious belief that one could construe anything to do with work as being to do with effective health and safety. That is wrong and I urge the Minister to make it clear that we will resist that abuse of the treaty of Rome by the Commission. I do not say that out of some innate opposition to the treaty or to the Community but because I care about the future of the Community. I should hate to see it and its institutions brought into disrepute by such blatant abuse on the part of the Commission.

The Minister has already pointed out the proposal relating to atypical forms of employment, not just part-time employment but anything other than full-time, open-ended contracts. What has happened to individual choice and responsibility? There are also proposals for a Community instrument relating to public works contracts and the introduction of a labour clause. The House debated the need for such a thing in Britain, but we have long since learnt our lesson about that. There is also a proposal for a Community instrument on consultation with industry—the old chestnut about industrial relations and workers on the board. It cannot be right for the Community to dictate the lines of such policies; it is right for business to make those decisions.

Will the proposals in the action plan achieve that which they are intended to achieve? Will they lead to more jobs and better pay and conditions for the work force? In many cases the answer will be no. Too much regulation effectively destroys competition. The single market is all about competition, but there is a direct conflict between that and the action plan. If we want the competition achieved by the single market, we cannot destroy the competitive side of the labour market with over-regulation.

A month ago I was fortunate enough to be in New Zealand where the Labour Government have completely deregulated industry. They have removed subsidies and moved out of the regulation business. They have not achieved the wonderful results enjoyed in the United Kingdom because they have not touched the labour market. It is still heavily regulated—even more so than our own under the previous Labour Government. The fundamental lesson that we must all learn is that too much regulation achieves negative results.

When will those who believe in socialist policies recognise that there is an inverse correlation between security and opportunity? The more one increases security, the more one damages opportunity. That is the case in housing and in the labour market but the Labour party fails to recognise that.

My hon. Friend the Minister has made a number of important points and it is clear that he understands the depth of feeling in the House about some of the proposals. I urge him to make absolutely sure that the benefits which will accrue to British industry from the single market are not destroyed by the anti-competitive nature of some of the proposals.

11.49 pm
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

It is an outrage to our democracy that we are debating 47 important measures at this time of night, with a handful of Members, when we clearly have no control over what happens. We are debating important labour regulations, including the introduction of the labour contract on public works and even matters such as the recommendation of the code of good conduct and the protection of pregnancy and maternity.

Despite all this, although no one, apart from those on the Labour Front Bench, have had a good word to say about what is happening, I think that the Minister's speech tonight was one of the most important that we have heard for a long time. He clearly said that, in his and the Government's view, many of the measures will hamper job creation, hinder competition, damage competitiveness in world markets and put at risk all the benefits of the single market. The Government have said clearly that what is proposed in a good number of measures is damaging and dangerous.

The Government must ask, as they should have done a long time ago, what on earth they can do about it. The Goverment have said that we can challenge the vires. If article 100A or 118A is suggested when they should not be used, we must complain about it. But how does one complain? The Minister must be aware that the first time a directive comes before the Council, unless everyone disagrees, nothing can be done about it.

The Minister said that the Government were also planning to go to the European Court. He must be aware that in almost every instance where the powers of the Community's institutions have come up before the court, the court has found in their favour. Therefore, as the Government are now openly admitting—I was delighted at the Minister's splendid speech—what is proposed is damaging and could undermine the Conservative Government's policies and democracy. We must make up our minds soon about what to do. If the powers of selecting the treaty base are being abused, and the measures are damaging, what on earth do we do?

I believe that going to the court is a waste of time, and the Government know that. The idea of challenging the vires is pointless, and the Govenment know that. We shall have to take more seriously the idea of a twin-track Europe, and this is where we must start.

11.53 pm
Mr. Eggar

We have had an excellent debate, as these late night, one-and-a-half hour EC debates so often are. We have covered a broad canvas, and I apologise to hon. Members because I probably will not be able to deal with the issues in the depth that they deserve. I am sure that we shall return to the so-called dimension and its implementation often in the future.

There are 40 to 50 directives or regulations that I suspect we shall consider during the next two years. Many of the issues will come up for consideration again. I hope that, before we consider them again, the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) will do his work better. The directive on collective redundancies was passed by the Commission, and has been implemented by the House. It applies as much in this country as it does in others in the Community. But we can return to that on future occasions.

I stress again to the House that the key priority for us when we come to consider the various measures put forward under the so-called social dimension will be the ability or otherwise of those measures to add to job creation in the Community. That is not the view of just the United Kingdom Government. No less a person than the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, made exactly the same point in a speech to the European Parliament this January when he said: It is no longer possible to believe that anything can be achieved on the social front without action on the economic front. We have heard a great deal this evening from the hon. Member for Stretford about his party's new-found enthusiasm for the European Community. That was challenged by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and, as usual, from a sedentary position, by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). Let us be quite clear about what the Labour party spokesmen are saying. They have not lost their enthusiasm for unnecessary regulation, bureaucracy and red tape; they have simply said that, as they cannot get it by Whitehall, they want it imposed by Brussels.

The Opposition consistently say that they believe that the ordinary British employer and employee do not know how to conduct social matters. The only people, they say, who know how to conduct them are the bureaucrats in Brussels or Whitehall. If the hon. Member for Stretford and his hon. Friends—apart from the right hon. Member for Chesterfield—get their way, the Labour party's new position on social policy will be to support qualified majority voting in the Community on all social issues.

I must ask the hon. Gentleman a few questions that flow from this new position. Do the Opposition want legally enforceable collective agreements, such as are the norm almost everywhere else in Europe? Do they want to deprive all civil servants, teachers and postal workers of the right to strike, as happens in Germany? Do they support and admire the Italian legislation that allows the police to force strikers to go back to work? Perhaps they are eager to import the requirement for a period of notice before a strike, as demanded by the law in Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and France.

The fundamental question goes even further. The Labour party was founded, perfectly honourably, to represent the interests of the trade unions in the British Parliament. Is it now the party's position that in future all the major issues that are relevant to the working conditions of British employees should be decided in Brussels? That is implied in the Labour party's support for qualified majority voting——

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 ( Exempted business).

Question agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 9978–89 and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Department of Employment on 15th March 1990 relating to Commission action programme relating to the implementation of the Social Charter; and endorses the Government's view that a key factor in ensuring that the achievement of the single market has a social dimension is to continue efforts to stimulate job creation and bring down unemployment.

    1. c142
    1. cc142-3
    2. LONDON DOCKLANDS 843 words, 1 division
    3. c143
    4. DRUG TRAFFICKING 27 words
  3. WELSH AFFAIRS 31 words